Commentary on C. S. Lewis, Till we have Faces: A Myth Retold: Pt. 3

Teaching powerful Truths through Fiction

            This is part 3 of a blog series on Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis. For Part 1, click here. For Part 2, click here. This book contains many interesting lessons for the attentive reader. We see, first of all, a very profound analysis of the nature of love compared with it’s counterfeits. Second, but certainly not least, is the way in which Lewis analyzes the problem of evil and the existence, yet apparent silence and hiddenness, of God. We also find a hint at Lewis’s famous argument from joy, or desire. There is much more that could be said, but part of the great power of this book is the way in which is so easily speaks to the actual situation of each reader, and challenges us on so many levels. These truths are given even more power, in convincing the reader, as they are presented in a story that draws in the reader, and allows the reader to, in a sense, live and experience these truths. We will, here, take some time to consider the three points that we have mentioned.

The Nature of Love

            In the twelfth session of a course on the Life and Writings of C. S. Lewis, available with the Great Courses,[1] Dr. Louis Markos points out that, among other things, Till We Have Faces provides a profound analysis of the nature of love. Markos draws our attention to the so-called love of Orual for Psyche, the Fox, and Bardia. In this section, we will consider how Lewis illustrates, in this modern myth, some very powerful observations about love.

            The first “love” of Orual was the Fox. Near the very beginning of the narrative Orual tells us, “I loved the fox, as my father called him, better than anyone I had yet known.”[2] Compared to her father, for whom Orual had nothing but contempt, the Fox became a sort of grandfather figure for Orual.[3] The second “love” of Orual was Psyche. From the very beginning of Psyche’s life, Orual was, quite literally, enchanted by Psyche. Her description of her love for Psyche is fanatical, almost disturbing, “I wanted to be a wife so that I could have been her real mother. I wanted to be a boy so that she could be in love with me. I wanted her to be my full sister instead of my half sister. I wanted her to be a slave so that I could set her free and make her rich.”[4] The third “love” of Orual was Bardia. We see her love for Bardia beginning to grow only after the sacrifice of Psyche,[5] though she does not fully realise that she is in love with Bardia until much later, and only confesses her love for him upon his death.[6]

            As the story progresses, the attentive reader picks up on subtle hints about the type of love that Orual has for the Fox, Psyche, and Bardia. The reader is brought into the moment, and shares the feeling with Orual, by the way in which Lewis writes. Yet, in the very feeling of this love, the reader is shocked by the nature and effect of Orual’s love, and yet we empathize with Orual and almost want to say that she is right. We see Orual’s love for the Fox, which eventually leads her to give him his freedom;[7] but, in the very same instant, removes that freedom through a manipulative mourning of her loss—which leads the Fox to reluctantly decide to stay in Glome.[8] The Fox dies in Glome, having never returned to his homeland—having sacrificed his entire life for Orual.[9]

            We see Orual’s growing love for Bardia, which, at first, only appears as a desire to have him at her side. Is this not both wise (to have such an experienced warrior at her side to give advice), and proper (for a Queen demands the allegiance of her subjects)? The Queens love for Bardia which turns out to be more a form of jealousy than of love, ends up manipulating Bardia into staying by her side. What is worse, Bardia’s wife becomes the enemy becomes the enemy, not only because Bardia continually returned to her side, but also because Bardia loved her. “Because he had loved her she was, in a way, surely enough the enemy.”[10] We find out, in a conversation that Orual has with Bardia’s wife (after Bardia’s death), that Bardia had been worked to death by Orual—who had drained his very life force out of him.[11] Bardia’s wife tells Orual that, “I do not believe, I know, that your queenship drank up his blood year by year and ate out his life.”[12] Bardia’s wife says, in a very perceptive statement, “They say the loving and the devouring are all one, don’t they?”[13] This statement takes on an even greater importance as we learn more about Orual’s love, especially her love of Psyche.

            Orual’s love for Psyche, beginning at the birth of the child, seems to be of a very motherly sort,[14] and, for a long time, seems quite natural—natural mother-love. As the story move on, however, we see some sinister hints as to the true nature of Orual’s love for Psyche. We see, prior to the sacrifice of Psyche, that Orual’s love for Psyche is extremely possessive. When Psyche lets on that she is not afraid of death, but has been longing to be made the wife of the god of the mountain, Orual bursts into a manipulative cry of despair, “‘Oh cruel, cruel!’ I wailed. ‘Is it nothing to you that you leave me here alone? Psyche; did you ever love me at all?’”[15] We are shocked, at the end of the book, when we see the full heinousness of this possessive love, which drives Orual to shout at the gods, “We’d rather they were ours and dead than yours and made immortal…The girl was mine…We want to be our own. I was my own and Psyche was mine and no one else had any right to her.”[16] Orual finishes her rant against the gods by almost screaming, “Did you ever remember whose the girl was? She was mine. Mine. Do you not know what the word means? Mine!”[17] Not only was Orual’s love for Psyche possessive, it was manipulative. Her manipulation is seen throughout the story, always pushing Psyche to affirm that she loves Orual, manipulating Psyche into doing what Orual wanted. In response to Psyche’s claim that she had always loved the god of the mountain, Orual blurts out, “‘I only see that you have never loved me,’ said I. ‘It may well be you are going to the gods. You are becoming cruel like them.’”[18] We see this same type of manipulation (not only by using guilt, but even through threats of pain and death to Psyche, and of suicide) throughout the story, as Orual manipulates the Fox, Bardia, and Psyche.[19] Orual even brings herself to lie to Psyche, in order to get Psyche to do what she wants her to do.[20]

In each case, Orual’s love (for the Fox, for Psyche, and for Bardia) was a possessive, manipulating, jealous, and, ultimately, devouring love—those whom she loved had to be consecrated entirely to her; and could not share their love with others, or love others as well. Orual’s love for the Fox, Bardia, and Psyche, was so self-centered that it ends up either turning into hate, or ressembling hate more than love. As Psyche says, “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.”[21] Indeed, Orual occasionally recognizes, to her horror, that she was no longer sure whether she loved or hated the Fox, Bardia,[22] and Psyche.[23]

            Before we draw some conclusions about Orual’s love and what Lewis is saying about the nature of love, it is worth noting the contrast between Orual’s love for the Fox, for Psyche, and, later, for Bardia, and the other types of love that we see in this story. We see, first of all, Redival’s superficial erotic love, which is more concerned with a pretty face and marrying into riches, than about the person she “loves”.[24] We also see the love of the Fox and Bardia for Orual, such that, though Orual occasionally doubts of their love,[25] they essentially sacrificed their lives for Orual.

The greatest contrast that we see in this book, which truly sheds light on the heineous character of Orual’s “love”, is the way in which Psyche loves. We see that Psyche’s love was primarily for the Mountain,[26] and, more specifically, love of the god of the Mountain (whom she desired, from a very young age, to espouse).[27] We also see that Psyche truly loved Orual,[28] so much so that she gave up her greatest happiness for Orual.[29] Psyche’s love is all the opposite of Orual’s. Psyche’s was a giving and sacrificial, rather than a devouring, love. There is an interesting element to Psyche’s love that C. S. Lewis brings out in the following comment, “You”, says Psyche, “do not think I have left off loving you because I know 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.”[30] Lewis’s point is, surely, to say that one’s love for God—such that one love God more than anything in this world—ends up causing us to love everything and everyone in this world more than we could if we did not love God.

                In contrast, Orual is so concentrated on the things and people of this world that the idea that they could love anything other than her—and, worse, the gods—is abominable, and as evil as treason. Psyche’s love is sacrificial, Orual’s is grasping and selfish. Psyche’s love is giving, Orual’s love is manipulative and possessive. Psyche gives of herself, Orual, like the goddess Ungit, devours everything and gives nothing in return. Till We Have Faces concludes with Orual’s realization that she, like Ungit, had been devouring all those she claimed to love, “It was I who was Ungit. That ruinous face was mine. I was that Batta-thing, that all-devouring womblike, yet barren, thing. Glome was a web—I the swollen spider, squat at its center, gorged with men’s stolen lives.”[31] When she finally has a hearing with the gods, Orual realizes that she had “loved” in this way, not only Bardia and the Fox, but even Psyche.[32] She confesses to Psyche, “‘Oh Psyche, oh goddess,’ I said. ‘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. I was a craver.”[33] In the end, true love is not a grasping after which seeks by any means to possess the object of our love, but, rather, a giving of ourselves, entirely, sacrificially, even when we realize that all that we have to give is worthless.

                Follow this link for part 4: The Hiddenness of God and the Appearance of Injustice.

[1]Louis Markos, Life and Writings of C. S. Lewis (, accessed 2017-03-30).

[2]Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 7.

[3]Ibid., 17, 20, 21, etc.

[4]Ibid., 23.

[5]Ibid., 222, 224, 233. We see, here, Orual begins experiencing a certain jealousy in relation to Bardia. She is angered that Bardia might not want to be with her.

[6]Ibid., 258.

[7]Ibid., 207.

[8]Ibid., 209-210.

[9]Ibid., 236, 296.

[10]Ibid., 259. Cf. 233.

[11]Ibid., 260-265.

[12]Ibid., 264.

[13]Ibid., 265.

[14]Ibid., 20-21.

[15]Ibid., 73. Cf. Ibid., 120-121.

[16]Ibid., 291-292.

[17]Ibid., 292.

[18]Ibid., 76.

[19]Ibid., 124, 125, etc.

[20]Ibid., 161.

[21]Ibid., 165.

[22]Ibid., 267.

[23]Ibid., 81, 127, 137, 165, 169.

[24]Ibid., 25, 29, 204, 226.

[25]Ibid., 209.

[26]Ibid., 23, 74-75.

[27]Ibid., 76, 122, 125, 127.

[28]Ibid., 72.

[29]Ibid., 165-166.

[30]Ibid., 158-159.

[31]Ibid., 276. Cf. Ibid., 281-282.

[32]Ibid., 291ff.

[33]Ibid., 305.

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