In the novel Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis, the theme of idolatry is startlingly prominent. Not only does the author harken back to mythology, using gods and rituals to propel the story, but he also addresses most profoundly the sin of idolatry of the heart in the heroine Orual’s journey. Her obsession with her half-sister Psyche is not only unhealthy, but utterly destructive. Orual is so blinded by her need to be loved by Psyche–at all costs–that she creates a surreal world barred off from rationality and true love: the love of sacrifice, honor, and dignity. Psyche’s role as the antithesis to Orual is a startling reminder of purity and strength, not unlike the love of Christ.
In the story, Orual is the oldest of three sisters, all abhorred by their father. She is called “ugly” from a young age and is set aside as something not valuable, being born a woman in a patriarchal, mythic society. In late childhood, she begins her education with a Greek man named, “The Fox,” and begins to realize the value of her mind. Her baby sister, Psyche, is born, and something deep inside Orual begins to churn. Orual takes it upon herself to act as the baby’s mother, guardian, sister, friend. From a young age, this need to be “needed” plagues Orual and only grows increasingly worse as time passes. She feels justified in her possessiveness over Psyche, detailing the ways in which she has cared for her over the years, protected and loved her. “I wanted to be a wife so that I could have been her real mother. I wanted to be a boy so 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” (Lewis 23).
Orual is clearly deceived about what true love is. Her tunnel vision for the absolute control of Psyche blinds her to all other types of love in her youth. Her mentor, the Fox, loves her dearly as a father figure; gentlemen suitors value her mind over her looks though she continually doubts this; Psyche loves her deeply as well, but not on the terms that Orual demands. It is not until much later, through a series of traumatic events, does Orual learn what sacrificial, untainted love truly is.
The city of Glome, where the tale takes place, is struck by a plague. The crops won’t grow, and the people are afflicted with disease. They believe they are cursed by the gods because there is no male heir to the throne, so they take their anger out on the royal family–Orual’s family. The people demand a sacrifice to Ungit, the goddess of the mountain who is their spiritual queen. They demand blood, a human sacrifice. They demand Psyche.
Orual is crushed to the core when she hears of the demand for Psyche’s blood. How could the people kill a girl who is so pure of heart? How could the gods demand to take away the person that Orual holds most dear? This further infuses Orual’s hatred for Ungit, a battle she will struggle to fight for the rest of her life. It is ironic, but well juxtaposed by Lewis, that the idolatry in the hearts of the people is the worship of the goddess Ungit, but the main character’s struggle with idolatry is solely reliant on another human being. Psyche is tangible, beautiful, full of goodness and grace; she is the embodiment of humanity before the fall. “she was ‘according to nature’ what every woman, or even every thing, ought to have been meant to be, but had missed by some trip of chance” (Lewis 22).
Orual’s longing for acceptance and love are sought in Psyche. There is a constant churning in her soul, a constant waiting for approval from her beloved, a constant seething of frustration and jealousy when those desires are not met. And Psyche tries to point Orual in the right direction time and again. Psyche herself understands that the longing that they both have will not be met in this world:
Do you remember? The colour and the smell, and looking across at the Grey mountain in the distance? And because it was so beautiful, it set me to longing, always longing…it almost hurt me…The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing–to reach the Mountain, to find the place where beauty came from–” (Lewis 74-75)
Psyche is able to articulate her desire for something other than the hardship this life has to offer. And through this whole conversation before Psyche’s execution, all Orual can do is cling to the possession that has kept her afloat through most of her young life.
Psyche is taken up to the mountain to be consumed by “the Beast,” a sacrifice that requires consumption of the victim by the god of the mountain’s son. It is a violent and traumatic death, but one that provides the people of Glome atonement for the sins of the royal house. Orual is beside herself, becoming so ill that she can’t even leave the royal house. She is spared the ascent up the mountain, spared watching her beloved be consumed by an angry god. But she is not spared the emotional scarring of losing the only person whom she has lived her whole life for; this is what begins to destroy her internally.
After the sacrifice of Psyche has occurred, the people of Glome go back to their normal routines. They have accepted that the gods are back on their side and resume their daily trivialities. All except Orual. She is consumed with the mission of retrieving Psyche’s bones, consumed with having the last physical piece of Psyche in her possession. She journeys up the mountain with a trusted soldier from her father’s army and searches in vain for the bones. There are none to be found. Psyche has been entirely consumed by the beast–or has she?
Orual sees Psyche on the mountain, almost in a dream, and quickly reunites with her sister. They spend time talking; Psyche chronicles the night of her execution and Orual refuses to believe what she is hearing. It sounds too mystical to be true, too supernatural to a person who has no belief system involving a higher power. And yet here is Psyche, unharmed–even healthy–in front of Orual, and still her doubts consume her. Orual demands proof from Psyche of this “god” whom she speaks of, this “husband” of hers that has fulfilled such a special place in her heart. Orual manipulates Psyche into testing her love for this god. She demands and orders and begs, quite selfishly and foolishly. And Psyche cannot help but appease her.
Oh Orual–to take my love for you, because you know it goes down to my very roots and cannot be diminished by any other newer love, and then to make of it a tool, a weapon, a thing of mastery, an instrument of torture–I begin to think I never knew you. Whatever comes after, something that was between us dies here. (Lewis 165)
This is the moment that changes their relationship forever. This dependent, selfish love is finally severed. “I know that I am betraying the best of lovers and that perhaps, before sunrise, all my happiness may be destroyed forever. This is the price you have put upon your life. Well, I must pay it” (Lewis 166). Psyche, once again, is the sacrifice. She is the lamb to be slaughtered. And she goes willingly, knowing that it will destroy her. And Orual is still clinging to her jealousy and possession. So that same night, when Psyche acts out Orual’s request in order to “prove” to Orual that Psyche truly loves her, the inevitable tragedy erupts.
Orual demands that Psyche hold a lamp up to the face of her beloved husband while he is sleeping to see whether he is truly a god, or just some vagabond that has kidnapped her. The god awakens in a fury and consumes the palace and all the surrounding land in a flood, banishing Psyche and cursing Orual to the end of her days. Utter disparity befalls both women, Psyche weeping all the way down the mountain, lost forever; and Orual, trudging back to a soul-less life leading the people of Glome for the term of her natural life. Both are condemned and love-less. Both are punished equally for their act against the gods.
For the next few decades, Orual rules the kingdom with authority and wisdom, bringing Glome back to its status as a prosperous city. She has chosen the life of celibacy, never marrying despite offers, because she believes that she deserves the punishment that the god of the mountain cast upon her. She frequently remembers and dreams of Psyche, longing to have her back, wishing she had done things differently, reeling from the loss of her beloved. She never fully learns how dependent and caustic her love for Psyche is, until the very end of her life.
She is put on trial by the gods, summoned by them for an explanation of her actions. In this last stunning chapter, Lewis recounts the whole story from Psyche’s perspective for Orual, allowing her to experience the pain and sacrifice that she went through for the love of all the people that demanded it of her. It is heart-wrenching. It is visceral. It is necessary for Orual to finally understand just how selfish and evil her heart really is. Her possession of Psyche is utterly destructive. “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” (Lewis 305). In this last inquisition, where her sins are laid before her and judged, Orual finally understands what it means to love selflessly, fully. It is never too late for repentance. “I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer” (Lewis 308). You are yourself the answer.
Lewis, C.S. Till We Have Faces. New York: Harcourt Brace & Co, 1985. Print.