Till We Have Faces

by C. S. Lewis

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The Plot

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Till We Have Faces purports to be the life narrative of Queen Orual of the ancient kingdom of Glome, which she wrote so that others might understand her relationship to her sister Istra, usually called Psyche, and to the gods of her people. Orual (sometimes called Maia by Psyche) is the eldest daughter of Trom, the king of Glome, who treats her badly because she is not male and is ugly. He comes to rely on her intelligence. She is taught by a Greek slave, the Fox, who knows Greek philosophy well and is a father figure to her and to her younger sister Psyche, a beautiful, loving child. Orual herself mothers Psyche, who is motherless; the middle sister, Redival, is wayward and unloving.

When Glome is threatened by pestilence and surrounding kingdoms, the priest of Ungit, the chief deity of the land, demands that Psyche be sacrificed to him by being left chained to a tree in the wilderness to be the bride of a supposed monster, the Shadowbrute. Orual is heartbroken. When she travels with Bardia, the chief palace guard, to recover her sister’s remains several months after the sacrifice, she is surprised to find Psyche alive, well, and living in a palace that only Psyche can see. Bardia, the Fox, and Orual are convinced that Psyche must be both mad and a victim of some brute who has taken her as a mistress. Psyche insists that her husband is a god, but she must never see his face. Orual asks Psyche to use a candle to look at her husband, and Psyche reluctantly complies. When she shines the light on his face, he is indeed revealed to be a god. He sends her into the world, saying that he can no longer protect her. He also appears to Orual, blames her for this misfortune, and says she also must bear the burdens of Psyche.

Orual’s father dies, and she becomes queen with the help of the Fox, Bardia, and a new and younger priest of Ungit, Arnon. Bardia teaches her sword fighting, which is fortunate because she must soon fight Argan, prince of the Phars, a neighboring land. When she defeats Argan, she sets his brother Trunia on the throne of the Phars and marries her sister Redival to him. By these and other stratagems, Queen Orual stabilizes her kingdom, but she is still heartbroken over her loss of Psyche and her part in the downfall of her sister. She seeks Psyche her whole life but only hears rumors of her from time to time.

Queen Orual begins to write her manuscript as a complaint against the gods, whom she cannot understand and who give her no comfort in life. As she grows older, she has visions of herself as Ungit, a devouring love goddess similar to Aphrodite. She realizes that her love of Psyche, the Fox, and Bardia often was selfish and that Redival became unloving when Orual withdrew her love. When Orual dies, she is reunited with Psyche, understands the god by meeting him face to face, and asks that her manuscript be taken back to Greece, the birthplace of the Fox.

Literary Techniques

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Lewis employs a first-person central reminiscent point of view in the novel. Readers see what Orual sees, as she remembers it in the first part; as she learns it in the second. Her dreams and visions, vehicles for much of the archetypal subtext, are also used by Lewis to prefigure the revelations of the second part and to justify them. And the two-part structure itself is an original means of organizing...

(This entire section contains 127 words.)

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the narrative. It enables Lewis to present this autobiography with an immediacy a more conventional ordering would not have. Moreover, by casting the account in the form of a deposition, a legalistic accusation of the gods for their abuse of humankind, Lewis strengthens his protagonist's characterization, for on her believability rests the plausibility of the novel.

Literary Precedents

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In a "Note" appended to the novel, Lewis writes that "The story of Cupid and Psyche first occurs in one of the few surviving Latin novels, the Metamorphoses (sometimes called The Golden Ass) of Lucius Apuleius Platonicus, who was born about 125 A.D." After summarizing the original, Lewis says of Apuleius, "in relation to my work he is a source, not an influence nor a model."

Bibliography

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Carpenter, Humphrey. The Inklings: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Their Friends, 1978.

Hannay, Margaret Patterson. C. S. Lewis, 1981.

Hillegas, Mark R., ed. Shadows of Imagination: The Fantasies of C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and Charles Williams, 1969.

Smith, Robert Harston. Patches of Godlight: The Pattern of Thought of C. S. Lewis, 1981.

Walsh, Chad. The Literary Legacy of C. S. Lewis, 1979.

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