Till We Have Faces a Myth Retold by C.S. Lewis Review and Summary

Cupid and Psyche Myth

 

To those familiar with the Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis' novel Till We Have Faces A Myth Retold may come as a pleasant surprise. Till We Have Faces is a dark, complex novel suitable for adults. As a childhood fan of C.S. Lewis myself, I stumbled upon this sophisticated retelling of the Greek Myth of Psyche and the god Cupid years ago, which Lewis himself admitted was his greatest work of fiction.1

Till We Have Faces retells the myth of Psyche and Cupid from the point of view of Psyche's jealous sister, who in the novel bears the name Orual. Orual, Psyche, and their wanton sister Redival live in the gloomy land Glome under their tyrant-father's care. Glome is a barbaric city-state that worships a Babylonian-like version of the Greek goddess Venus, called Ungit. Ungit is a dark-some goddess, a cruel and mysterious goddess that demands sacrifices, sometimes human.

When the land is plagued by disease and poverty, Ungit demands a holy sacrifice, a virgin of the King's house. Psyche is chosen and chained to a tree, and left to be devoured by the Shadowbrute. After Psyche is offered to the Shadowbrute, all is once again well in the land, and Orual courageously seeks to find Psyche's remains and give them proper burial. But Psyche is not slain. Through events that are not explained in the story, Psyche becomes the bride of the God of the Mountain, who is said to be the son of Ungit, or perhaps the husband of Ungit. The citizens of Glome don't fully understand the mysteries of their gods, but they fear them.

What Orual finds is a glowing, healthy, and strong Psyche, who seems to be sheltered from the harsh elements in a hidden valley of the mountain, even though the terrain appears rough and even inhospitable. Psyche tells Orual that she has a husband she is not allowed to see, and glows with joy as she describes a sumptuous, but invisible palace and servants that she can only hear. Orual is convinced that Psyche is mad, and devises a plan to convince Psyche to view her husband by lamplight, which is strictly forbidden. Twisting Psyche's love by threatening to kill herself and then Psyche, Orual convinces Psyche to submit her husband to the test. The result is the pivotal event in Orual's life that changes and hardens her against the gods, and the cause for her complaint.

Psyche reluctantly agrees to this horrible test, although she knows it means the end of her relationship with her groom:

You are indeed teaching me about kinds of love I did not know. It is like looking into a deep pit. I am not sure whether I like your kind better than hatred. Oh, Orual, to take my love for you, because you know it goes down to my very roots and cannot be diminished by any other newer love, and then to make of it a tool, a weapon, a thing of policy and mastery, an instrument of torture—I begin to think I never knew you. Whatever comes after, something that was between us dies here. Till We Have Faces, Chapter 14

Orual finds that she has confused love with betrayal, and loses all that is dear to her: her relationship with her sister, her ability to relate to her dear friend and mentor the Fox, and even her own identity as a woman.

The novel begins with Orual, as an old woman, making her case to the gods. She feels she has been wronged and seeks justice. She is ravaged by the memory of her pivotal night of betrayal to her beloved younger sister Psyche, whom she loves in a possessive way. The story unfolds as Orual explores her faltering memory of the fateful evening when her actions cause her young sister to lose her place in her immortal husband's invisible palace, and sends her into the vast world wandering and bereft.

As Orual explores her memories in the first part of this exceptional novel, we see her character develop from a watchful older sister who has a few close and beloved friends, and a sheltered life with guarded loyalties, to a cold and stony-hearted queen who privately relishes the terror she brings to her father on his deathbed, as she hovers over him in her black veil.

The novel is subtly written, and you will find Orual a persuasive advocate. I must confess I have read this novel and reread it many times. It is a personal favorite. Only after many, many re-readings did I see the ugly progression of Orual's consuming and prideful "love", because I wanted her to be justified in her behaviors, as did she herself. Lewis' characterization and writing of Orual is so compelling and believable that you want to believe her self deceptions, just as she herself does.

As an aside, the theme of self-deception is also found in Lewis' apocalyptic novel in the Narnia series, the Last Battle, in which an anti-Christ plays a key role in the story.

Till We Have Faces explores the themes of love, companionship, and fidelity that appear in some of Lewis' other writings for children and adults, such as in The Four Loves, and in his series of novels for children, The Chronicles of Narnia.

Names in Till We Have Faces

In a fascinating article Kathryn Lindskoog1 of the New York C.S. Lewis Society explores the significant names found in Till We Have Faces:

Ungit, the feared god of Glome, is a Babylonian-styled mother earth shaped like a dark and pitted rock. The word "Ungit" has many associations with oil and oiliness, which in the New Testament was used to represent anointings.

Orual, has associations with mining and the Ural Mountains that divide the Russian and European continents. Orual herself is stony and rock-like as an adult. She has no loving relationships, friends, or lovers. Though she jealously guards her advisor Bardia, whom she robs of a personal life and keeps selfishly away from his family, mirroring her earlier behavior towards sister Pysche.

Another name association not addressed by Lindskoog is the "oral" link to Orual's character. Orual's love for psyche is devouring. It is selfish and consuming, and not open or free. As Orual's character develops, we see that she herself has become like Ungit, a dark, and devouring presence that frightens and inspires awe.

The Role of The Fox

The Fox, Orual's aging Greek teacher, plays an interesting role as foil to Orual's schemes and justifications. The Fox is Orual's Greek tutor, a slave captured and sold to the King of Glome during Orual's early life. The Fox becomes a father-figure to Orual, Psyche, and Redival, imparting philosophy, advice, and reasoned thinking that explains away the supernatural and mystical elements of Orual and Psyche's experience of Cupid. Though the three sisters share Fox as a teacher, each comes away from his teachings having learned a different lesson.

Orual is tormented the night after she returns from the mountain, after she has witnessed the god with her own eyes, by the Greek's compassionate and loving response to her return.

"Well, you have a secret from me," he said in the end. "No, don't try to turn away from me. Did you think that I would try to press or conjure it out of you? Never that. Friends must be free. My tormenting you to find it would be a worse barrier between us than your hiding it. Some day—but you must obey the god within you, not the god within me. There, do not weep. I shall not cease to love you if you have a hundred secrets. Till We Have Faces, Chapter 16

The Role of Reflection in Till We Have Faces

C.S. Lewis uses the device of an old woman reflecting on her memories to tell the story of Psyche and Cupid, and Orual's role in the tale. Orual's memory is protective, prideful, and yet shifts subtly as the story unfolds. There are moments in the story when her tale reveals a certain blindness on the part of Orual, as if her eyes have clouded over and she refuses to draw the correct inferences in the story.

Lewis' use of the memory device in his novel creates a complicated, subtle, and believable characterization of Orual. She is complex, three-dimensional, and deeply flawed. Only as the novel draws to a close, and Orual once again faces the gods, does she see with clarity the role she played in Psyche's banishment and in her own pain.

I love this novel and find it has many gems of wisdom about the nature of loving relationships. I would even go so far as to say it is one of the best Christian books I have ever read, because it doesn't follow the all-too-familiar sappy and florid story lines that give Christian books a bad name in the world of literature. Lewis as a master storyteller delivers a page-turning read that is also a work of literature. You may find the language a bit stilted at times, but it is a brilliant masterpiece of storytelling and characterization, which I strongly recommend!

1Ungit and Orual: Facts, Mysteries, and Epiphanies, by Kathryn Lindskoog. 2000, CSL

Psyche Opening the Door into Cupid's Garden, by John William Waterhouse (1904)
Psyche Opening the Door into Cupid's Garden, by John William Waterhouse (1904)
Psyche's sister convinces her that a serpent is sleeping with her.
Psyche's sister convinces her that a serpent is sleeping with her.

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Comments 39 comments

pgrundy 8 years ago

This sounds so good. I've never read C.S. Lewis, but I will now. I love the myth of Cupid & Psyche. You describe this novel beautifully and your love for it shines through your synopsis. I will definitely read this book. Thank you.


Woody Marx profile image

Woody Marx 8 years ago from Ontario, Canada

Marvellous hub and beautifully illustrated! I have not yet read this story for myself but now I am looking forward to it! Thanks! :)


CJStone profile image

CJStone 8 years ago from Whitstable, UK

I'm a great fan of CS Lewis, not just the Narnia books, but also the science fiction triology, starting with Out of the Silent Planet, and, though I'm not a Christian, some of his theological works as well. He's a subtle and imaginative writer. But you've introduced me to a new book and I will certainly be on the look-out for this. Thanks.


Bard of Ely profile image

Bard of Ely 8 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal

One of the only Lewis books I've not read and re-read so must remedy this! I was so inspired by his books my son's second name is Aslan.


robie2 profile image

robie2 8 years ago from Central New Jersey

CS Lewis has so many facets--uses nyth and metaphor so beautifully and is so deeply spiritual. I have loved his work since I read "The Screwtape Letters" many years ago. He is a guy who can make Christian theology fun--a good trick if you ask me LOL. This is one I haven't heard of and will make it my business to find. A new CS Lewis read will be a treat. Thanks.


Shadesbreath profile image

Shadesbreath 8 years ago from California

I haven't read anything by CS Lewis since the Naria set when I was in highschool. I love mythology, though. I just wrote this one down on my book buy list that my wife secretly finds every Christmas season LOL. Thanks!


JamaGenee profile image

JamaGenee 8 years ago from Central Oklahoma

It's unanimous. I've never heard of this particular C.S. Lewis book either. Hard to imagine any work of his would be unknown to so many avid readers.


wannabwestern profile image

wannabwestern 8 years ago from The Land of Tractors Author

Thanks all! I'd love to hear what you think of the book after you've read it. Have a happy summer.


Kiri Bennet 7 years ago

Yeah, it's definitely a really good book. I was never sure if I liked or disliked Orual, but what you wrote makes a lot of sense. I do love Psyche though. Do you say it like Sike, or sikey?


Cailin Gallagher profile image

Cailin Gallagher 7 years ago from New England

Well done. Very good review of one of C.S. Lewis' lesser-known works. I'll be passing this on to my daughter.


E. A. Wright profile image

E. A. Wright 7 years ago from New York City

Thanks for reminding me of this book... I must find a copy! I remember it enthralling me to the point I read in several times, probably in middle school. I remember it as being very dark. I wonder how I'd perceive it now.


wannabwestern profile image

wannabwestern 7 years ago from The Land of Tractors Author

Cailin and Kiri, thank you. I believe it is pronounced sikey.

E.A. Wright, please feel free to order one through my link! :D

I've reread it several times. The message of this book grew on me over time as my understanding of the nature of love matured. Orual is a selfish, gobbling character. It makes for fascinating reading. Hope you finish it.


karpouzian profile image

karpouzian 7 years ago from Iowa

GREAT Hub, comprehensive, and well written!


elliot.dunn 7 years ago

i've heard that this is Lewis' best work - haven't read it yet but am really looking forward to it! is there another author that has such a comprehensive scope of writing? He's well known for scholarly writing, fantasy literature, and apologetic work. such an incredibly gifted author. thanks for re-sparking my interest!


wannabwestern profile image

wannabwestern 7 years ago from The Land of Tractors Author

This is a novel that has many facets, and is on my all-time favorites list. I see you are an English Lit major like me! (Well, I was--I from college 15 years ago.) I agree Lewis was deft at writing on a diverse group of topics. I haven't ever read his three fantasy novels, but the other non-fiction books he wrote explored some of the themes in this novel. He was an amazing writer and an insightful man, yet he led a very sheltered life.


twalker74 profile image

twalker74 6 years ago from Las Vegas Nevada

Well thanks for commenting on my hubs. I would have never found this and it would have been a tragedy. Wonderful review. A longtime fan of CS and now that I haven't read it... Another book I must get this weekend. You have a unique talent for restating the plot without ruining the tale. You are very careful to look inside character without giving away the book. The NY Times guys could use a lesson sometimes.

By the way, CS Lewis and Tolkien were the best of friends and both devout Catholics. I am curious when Lewis wrote this, cause the two men had a huge falling out when Lewis met his wife much later in life.


wannabwestern profile image

wannabwestern 6 years ago from The Land of Tractors Author

Thanks twalker, I enjoyed reading your hubs and will be back to read more! I knew Lewis and Tolkien were friends but hadn't before considered your idea that this book might have been inspired by Joy Davidson. (I think that was her name). I'm glad you liked the review. You are generous with your praise! Thank you.


GmaGoldie profile image

GmaGoldie 6 years ago from Madison, Wisconsin

I have a new book to read - thanks to you! Have read and admired CS Lewis for years. Amazing he died on the same day as JFK. I wonder IF that timing hurt his notoriety. Great Hub!


wannabwestern profile image

wannabwestern 6 years ago from The Land of Tractors Author

I didn't know that about C.S. Lewis' death date. Maybe it hurt him in the short term, but I believe he is the most popular Christian writer of all time. I love this novel because the character transformations are marvelous. Thanks for your comment, Grandma G!


Eric Calderwood profile image

Eric Calderwood 6 years ago from USA

It has been a long time since I have read this book, but you have done a wonderful job of summing it up and explaining it. I plan on reading it again, but want to re-read his space trilogy first.


Ima Pig 6 years ago

I love this book!


wannabwestern profile image

wannabwestern 6 years ago from The Land of Tractors Author

Me too!


jodynotj profile image

jodynotj 6 years ago from Omaha, Nebraska

I've been reading a book titled "A Severe Mercy" by Sheldon Vaunaken. In the book the author corresponds with C.S. Lewis and has published the letters in their entirety, uncut and raw. It's stirred my love for C.S Lewis all over again. I'd like to read "Til We Have Faces." I've read the majority of his other works and I love his mind. Thanks for the review.


wannabwestern profile image

wannabwestern 6 years ago from The Land of Tractors Author

Jody that sounds like a fascinating read. I'll be looking forward to checking it out. Thanks for the excellent recommendation. I have a long-time correspondence of my own and love letter-writing, and like you, am a huge fan of Lewis. Cheers!


jaymelee23 profile image

jaymelee23 6 years ago from United States

I've never heard of this but looks like I'll also have a new book to check out. Thanks.


wannabwestern profile image

wannabwestern 6 years ago from The Land of Tractors Author

Thanks jaymelee23, I hope you enjoy the book as much as I do. I've read it about 10 times, since it is a personal favorite, and each time I get something completely different from it.


Jalus 6 years ago

Good Hub, will definaely put this on my list of future reads. thanks.


wannabwestern profile image

wannabwestern 6 years ago from The Land of Tractors Author

Thanks, I hope you enjoy it. It's one of my all-time favorites...


Daniel Gateley 6 years ago

I'VE always thought that it was his greatest work, by far, but I never knew that Lewis considered it his best. It's nice to know that he agreed with me, or rather, I agree with him, I suppose :-)


wannabwestern profile image

wannabwestern 6 years ago from The Land of Tractors Author

I agree. This is fiction at its finest.


Kotori profile image

Kotori 6 years ago from Chicagoland

OK. This is the best book. Really. I teach 8th grade English/LA, and this book is being passed hand to hand among my gifted students. I can't say enough good things about it. I am entranced by this "fractured myth," as it were, especially since I am generally a big fan of Psyche.


wannabwestern profile image

wannabwestern 5 years ago from The Land of Tractors Author

Kotori, you bring up an excellent point, I hadn't thought of this as a book suitable for teens, but what a wonderful alternative to Rick Riordan, tho in his own right he is a very good writer too!


carolapple profile image

carolapple 5 years ago from Suffolk Virginia

I have read all CS Lewis' novels and most of his non-fiction books – and loved them all – except this one. I tried it a very long time ago and after a few chapters, found it so dark and scary I could not continue reading. Your review has me convinced to try it again!


wannabwestern profile image

wannabwestern 5 years ago from The Land of Tractors Author

Thank you, I hope you enjoy it!


Painted Seahorse profile image

Painted Seahorse 5 years ago from Woodstock, GA

I've been a fan of C.S. Lewis since I read the Narnia books as a kid. In high school we studied him in Apologetics class--Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters. I've been meaning to read his adult fiction titles as well. I think I'll have to check out Till We Have Faces soon!


wannabwestern profile image

wannabwestern 5 years ago from The Land of Tractors Author

Thanks Painted Seahorse. I came by C.S. by way of Narnia too, but like you have delved deeper into some of his other writings. I really enjoyed Screwtape letters, or maybe I should say that they were supremely instructive! Hope you enjoy Till We Have Faces.


emichael profile image

emichael 5 years ago from New Orleans

I haven't read all of the comments so this might have been mentioned already, but Lewis's Space Trilogy is really great as well. It's allegorical like Narnia, but it deals with some weightier issues and ideas. So if you're a Lewis fan, definitely check those out.

Till We Have Faces was brilliantly done. This breakdown helped me appreciate it even more.


wannabwestern profile image

wannabwestern 5 years ago from The Land of Tractors Author

You know, I haven't thought about them for a long time. I kept trying to get into them when I was still in school but just couldn't but now that you mention it, I'd like to read them too.


Anate profile image

Anate 2 years ago

This was an excellent review of the book.

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