Week Eleven- Lewis and Women: Portrayals in Till We Have Faces

Week Eleven- Lewis and Women: Portrayals in Till We Have Faces

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[Psyche] is in some ways like Christ not because she is a symbol of Him but because every good man or woman is like Christ. What else could they be like?” – Letter to Clyde Kilby 2 October 1957

In the fall of 1923, a young (pre-conversion) Lewis conceived a novel idea – to re-tell the story of Cupid and Psyche, but from a fresh perspective. The next autumn, Lewis attempted to carry the idea out of infancy, but with little progress: “My head was very full of my old idea of a poem on my own version of the Cupid and Psyche story in which Psyche’s sister would not be jealous, but unable to see anything by moors when Psyche showed her the Palace. I have tried it twice before, once in couplet and once in ballad form” (September 9, 1923). The Lewis Papers which are housed at the Marion E. Wade Center (Wheaton College) contain 78 couplets Lewis composed about Psyche, her sisters, and her twin brother Jarvis:

…for across the tale, they bring

Two ugly elder daughters of the king,

Two Cinderella’s sisters, who must come

To visit Psyche in her secret home

And envy it: and for no other cause

Tempt her to break that fairy country’s laws –

Which leads to her undoing. But all this

Is weighted on one side and told amiss.

It’s like the work of some poetic youth,

Angry, and far too certain of the truth,

Mad from the gleams of vision that claim to find

Bye ways to something missed by all mankind.

He thinks that only envy or dull eyes

Keep all men from believing in the prize

He holds in secret. In revenge he drew

 – For portrait of us all – the sisters two,

Misunderstanding them: and poets since

Have followed.

Now I say there was a prince

Twin brother to this Psyche, fair as she,

And prettier than a boy would choose to be,

His name was Jardis. Older far than these

Was Caspian who rocked them to their knees,

The child of the first marriage of the king.

The last lines in one draft claims that male narration has polluted the story:

I’ll guess it’s [Jardis] that taught

The story, as we have it, to the world. 

From C.S. Lewis: A Complete Guide to His Life and Works – Walter Hooper

Decades later, after his project had finally come to fruition, Lewis writes to Christian Hardie that Till We Have Faces had incubated a long time in his creative imagination: “…the idea of re-writing the old myth, with the palace invisible, has been in my mind every since I was an undergraduate and it’s always involved writing through the mouth of the older sister. I tried it in all sorts of verse-forms in the days when I still supposed myself to be a poet. So, tho’ the version you have read was v[ery] quickly written, you might say I’ve been at work on Orual for 35 years. Of course in my pre-Christian days she was to be in the right and the gods in the wrong” – 31 July 1955

Published in 1956, Till We Have Faces is Lewis’s final work of fiction. He considered it his best work and dedicated it to his collaborator, muse, and wife Joy Davidman. For those unfamiliar with the myth of Cupid and Psyche, Lewis recalls the story in a concluding note:

A king and queen had three daughters of whom the youngest was so beautiful that men worshipped her as a goddess and neglected the worship of Venus for her sake. One result was the Psyche (as the youngest was called) had no suitors; men reverenced her supposed deity too much to aspire to her hand. When her father consulted the oracle of Apollo about her marriage he received the answer: “hope for no human son-in-law. You must expose Psyche on a mountain to e the prey of a dragon.” this he obediently did.

But Venus, jealous of Psyche’s beauty, had already devised a different punishment for her; she had ordered her son Cupid to afflict the girl with irresistible passion for the basest of men. Cupid set off to do so but, on seeing Psyche, fell in love with her himself. As soon as she was left on the mountain he therefore had her carried off by the West-Wind (Zephyrus) to a secret place where he had prepared a stately palace. Here he visited her by night and enjoyed her love; but he forbade her to see his face. Presently she begged that she might receive a visit from her two sisters. The god reluctantly consented and wafted them to her palace. Here they were royally feasted and expressed great delight at all splendours they saw. But inwardly they were devoured with envy, for their husbands were not gods and their houses not so fine as hers.

They therefore plotted to destroy her happiness. At the next visit they persuaded that her mysterious husband must really be a monstrous serpent. “You must take into your bedroom to-night,” they said, “a lamp covered with a cloak and a sharp knife. When he sleeps uncover the lamp – see the horro that is lying in your bed – and stab it to death.” All this the gullible Psyche promised to do.

When she uncovered the lamp and saw the sleeping god she gazed on him with insatiable love, till a drop of hot oil from her lamp fell on his shoulder and woke him. Starting up, he spread his shining wings, rebuked her, and vanished from her sight.

The two sisters did not long enjoy their malice, for Cupid took such measures as led both to their death. Psyche meanwhile wandered away, wretched and desolate, and attempted to drown herself in the first river she came to; but the god Pan frustrated her attempt and warned her never to repeat it. After many miseries she fell into the hands of her bitterest enemy, Venus, who seized her for a slave, beat her, and set her what were meant to be impossible tasks. (311-312)

After completing these tasks but one (she opens the box of Beauty from Persephone), Cupid forgives her and Psyche becomes a goddess.

Psyche Opening the Door into Cupid’s Garden – John William Waterhouse (1904)

Image courtesy of http://wannabwestern.hubpages.com/hub/Till-We-Have-Faces

Lewis’s version makes some important alterations. As referenced in his letter to Christian Hardie, the most significant change is the transparency of the palace to all but Psyche. Orual is the “ugly sister” whose worry for her sister’s welfare after her expected “capture by the ShadowBrute” prompts her to travel up the mountain to find her sister. Instead of a suffering, abused, emaciated sibling, Orual surprisingly finds a healthy, content, and joyous Psyche, who speaks highly of her mysterious lover Cupid. Understandably, Orual is suspicious, and insists that Psyche look upon the face of her lover. Psyche is reluctant, but chooses allegiance to her sister over that of her new husband. Cupid flees when Psyche uses the lamp given to her by Orual to gaze upon his face.

Another obvious change is the outcome of the sisters. In the original myth composed by second century writer Apuleius, both of the sisters are jealous of Psyche. Instead of being consumed by a beast, Psyche is carried into Cupid’s Palace by Zephyr (the West Wind). Cupid’s mother Venus is also jealous of Psyche (because her beauty rivals the goddess’s) and wishes to destroy her. Cupid is sent to eradicate her, but when he lays eyes on Psyche, immediately falls in love and secretly makes her his bride. Psyche retaliates by deceiving her sisters; she claims that Cupid wishes to marry them. Both sisters fall off a cliff after Zephyr never arrives to deliver them to Cupid’s palace. In Lewis’s tale, one becomes a powerful Queen, and the other (Redival) happily marries Trunia of Phars. Redival’s son will eventually inherit Orual’s throne.

About Orual

Orual is known as the “ugly” sister while her sister Psyche is revered as a goddess. Psyche’s mother dies shortly after her birth and Orual becomes her surrogate mother.  Orual wears a veil to shield her face. She is ordered to wear a “thick” veil during a ceremony celebrating the goddess of fertility Ungit. Orual laments, “One of the other girls tittered, and I think that was the first time I clearly understood that I was ugly” (11). Orual spends most of the story angry at the gods, especially Ungit whose visage is shrouded in mystery (much like Orual’s). When Psyche is chosen by Ungit to be a sacrifice (a decree which Psyche accepts without fear), Orual’s resentment toward the gods only intensifies. This is also why, when Psyche tells of all of the wonders of the gods in Cupid’s palace, Orual cannot accept it. She has nurtured a disgust for the gods, seeing them as hateful, malicious, and full of vengeance. “If this is true,” Orual exclaims, “I’ve been wrong all my life. Every has to be begun over again” (115). Once Psyche is expulsed from Cupid’s palace, Orual is bitterly remorseful. She is haunted by sounds of a “weeping girl” in the castle. She also “enshrines” Psyche’s possessions and enters a time of deep mourning. Once her tyrannical father passes away, Orual becomes Queen. Not long after her reign begins, Trunia of Phars (a neighboring land) ends up on the doorstep of the palace in Glome. For political protection, he is taken prisoner and a duel is announced for his freedom. Orual fights and wins, earning Trunia’s freedom and illustrating her prowess as a swordsman and protector of the land. Glome prospers under her authority. Although many initially questioned her leadership, she proves herself a worthy Queen. Orual asks, “Nature’s hand slipped when she made me anyway…If I’m to be hard-featured as a man, why shouldn’t I fight like a man too?” What Orual once considered a weakness is now a strength. The title of Queen revealed a confidence that Orual had never known in her life. For the first time, her decrees are followed with respect. No more of the ugly girl cowering under the coarse mutterings of her father. She has entered a new age. Orual now knows that she can live (dare we say thrive?) in Psyche’s absence.

But she still has much to learn.

Image courtesy of alchemical-weddings.com

The Feminine Voice

Perhaps one of the most fascinating qualities of Till We Have Faces is that Lewis chose a female narrator, a woman who writes candidly about a life of service to Glome as Queen. Orual’s role as storyteller is significant. It provides a thorough examination of Orual’s motives in tempting Psyche. In Lewis’s tale, Orual suffers from jealousy masquerading as concern. Once she leaves Cupid’s palace, she is more motivated to “rescue” Psyche from the clutches of what she believes is a beast: “My heart did not conquer me. I perceived now that there is a love deeper than theirs who seek only the happiness of their beloved. Would a father see his daughter happy as a whore? Would a woman see her lover happy as a coward? My hand went back to the sword. ‘She shall not’…Psyche should not – least of all contentedly  make sport for a demon” (138).  Later Orual becomes resolute; she must save Psyche despite her sister’s bizarre claims. Orual sees herself as a mother and father to Orual and writes that, “my love must be grave an provident, not slip-shod and indulgent, and there is a time for love to be stern. After all, what was she but a child? If the present case were beyond my understanding, how much more must it be beyond hers? Children must obey” (152). Orual deeply cares for Psyche. However, the love is contaminated by an immense possessiveness and is thus transformed into unhealthy obsession. Like Ungit who demands a sacrifice of her people, Orual demands nothing less than complete allegiance from her family and councilors. Lewis writes:

Orual is (not a symbol but) an instance, a ‘case’, of human affection in its natural condition: true, tender, suffering, but in the long run, tyrannically possessive and ready to turn to hatred when the beloved ceases to be its possession. What such love particularly cannot stand is to see the beloved passing into a sphere where it cannot follow…Of course I had always in mind its close parallel to what is probably at this moment going on in at least 5 families in your own town. Someone becomes a Christian, or, in a family nominally Christian already, does something like becoming a missionary or entering the religious order. The others suffer a sense of outrage. What they love is being taken from them! The boy must be mad! And the conceit of him! Or is there something in it after all? Let’s hope it is only a phase! If only he’d listen to his natural advisers! Oh come back, come back, be sensible, be the dear son we used to know.  Letter to Clyde Kilby 2 October 1957

We see this also with Bardia, the faithful guard who teaches Orual swordplay. Orual develops feelings for Bardia and insists that he work late evenings and fight beside her in battle. Orual, again out of jealousy, criticizes Bardia’s wife and knowingly prevents him from returning home. However, when Bardia passes away, Orual realizes that this selfish motive was one of the contributing factors to his early death. Orual visits his home, where his wife educates Queen Orual: “Perhaps you never saw him, Queen, at the times when a man shows his weariness. You never saw his haggard face in the early morning Nor heard his groan when you (because you had sworn to do it) must shake him and force him to rise. You never saw him come home late from the palace, hungry, yet to tired to eat. How should you, Queen? I was only his wife. He was too well-mannered, you know, to nod and yawn in a Queen’s house” (260). In an excellent essay on Till We Have Faces which is included in Volume 2 of C.S. Lewis: Life, Works, and Legacy (edited by Dr. Bruce Edwards), Karen Rowe mentions that “Bardia is a futile effort to create a pseudo-family, for though she can command his allegiance, she cannot command his affection, and at the end of the day, as long a day as possible, Bardia returns to his home, leaving Orual isolated in the palace. Power is not the answer to a misunderstood love; it merely compounds the effects” (146).

Orual does this also with Fox or “Grandfather”, a slave who trains the girls in the great mythology. As an older man, he asks to be excused from her presence to retire to bed, to which Orual thinks selfishly: “What could I do but send him away? This is where men, even the trustiest, fail us. Their heart is never so wholly given to any matter but that some trifle of a meal, or a drink, or a sleep, or a joke, or a girl, may come in between them and it, and then (even if you are a queen) you’ll get no more good out of them till they’ve had their way. In those days I had not yet understood this.” (149-150)

Rowe also writes that Till We Have Faces was published shortly after Surprised by Joy and shortly before The Four Loves. Orual reflects what Lewis called Need-Love, a love that exhibits a desire so strong, it suffocates its recipient. It is not based upon one’s fondness for another, but the insistence on one’s presence and affection as a prerequisite for happiness (or in some cases, existence). Lewis actually exhibits this with Orual in Till We Have Faces (and also The Great Divorce).

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Joining the Boys’ Club

Because she didn’t possess the beauty of her sisters, Orual (with her infamous veil) adopts male qualities: “My aim was to build up more and more that strength, hard and joyless, which had come to me when I hard of the god’s sentence; by learning, fighting, and laboring, to drive all the woman out of me” (184).  Orual knows that she will never marry or have children. This is another reason Orual is angered by the gods. Why has she been cursed with such ugliness? Why must she wear a veil to elude criticism? Oraul decides to use it to her and her kingdom’s benefit. The veil mystifies many enemies, and remaining a virgin has helped Orual “keep her shape” while others women lost their figures after childbirth. She is a different breed of woman, but a successful woman nonetheless. Lewis reflects on this in a rather humorous letter to a female correspondent:

I think what makes Orual different from the ‘warrior maiden’ Archtype is that she is ugly, represents virginity not [in] its high poetic state but as mere misfortune, and  of course, masculine activities as the pis aller, the thing she is driven into because nothing else is left her. (A bit of ambivalence too. Bardia’s attempt to treat her as a man is agony, yet also to be as much of a man as possible and share his masculine activities is the only thing that links her with him at all and is, in that way, precious to her). Even so, she does feel on killing her first man that she has somehow been debauched…The veil comes in – they are all cryptic in their armour. Is it that enemy and bride are somehow very close together? Both ways (a.) My bride will devour me: all wives are, so far, spiders! (b.) The foe I kill in battle is recognized at the moment of my killing as (souls are all feminine) ‘my sister my spouse’? – Letter to Kathleen Raine  5 October 1956

During her fight to win Trunia’s freedom (a nice switch of traditional roles), Orual struggles with exhaustion and the feeling of being “debauched”: “Yet I felt of a sudden very weak and my legs were shaking; and I felt myself changed too, as if something had been taken away from me. I have often wondered if women feel like that when they lose their virginity” (220). Although she is a virgin, she imagines that the sense of loss in conflict resembles the common female sensation of losing innocence. In this way, she still seeks a connection with femininity.

The celebration of her victory, with a room full of intoxicated men, shows the reader that Orual is indeed still “feminine” in nature: “That night I sat nearly to the end, the only women in the whole mob of them. Three parts of me was a shamed and frightened Orual who looked forward to a scolding from the Fox for being there at all, and was bitterly lonely; the fourth part was Queen, proud (though dazed too) amid the heat and clamour, sometimes dreaming she could laugh loud and drink deep like a man and warrior, next moment, more madly, answering to Trunia’s doffing, as if her veil hid the face of a pretty woman.” (223)

After she leaves the room, she is repulsed by the men: “‘What vile things men are!’ They were all drunk by now (except the Fox, who had gone early), but their drinking had sickened me less than their eating. I had never seen men at their pleasures before: the gobbling, snatching, belching, hiccupping, the greasiness of it all, the bones thrown in the floor, the dogs quarrelling under our feet. Were all men such?” (223-224). Karen Rowe posits that Queen Orual is disappointed that becoming queen and mingling with men still do not satisfy her deeper longings: “Though she initially believes that being ruler will bring her fulfillment, she soon discovers that in spite of her military prowess, she  is not ‘one of the boys’; indeed their behavior often disgusts her. She finds herself set apart by sex as well as by position” (146). Can we dare say that Lewis shines a discouraging light upon men and their unattractive habits?

Orual’s frustration with the gods climaxes in Part II of Till We Have Faces. She writes, “No man will love you though you gave your life for him, unless you have a pretty face. So (might it not be?), the gods will not love you (however you try to pleasure them, and whatever you suffer) unless you have that beauty of soul. In either race, for the love of men or the love of a god, the winners and losers are marked out from birth. We bring our ugliness, in both kinds, with us into the world, with it our destiny. How bitter this was, every ill-favoured woman will know” (282).

Eventually, Orual comes face-to-face with the gods (with a list of complaints in hand). She must remove her veil and appear barefaced. No longer can she remain concealed. However, as readers know, the removal of the veil is symbolic of Orual’s self-knowledge. Now she knows how the gods see her. Now she can accept herself and eschew the idea that her value is contingent upon her beauty. Frivolous assessments are not important. Paramount to Orual’s experience is that she learns to love herself and the gods, to substitute her selfish Need-Love with God’s Gift-Love.


The final depiction of females that Lewis provides in fiction is of a whole different breed than most believe. A content woman who never marries, who rules a kingdom successfully, who can defend herself with courage and confidence, and perhaps most importantly, a woman who comes to terms with herself and her true worth. Despite the possessive love with which she consumes others throughout the novel, she comes to realize that she has searched for a deeper love to consume her. The experience leaves us changed, but not “debauched” and we understand that our relationships (with God and others) grow and change as our wisdom increases- “Nothing is yet in its true form” (305).

Like Orual, Lewis carried this story tucked away in his imagination for many years. As his obedience to Christ increased, so did his understanding and wisdom. What does Lewis teach us through Orual’s tale? That we must approach God with honesty, allow God to search us, look beyond the human, flawed interpretations of gender to discover the reflections of God underneath (“I am Ungit” Orual states). Orual’s final chapter begins with this thought:

The complaint was the answer. To have heard myself making it was to be answered. Lightly men talk of saying what they mean. Often when he was teaching me to write in Greek the Fox would say, “Child, to say the very thing you mean, the whole of it, nothing more or less or other than what you really mean; that’s the whole art and joy of words.” A glib saying. When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about  joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces? (294)  (emphasis added)

Next week, the final week of the series, we will discuss Lewis’s nonfiction commentary on women. Included in this post will be Lewis’s disagreement with feminism, his rejection of priestesses, and his thoughts on the roles of women.  Join me!