Till We Have Faces

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This article is about the CS Lewis novel. For other uses, see Till We Have Faces (disambiguation).
Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold
Till We Have Faces(C.S Lewis book) 1st edition cover.jpg
First edition
Author C. S. Lewis
Cover artist Liz Demeter
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre Mythological novel
Publisher Geoffrey Bles
Publication date
Media type hard⁓ & paperback

Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold is a 1956 novel by C. S. Lewis. It is a retelling of Cupid and Psyche, based on its telling in a chapter of The Golden Ass of Apuleius. This story had haunted Lewis all his life, because he realized that some of the main characters' actions were illogical.[1] As a consequence, his retelling of the story is characterized by a highly developed character, the narrator, with the reader being drawn into her reasoning and her emotions. This was his last novel, and he considered it his most mature, written in conjunction with his wife, Joy Davidman.

The first part of the book is written from the perspective of Psyche's older sister Orual, [pronounced Or'w'ahl][2][broken citation] as an accusation against the gods. The story is set in the fictive kingdom of Glome, a primitive city-state whose people have occasional contact with civilized Hellenistic Greece. In the second part of the book, the narrator undergoes a change of mindset (Lewis would use the term conversion) and understands that her initial accusation was tainted by her own failings and shortcomings, and that the gods are lovingly present in humans' lives.

Plot summary[edit]

Part One[edit]

The story tells the Ancient Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche, from the perspective of Orual, Psyche's older sister.

It begins as the complaint of Orual as an old woman, who is bitter at the injustice of the gods. Born ugly, she covers herself with a veil throughout the narrative. Orual loves her beautiful half-sister Psyche. When Psyche is sent as a human sacrifice to the unseen "God of the Mountain" at the command of Ungit his mother, the devout Orual feels wounded and betrayed.

Orual tries to rescue Psyche, who says she does not need to be rescued. Rather, Psyche relates that she lives in a beautiful castle that Orual cannot see. At one point in the narrative, Orual begins to discern something, but then it vanishes like a mist. Orual urges Psyche to do the one thing that she has been commanded not to do: to look upon the God of the Mountain when he comes to their marriage bed. Orual argues that the god must be a monster, or he would not hide his face. She brings Psyche a means to see him, and threatens and cajoles her. Ultimately, reluctantly, Psyche agrees out of pity and love for her sister.

When Psyche obeys Orual, the story relates that the god has no choice but to banish Psyche. Orual suffers with the knowledge that she destroyed her sister's happiness and marriage, through misapplied love and jealousy.

Eventually, Orual becomes a Queen, and a warrior, diplomat, architect, reformer, politician, legislator, and judge, though all the while remaining alone. She drives herself, through work, to forget her grief and the love she has lost. Psyche is gone; her other sister has married and moved away; her father and her beloved tutor, "the Fox", have died. Her old infatuations have been castrated, or become bloated or ridiculous. To her, the gods remain, as ever, silent and unseen.

When she is invited to witness a new cult ritual as Queen, Orual hears a version of Psyche's myth, which shows her as deliberately ruining her sister's life out of envy. In response, she writes out her own story, as set forth in the book, to set the record straight. Her hope is that it will be brought to Greece, where she has heard that men are willing to question even the gods.

Part Two[edit]

Orual begins the second part of the book stating that her previous argument was wrong, but she doesn't have time to revise it before she dies. After finishing her book, she thought the gods would end her lonely, exhausted life.

Instead, she writes that dreams and visions have been given from which she sees herself in the midst of the tasks given to her sister Psyche, in the myths, as penitence.

Orual dreams of presenting her complaint to the gods, herself. When among them, her sister Psyche comes to meet her. Orual weeps, "Long did I hate you. Long did I fear you. I might—". Finally, Psyche helps her sister to see what was hidden from her, and it is the form that she caught glimpses of along the way, on the long road to meet Psyche again.


The idea of retelling the myth of Cupid and Psyche, with the palace invisible, had been in C.S. Lewis's mind ever since he was an undergraduate; the retelling, as he imagined it, involved writing through the mouth of the elder sister.[citation needed] He argued that this made the sister not simply envious and spiteful, but ignorant (as any mortal might be of the divine) and jealous (as anyone could be in their love).

He tried it in different verse-forms when he considered himself primarily a poet, so that one could say that he'd been "at work on Orual for 35 years," even though the version told in the book "was very quickly written." In his pre-Christian days, Lewis would imagine the story with Orual "in the right and the gods in the wrong."[3][full citation needed]

Origin of title[edit]

Lewis originally titled his working manuscripts "Bareface", with the interplay of multiple meanings: Orual's facial deformity, which she hides with a mask; Psyche's mortal beauty; and the invisible gods Cupid and Aphrodite, who are supposedly the most beautiful of all in Greek mythology.[citation needed] There is also the "bare-faced lie" of the gods; and the "plain truth" of her argument, as Orual sees it in the beginning. The word "face" also refers to the original myth, in which Psyche was not allowed to see Cupid's face, so her intimate encounters with him would be veiled in darkness.[citation needed] The working title "Bareface" also suggests the anonymity of the dark and of "Everyman" looking to see the face of god.[citation needed]

The editor (Gibb) rejected the title "Bareface" on the ground that readers would mistake it for a Western.[citation needed] In response, Lewis said he failed to see why people would be deterred from buying the book if they thought it was a Western, and that the working title was cryptic enough to be intriguing.[4][full citation needed] Nevertheless, Lewis started considering an alternative title on February 29, 1956, and chose "Till We Have Faces", which refers to a line from the book where Orual says, "How can [the gods] meet us face to face till we have faces?"[4][full citation needed] He defended his choice in a letter to his long-time correspondent, Dorothea Conybeare, explaining the idea that a human "must be speaking with its own voice (not one of its borrowed voices), expressing its actual desires (not what it imagines that it desires), being for good or ill itself, not any mask."[5][4][full citation needed]


Lewis considered this novel to be his best and most accomplished work. This opinion was echoed by J.R.R. Tolkien as well as publications such as The New York Times. The novel was well received by the literary community upon its initial release and has continued to enjoy acclaim since.

See also[edit]

  • Beauty and the Beast, for a modern fairy tale that has been connected to the "Cupid and Psyche" myth by scholar Bruno Bettelheim (see below).


  1. ^ Schakel, Peter (2003), Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold, Lit encyc, retrieved August 5, 2008 .
  2. ^ "Orual: [Or'wu'ahl]", Blackstone Audio, AudioBook (sample), eMusic .
  3. ^ Hooper 1996, p. IX:251, Lewis' letter to Christian Hardie, 31 July 1955.
  4. ^ a b c Hooper 1996, p. IX:252 16 February 1956.
  5. ^ Smith, Constance Babington (1964), Letters to a Sister from Rose Macaulay, p. 261 .

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]