Till We Have Faces

by C. S. Lewis

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The Characters

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Two vital additions to Apuleius’ plot, in Lewis, are Orual’s two mentors and “father-figures,” Bardia and the Fox. The latter is introduced first. He is a Greek slave, bought by the King of Glome to tutor his daughters (and, he vainly hopes, his son). The Fox is characteristically Greek, a philosopher, a rationalist, devoid of the aggression shown by all the barbarians around him, preaching only self-mastery and the power of human potential. His blind spot is that he cannot understand anything religious at all. When the Priest of Ungit comes with the proposal to sacrifice Psyche as the Accursed (who has sinned against the gods by accepting divine honors) and as the country’s best and noblest (to avert the drought and plague), he says it is flat nonsense. How can Psyche be the worst and the best? he demands. There is no logic in it. Divine matters do not turn on logic, the Priest replies. Divine knowledge is not clear, like water, but thick, like blood. In mysteries many contradictions are reconciled. Orual, and through her the reader, is brought painfully to see that there is a kind of wisdom which the Fox, good man that he is, totally lacks.

Some of this is lent to Orual by her other counselor, Bardia, captain of the guards, who is soldierly, barbarous, practical, and superstitious where the Fox is philosophical, Greek, logical, and powerless. Whereas the Fox thinks that Psyche has been taken from her stake by a bandit, Bardia thinks that she has fallen prey to “the Shadowbrute.” Both men think that the taboo on light hides horror, but of entirely different kinds. Both are wrong, for Cupid was neither material villain nor holy beast, but their agreement in error persuades Orual to make Psyche shine the light. It must be said, though, that Bardia is nearer the truth than the Fox.

Both men are, in the end, killed by Orual’s love. She frees the Fox from slavery but then cannot bear to let him return to Greece: He dies in the “barbarian” land of Glome. Bardia, too, is worked so hard by his queen and mistress that he dies before his time, his widow accusing Orual of selfishness and spite. In the last section of the book, Orual comes to realize how possessive she has in fact been, how she has tried to monopolize her male father-or husband-surrogates, how even Redival was excluded from her attention, and how much her feelings about Psyche turned on possessiveness. It is for these reasons that she retracts her accusation against the gods. Yet the last words of the book, written after Orual is dead, praise her as the best queen ever known, the wisest and most merciful, and the reader tends to agree with them. If Orual’s good intentions cannot escape blame, whose can? Her own judgments on her character, and on those other people, remain at odds.

Characters Discussed

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Orual

Orual, or Maia (MAY -yah), the narrator, the eldest princess of Glome and finally its queen. She is caught between her love of learning as presented in the ideals of Greek philosophy and poetry and her earthy, passionate nature. So ugly as to have no hope of romantic love, Orual attaches herself fiercely to her Greek tutor and her divinely beautiful half sister, Istra/Psyche, while secretly cherishing a love for the soldier who teaches her swordsmanship. Each love is marred by her inability to release its object, a fault most evident with Istra, who is doomed to exile through Orual’s possessive jealousy. Orual rules Glome well: She is...

(This entire section contains 684 words.)

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brave in battle and wise in council. The story is told in her old age, as an accusation against gods and their inscrutable cruelty, and covers Orual’s life from childhood. Visions and dreams cause the book to end in understanding and acceptance of the paradox of divinity as Orual dies.

Istra

Istra, or Psyche (SI-kee), the youngest princess of Glome, the lovely child of the king’s second wife. She fills Orual’s hungry heart but is too beautiful for a mortal; she is sacrificed to the “Shadow Beast,” a manifestation of the son of Glome’s patron goddess, Ungit. Ungit is understood as a cultural alternate form of Aphrodite (Venus), and her son is the Glome Eros (Cupid). Thus Istra/Psyche and Ungit’s son tie this tale to the Cupid-Psyche myth of antiquity. The princess’ sacrifice is also a wedding, and Psyche lives in an invisible palace with a divine husband whom she must never see. When Orual forces a betrayal of the god-bridegroom, Psyche is doomed to lose her love and home and to wander weeping through the world. Before her own death, Orual encounters a shrine where Istra/Psyche is worshiped as a goddess of spring and renewal.

Lysias

Lysias, the “Fox,” a Greek slave bought as a status symbol to teach the children of the king. He stands as an affectionate father to Orual and Istra, teaching them the intellectual ideals of Greek philosophy, yet he is unable to fathom the nature of divinity manifested in Ungit. He renounces his hope of a return to Greece so that he can stay with Orual as a councillor when she frees him.

Trom

Trom, the brutal, selfish king of Glome, who rejects his daughters in the hope of having a son, railing against the gods and fate in his misfortunes of war, famine, and disease. He uses Orual’s intellectual gifts but dies in terror of her, realizing in his last illness the growth of her power in his own decline.

Bardia

Bardia, the captain of the king’s guards and councillor to Orual. He teaches her military arts and accompanies her on her first search for the body of the sacrificed Istra. Devoted to martial virtues and common sense, Bardia never sees Orual as a woman or realizes that she loves him. His widow accuses Orual of working her devoted servant to death.

Redival

Redival, the middle princess, beautiful in mortal terms, hungry for love, and jealous of Orual’s tie to Istra. She is a flirt and a gossip whose indiscretions help lead to Istra’s sacrifice. Orual marries her to a neighboring king and adopts her second son as heir to the throne of Glome.

Priest of Ungit

Priest of Ungit, the immensely old and inscrutable representative of the abuses and mystery surrounding the worship of the goddess Ungit. It is he who demands the sacrifice of Princess Istra. He dies, after a long illness, at the same time as does Trom.

Arnom

Arnom, the successor to the old priest of Ungit. He understands his goddess as a Hellenized and abstract deity, an Aphrodite represented by a Greek statue that displaces Ungit’s shapeless, faceless stone. Arnom is a skilled politician, alert to the interests of the temple. His establishment as chief priest is contemporary with Orual’s accession to the throne, and they work as allies. He ends the novel with praise of the dead queen.

Characters

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Readers meet the protagonist Orual, as an old woman, preparing to die, stating that she will write down her accusations against the gods. As the book proceeds one becomes completely-absorbed in her words and by her vision. Lewis convinces readers of her reality because of her consistency: she is the ugly little girl who grows up as an ugly woman; at the same time she is kinder than she knows and more selfish than she realizes. He traces her life through the approximately forty years which occupy her reminiscences as she accuses the gods in the first five-sixths of the book. Her courage, her hatred for the blood-thick Ungit, her rejection of Orual so that she could be more and more Queen of Glome, and her constant mourning for Psyche, the beloved sister whose doom she caused, elicit a sense of recognition of a troubled woman separated by time and culture from readers, but one with them in her humanity. Lewis has her speak directly to the reader about the many stories which may have grown up about her, telling the reader that most of them are false. Her candor in this matter adds to her verisimilitude and her ethos. It makes one view sympathetically her complaints against the gods which fill the first part.

Just as readers view Orual exclusively through her embittered eyes in the first part, so do they see the other characters. Her sister Redival is a golden-haired, younger, wanton, jealous agent of mischief whose bitterness toward, and hatred of, Psyche makes no sense to Orual. Psyche is not only beautiful; she is noble, courageous, loving, wise, and, at appropriate times, capable of anger. Indeed, Psyche's perfection is believable, in the main, because of Orual's being the source of one's impressions of Psyche and because Psyche is not the central character.

Other noble but more flawed characters include the Greek rationalist slave, the Fox (called Lysias just once in the novel) whose love for Psyche and Orual persists throughout the novel. This love as well as his rationalistic philosophy strongly contribute to Orual's persona, just as his comments in the first part give the perceptive reader clues about what the gods' answer will ultimately be. In his clearly motivated actions, Lewis constructs a character whose lack of belief in the other, the supernatural, does not prevent him from seeing ultimately the insufficiency of that stance and from accepting his responsibility for not having given Orual a larger vision. The second major sympathetic character is Bardia, the military and diplomatic counselor of the Queen. His valor and courage, his loyalty and simplicity, his sheer goodness aid Orual in her efforts. He is the unknowing object of her love, a love which is as total for him as it is for the Fox and for Psyche.

Orual's father. King Trom; her old nurse, Batta; the old Priest; and his successor, the young Priest, Arnom, are part of the barbarism of Glome. Each, as Orual sees him or her, is part of the mysterious world of Ungit. Trom and Batta are violent and instinctive; they are not seen by Orual as sources of light or peace or joy. The old Priest's unwavering faith in Ungit earns Orual's grudging respect; the young Priest's attempts to combine the Fox's Greek rationalism and the blood-thick mystery of Ungit ultimately do not satisfy Orual. But all four characters are carefully delineated, memorable, and more than mere symbols.

The final sixth of the novel, part two, contains the answer of the gods to Orual's charges. And here one's views of most of the characters change. Redival's pathos is made explicit, one which is convincing even as it is a surprise. The limits of the Fox are acknowledged by him and finally seen by Orual. Trom is not the terrible villain he has been viewed as being. Batta has some redeeming qualities. But most of all readers learn with Orual that her love has been suffocating, destructive, jealous. At the same time one is also made even more aware of her goodness, her growth in beauty, her lifetime of expiation for a crime which she committed with more deliberateness than she would admit: her rejection of joy, joy in itself and joy for Psyche.

These characters are not symbols, nor are they allegorical; they are fully fleshed human beings with flaws and vices, hopes and fears, virtues and love. Through it all, however, Orual's centrality is unarguable.

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