Orual is the eldest daughter of a barbarian king. Her father, an incompetent ruler fruitlessly pining for a male heir, leaves her to be schooled in philosophy by a Greek slave, and in the arts of battle by the captain of the royal guard.
By the novel’s end, Orual has succeeded to the throne and brought peace and prosperity to her people. She is known as “the most wise, just, valiant, fortunate, and merciful of all the princes” in her part of the world.
C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces has little to say about how Queen Orual of Glome learns these particular virtues or earns these epithets. Instead, it centers on her profound unhappiness, and the book-length complaint she files against the gods for cursing her without cause.
Orual’s troubles begin with the birth of her youngest sister Psyche, whose beauty is so divine that everyone worships her. When the local goddess Ungit becomes jealous, Orual, still a helpless girl, watches in horror as Psyche is abandoned on the Grey Mountain in sacrifice.
Young Orual attempts to find and bury her sister’s remains. What she discovers contradicts the blithe skepticism of her mentor, and the dark myths of her people. Still living, Psyche claims to be the bride of a wonderful god, whose face she has not seen because he comes to her only at night.
In professed disbelief, Orual persuades Psyche to break her vow to a husband she insists must be a monster or a brigand. In response, the god banishes Psyche to a torturous exile, and reveals himself to Orual, whom he accuses of criminal malice.
It now becomes clear that the book is a sort of puzzle. Orual accuses the gods, and the gods accuse her. Who is to judge between gods and men? Can the reader discern, beneath the narrator’s self-serving account, evidence that may weigh on the opposite scale of justice?
I don’t want to spoil the brilliant conclusion of this story. I will only note that the name Psyche is Greek for “soul.” At the heart of this dispute between Queen and Bridegroom, I glimpse the following saying of our Lord:
He that will save his soul (psyche), shall lose it: and he that shall lose his soul for my sake, shall find it (Mt. 16:25).
At the end of her many adventures, Orual learns that she will find her Psyche again—indeed, find her for the first time—only when she is willing to lose her for the sake of the god she has so falsely accused.
What do you think? Please comment, subscribe, & forward to friends!