Selfishness and Self-Knowledge in C.S. Lewis’s ‘Till We Have Faces’

C.S. Lewis’s novel tells a tale of selfless and selfish love, based on a retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche.
Selfishness and Self-Knowledge in C.S. Lewis’s ‘Till We Have Faces’
"A Royal Meeting," 1838, by Louise-Adélaïde Desnos. Though it depicts a former royal mistress begging forgiveness from her queen, this painting shares themes with Orual and Psyche's relationship. When Psyche has the opportunity to reject a contrite Orual, she forgives her instead.(Public Domain)
Walker Larson
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Cut into the temple of Apollo at Delphi are the words, “Know thyself.” It’s a simple command to understand, but not a simple one to fulfill. Much of the literature in the West deals with this problem: How can we know ourselves, our real motives, our strengths, our weaknesses, our relationship to others? What are the consequences if we don’t?

The temple of Apollo at Delphi is similarly situated to the fictional Glome, where "Till We Have Faces" takes place. (<a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Berthold_Werner">Berthold Werner</a>/<a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en">CC BY-SA 3.0</a>)
The temple of Apollo at Delphi is similarly situated to the fictional Glome, where "Till We Have Faces" takes place. (Berthold Werner/CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Difficulties of Love

One work that explores self-deception—particularly how our loves can become perverted into selfishness without our realizing—is C.S. Lewis’s novel “Till We Have Faces.” In it, Lewis retells the story of Cupid and Psyche from Greek mythology, using his recasting of the myth as a vantage point from which to explore the human soul, the possessiveness that can creep into love, our relationship to the divine, and our penchant for self-delusion.
C.S. Lewis was one of the most well-known theologians of the 20th century. (Public Domain)
C.S. Lewis was one of the most well-known theologians of the 20th century. (Public Domain)

“Till We Have Faces” is told from the point of view of Orual, the elder half-sister of Psyche (who is also called Istra). Psyche is taken away by a god who corresponds to the figure of Cupid from mythology.

Orual, Psyche, and their third sister, Redival, grow up together as princesses of the fictional kingdom of Glome. Their father is a cruel, self-centered man, but they find love and wisdom in their Greek tutor, known as “The Fox.” Because Psyche’s mother dies in childbirth, Orual takes on the task of raising Psyche, pouring all her love and attention on to her younger sister, almost to an obsessive degree. She and The Fox grow very close to Psyche and spend a few blissful, sun-drenched days exploring the valleys and woods near the Grey Mountain. Psyche possesses unparalleled and ethereal beauty, joy, and virtue, and is beloved by the people of the kingdom, while Orual is ugly and wears a veil to hide it.

"Woman in Veil" by Raffaelle Monti. Minneapolis Museum of Art. Orual wears a veil to hide her ugly features, but that doesn't disguise her selfish heart. (<a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Waldyrious">Waldyrious</a>/<a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en">CC BY-SA 2.0</a>)
"Woman in Veil" by Raffaelle Monti. Minneapolis Museum of Art. Orual wears a veil to hide her ugly features, but that doesn't disguise her selfish heart. (Waldyrious/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Psyche’s goodness and comeliness affect those around her so profoundly that some of the commoners begin to worship her as a goddess. Dark times then fall on the kingdom of Glome: famine, rebellion, disease. Psyche is blamed for these hardships since she has usurped the place of the goddess Ungit, according to the old priest of Ungit. He explains that to end the hard times, Psyche must be sacrificed to Ungit and her son, who is either a savage monster or the god of the Grey Mountain, or somehow both. Psyche is tied to a sacred tree in the wood as an offering and abandoned. The evils recede from Glome.

Orual is crushed by the sentence passed against her sister, to whom she has devoted all her affections and care. But when the two sisters make their harried and heartbroken farewell just before Psyche is sent to the tree, we begin to see that Orual’s love is not as pure and selfless as she herself believes.

Psyche tries to make the best of the doom closing in on her, and even wonders if the gods may not be so cruel as they seem, that they may have some better and deeper design in mind. But Orual can’t understand how Psyche can find any hope in the situation and resents that her half-sister doesn’t show greater despair at leaving her, Orual, forever.

Orual narrates, “I would have died for her ... and yet, the night before her death, I could feel anger. She spoke so steadily and thoughtfully. ... The parting between her and me seemed to cost her so little.” Orual’s main concern is less to comfort her sister and more to receive proof of her sister’s love through displays of absolute, destitute broken-heartedness. Dismayed and confused, she does not witness this total despair—though Psyche weeps and shows feeling for Orual.

Psyche speaks of strange things Orual can’t understand, the stirrings of soul that have occurred within her, the unspoken, unaccountable, unquenchable yearning within her for something beyond her palace life, something beyond Glome, beyond the earth altogether. It touches the soul—(the name “Psyche” means “soul”)—like music high and far off, calling, supremely beautiful, and the ears of the soul cannot forget.

Psyche says to Orual, “It was when I was happiest that I longed most. It was on happy days when we were up there on the hills, the three of us, with the wind and the sunshine. ... And because it was so beautiful, it set me longing, always longing. Somewhere else there must be more of it. Everything seemed to be saying, Psyche come! The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing—to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from.” Psyche hopes that the ordeal she is to undergo, might bring her to that place of consummate beauty. But Orual’s reaction is completely centered on herself. She cries out, “And that was the sweetest? Oh, cruel, cruel ... I only see that you have never loved me.”

When, some time later, Orual discovers that her sister did survive the offering, married the god, and lives in a palace far off in mountain valley, she blinds herself to the truth. Calling it love, she convinces herself that Psyche has actually been enslaved by some monster or to some mountain bandit. By threatening to kill herself, Orual convinces Psyche to betray her new husband’s trust, which results in Psyche’s exile from him. The beautiful girl is condemned to wander the earth weeping for her lost love. Orual’s jealousy and possessiveness ruins the girl’s marriage to the divine, to higher things—all under the guise of “love.”

"Cupid and Psyche" by Anthony van Dyck, Windsor Castle. The classic tale of Cupid and Psyche is adapted and expanded in "Till We Have Faces," by C.S. Lewis. (Public Domain)
"Cupid and Psyche" by Anthony van Dyck, Windsor Castle. The classic tale of Cupid and Psyche is adapted and expanded in "Till We Have Faces," by C.S. Lewis. (Public Domain)
Having lost Psyche, Orual returns to the kingdom and submerges herself in politics and power, eventually gaining the throne. She is a strong, fierce ruler—in many ways cruel. She again manifests jealousy and covetousness when she overworks a married advisor with whom she has fallen in love. Eventually, he dies from overexertion, his energies spent in the queen’s service.

Real Love’s Effects

Lewis contrasts Orual’s covetousness with Psyche’s charity. Psyche’s love expands the heart, while Orual’s shrinks and shrivels it, like the hand of an old miser clutching his coins. At one point, Psyche says to her sister, “You do not think I have left off loving you because I now have a husband to love as well? If you would understand it, that makes me love you—why, it makes me love everyone and everything—more.”

In contrast to Psyche’s effulgent, ever-widening love, Orual’s love may be characterized by a recurring phrase, “the loving and the devouring are all one.” Orual’s love consumes, wastes, and subsumes its object because what she loves isn’t the person or object, but what it can give her. She ends up destroying the object of her affections.

Unloved by her father at the daybreak of her life, Orual never learned how to love. Whatever affection she did encounter, especially in the person of Psyche, she craved, clutched, and brooded over, until that love, which was meant to be free, weakened and died in its cage of possessiveness. It festered, turned even to feverish hate masquerading as affection. “A love like that can grow to be nine-tenths hatred and still call itself love.”

True Forgiveness

Does Orual ever understand what she has become or how she has poisoned love? In her old age, with everyone and everything she cared about gone, Orual begins to change. Little incidents reveal to her how she has mistreated others yet hid the disgusting actions with a veil of virtue, just as she hid her face. She begins to have visions. In one of them, she’s given the chance to read her “complaint to the gods.” It’s her version of her life in which, she believes, she’s been treated unfairly by cruel and distant powers.

However, when it comes time to read her complaint, she sees how empty it is. Orual finally has her “anagnorisis”—a term from Greek tragedy referring to the point in the story when a character finally realizes their situation’s true nature to which they are no longer blind and develops deeper self-knowledge.

Orual’s complaint against the gods is that they took Psyche from her, and even though she recognized that Psyche was taken to a place of far greater happiness—marriage to divinity itself—Orual remained bitter all her life, focusing on what she'd lost, not on what Psyche had gained. At last, Orual sees the ugliness of her own soul. Falling down before Psyche, she cries out, “Oh Psyche, oh goddess. ... Never again will I call you mine; but all there is of me shall be yours. Alas, you know now what it’s worth. I never wished you well, never had one selfless thought of you.”

The original cover of "Till We Have Faces," by C.S. Lewis. (Public Domain)
The original cover of "Till We Have Faces," by C.S. Lewis. (Public Domain)
But Psyche—the embodiment of true love—forgives her and gently raises her to her feet.
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Prior to becoming a freelance journalist and culture writer, Walker Larson taught literature and history at a private academy in Wisconsin, where he resides with his wife and daughter. He holds a master's in English literature and language, and his writing has appeared in The Hemingway Review, Intellectual Takeout, and his Substack, The Hazelnut. He is also the author of two novels, "Hologram" and "Song of Spheres."