Love and Beauty in Till We Have Faces

Till We Have Faces is C.S. Lewis’s imaginative reworking of the myth of Cupid and Psyche. It is a meditation on the nature of beauty and ugliness and of love and hate, and because gods and goddesses encounter men and women throughout, it is also a novel about the nature of the divine, of revelation and epiphany. Told from the perspective of Psyche’s older sister, Orual, as she wrestles with the loss of Psyche, it is a beautifully complex and moving novel, and Lewis considered it his most accomplished work of fiction. I don’t want to give much of the plot away because I hope that you will read the novel for yourself. But I do want to reflect on some of the novel’s themes as a way of processing some of the thoughts from the previous posts on epiphany and the nature of revelation. In this post I want to look at the intertwined themes of beauty and love in the novel.

Orual is the first-born daughter of the King of Glome, a violent madman who desires nothing more than to sire a son. But his second marriage only produces a third daughter, Psyche, an exceptionally beautiful child, whom Orual takes under her care. But Orual’s love for Psyche is a devouring sort of love, an all-consuming obsession, even from the beginning. She alone wants to possess Psyche and her affections.  And this devotion is perhaps primarily motivated by Psyche’s beauty, which Orual describes as one might describe a god’s, saying, “Her beauty, which most of them had never seen, worked on them as a terror might work.” Indeed, the subjects of Glome are convinced that Psyche must be a goddess. Because she is ugly herself, Orual, it seems, wants to become beautiful by being in Psyche’s presence. As Orual says, “She made beauty all around her. When she trod on mud, the mud was beautiful; when she ran in the rain, the rain was silver. When picked up a toad—she had the strangest and, I thought, unchanciest love for all manner of brutes—the toad became beautiful.” Orual is the toad in a certain sense. She desires to become beautiful, to have a face, by possessing Psyche for herself, and as the novel progresses this hunger only makes her more ugly.

Later in the novel, Psyche is offered as an appeasing sacrifice to the Mountain Brute.  After the sacrifice Orual decides to go and gather the remains of her sister, only to find that Psyche is still alive. As she relates what has happened to her, Psyche believes she has married the god of the Mountain, who she believes is no brute at all, while Orual believes that this so-called husband who refuses to show his face is either the mountain-brute or an opportunistic mountain dweller who has tricked her. Because Orual cannot believe Psyche’s happiness is real, she demands that Psyche expose the face of her husband. And as Orual makes these demands, Psyche realizes that Orual’s consuming, possessive love is a kind of hate, saying, “You are indeed teaching me about kinds of love I did not know. It is like looking into a deep pit. I am not sure whether I like your kind better than hatred.”

In other words, Orual’s ugliness is not primarily physical. Rather her devouring love for Psyche makes her ugly. Psyche by contrast is not just physically beautiful—her love is beautiful as well. She doesn’t wish to go against her husband’s wishes because she trusts him. Earlier in the novel she goes among the plagued people because they believe her touch can heal. She is willing to give of herself in hopes of helping others. Love and beauty are contrasted with hate and ugliness, and so the novel, read a certain way, is a study in sanctification, in Orual’s love becoming more beautiful, of her gaining a face. So in the next post, we will turn to the themes of faces and epiphany.

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