Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 772
The myth which Till We Have Faces retells is that of Cupid and Psyche, told most familiarly and at greatest length by Lucius Apuleius (born around A.D. 125) in his compilation of stories The Golden Ass, written probably when the author was in his thirties. According to Apuleius, there was once a king who had three daughters, all beautiful. Yet the youngest was so superlatively beautiful that men adored her as Venus. At this, the goddess became jealous, and she sent her son Cupid to inflame Psyche with love for the most despicable creature possible. Cupid, however, fell in love with her himself and carried her off from the stake where she had been left as a sacrifice, to be his bride. In the palace to which he took her, however, he came to her only in the dark, forbidding her to see him. Her sisters learned of this, and in their envy they persuaded Psyche to break the taboo of darkness, giving her a lamp to see her lover. When she lit the lamp, though, a drop of oil fell and woke the sleeping Cupid; Psyche was cast out and punished with many labors by Venus, until in the end she was forgiven and reunited with her husband.
Apuleius’ story is about characters either divine or semi-divine, for Psyche means “soul,” and the tale has often been interpreted allegorically. It also has strong elements of fairy tale, however, including, for example, motifs from “Cinderella”: the weak father, the oppressed but beautiful heroine, and most obviously, the two jealous sisters. What C. S. Lewis has done is to take the Apuleius myth and treat it as a realistic novel, but to insist on telling it not from the “Cinderella” viewpoint but from that of one of the “ugly sisters.” In Lewis’ story, also, the narrator, Orual, is ugly, not simply ordinarily beautiful as in Apuleius. Orual is so ugly that after a certain point she spends her whole life veiled and dies unmarried, never caring to expose herself. Unlike Apuleius’ sisters, however, she is not jealous, or at least not primarily and simply jealous. At all points, she loves Psyche and tries to do the best for her. The “book” which Till We Have Faces feigns to be is in fact Orual’s own first-person reply to a story such as that in The Golden Ass, which she has heard from a foolish priest and which has offended her so much that she believes that she has to set the record straight. It was not her fault that Psyche was exiled and rejected, she says: It was the gods’ fault. In part 1 of the novel, some five-sixths of it, she calls on the reader to judge her case.
The way she tells the story is this. She and Redival were the daughters of a petty king of a barbarian country, somewhere in the Greek world’s “back of beyond,” a place of no importance. To their father’s second wife, though, was born a baby of incredible beauty, whom Orual loved from the beginning, careless of the contrast with her own ugliness. The danger to them came from the second sister, Redival: disappointed and frustrated, she reported tales of the country folk adoring Psyche to the priesthood of Ungit (the Glome equivalent of Aphrodite, or Venus). In the end, the priesthood insisted on sacrificing Psyche to end drought and plague, an expedient to which Psyche’s cowardly father consented. After the sacrifice, though, when Orual crept stealthily into the wasteland to bury the body, she met Psyche, alive, happy, convinced that she was living with her husband in a palace—yet to Orual’s eyes, unsheltered, in rags, eating berries. Orual decided to try to cure Psyche’s “madness” by giving her a lamp. Yet, it seems, Psyche was not mad. The god was present after all, and lighting the lamp was a disaster, breaking the spell from which Orual had been shut out.
After that moment, the sisters never met. Orual became queen and ruled successfully for many years—but was haunted by the notion of Psyche wandering, weeping, in exile. Whose fault was this? demands Orual. Why could the gods not have let her see what Psyche saw? Why were good intentions first frustrated, then slandered with this tale of petty jealousy? In the last section of her book, the gods let her answer her own questions and also extend a kind of mercy. Yet Orual’s accusation and recantation raise further questions well beyond Apuleius. In particular, they raise the rationalist and post-Darwinian issue of theories of the divine.