Till We Have Faces

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Self-understanding Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Love and Devouring Theme Icon
Jealousy Theme Icon
Self-understanding Theme Icon
Earthly vs. Divine Theme Icon
Justice Theme Icon
Beauty vs. Ugliness Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Till We Have Faces, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Self-understanding Theme Icon

The very title of the book gestures to a need to discover the essence of one’s being and strip away all of the illusions about oneself before the gods can even bother trying to communicate with mortals. Orual asks, “How can they [the gods] meet us face to face till we have faces?” (294).

For much of the book, Orual wears a veil which symbolizes her blindness to the effects of her own actions—she causes Psyche’s misery, keeps the Fox from going home to his people, and works Bardia to an early death because she wants him near her. However, she sees only the wrongs done to her, not those she does to others. In her mind, Psyche abandons her for a god, the Fox almost leaves her to return to Greece, and Bardia keeps himself chained to an overbearing wife, viewing Orual as more man than woman. Lewis frames the very process of writing as one of examining the self and growing closer to God; as Orual records the events of her life, she begins to see herself in a new and truer light. She wonders whether her complaint against the gods is perhaps not as warranted as she thought. In fact, she herself has been the cause of much of her suffering.

After Ansit accuses Orual of devouring the lives of those whom she loved, Orual has a dream in which her father leads her into the depths of the earth, a metaphor for the depths of her own being, and forces her to look into the mirror of the Pillar Room. With her veil removed, she sees that her face has become the face of Ungit. This seems to be a truer representation of herself than she has yet seen; she and Ungit merge in their tendency to consume human lives through their brutal version of love. In looking in the mirror, Orual looks into her own soul, possibly for the first time, and despises what she finds there. She tries to kill herself, but the gods don’t allow it, because she has not yet come to fully understand herself and move past her faults.

When Orual is brought to the court of the gods in a vision and reads aloud a version of her complaint that makes her own jealousy and cruelty clear, she realizes that her voice sounds strange because she’s hearing her true voice—and thus speaking the truth of her life. Furthermore, she finally understands that the gods have remained silent her whole life because she did not know herself. In other words, she had no face, so the gods could not waste their time interacting with a dumb, faceless mortal who did not comprehend her own words.

Lewis, whose Christian viewpoint must not be forgotten, seems to argue that to understand the self is to understand God. Orual can’t commit suicide because the gods say she must “die before she dies.” This seems to mean that she must leave her old self behind before her body can die, and in order to leave that self behind, she must first recognize it for what it is. The goal of human life is not so much to be perfectly good, but to recognize one’s own faults. As Orual approaches self-understanding, she simultaneously approaches God, until at the end of the book, she finally dies, implying that she has fully comprehended and renounced her old, cruel self, and now can go to God in death.

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Self-understanding Quotes in Till We Have Faces

Below you will find the important quotes in Till We Have Faces related to the theme of Self-understanding.
Part 1: Chapter 7 Quotes

Since I write this book against the gods, it is just that I should put into it whatever can be said against myself. So let me set this down: as she spoke I felt, amid all my love, a bitterness. Though the things she was saying gave her (that was plain enough) courage and comfort, I grudged her that courage and comfort. It was as if someone or something else had come in between us. If this grudging is the sin for which the gods hate me, it is one I have committed.

Related Characters: Orual (The Queen) (speaker), Psyche (Istral)
Page Number: 74-75
Explanation and Analysis:

When Orual goes to visit Psyche where she has been imprisoned until her sacrifice, Psyche seems quite undisturbed by her impending doom. She even points out that she’s always longed to go to the Grey Mountain and suggests that this is her fate. Orual, who by the time of writing her account is a just Queen, knows that she must be as honest as possible in telling her story in order to receive a fair judgment from her reader. She admits that, in this situation, she doesn’t want Psyche to be happy.

Orual’s love always includes jealousy, and this passage shows her jealousy of the gods, who she feels have “come in between” her and Psyche. Psyche essentially expresses her willingness to go to the gods, which Orual sees as a diminishment of Psyche’s love for her, simply because Psyche doesn’t rage against anything that separates her from Orual. This scene marks only the beginning of Orual’s resentment of Psyche’s happiness. Though she won’t acknowledge her own jealousy until the end of the book, she will eventually realize that reactions such as this one come from her jealousy of the gods’ ability to have whatever mortals they want for themselves.

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Part 1: Chapter 12 Quotes

I must lie on the steps at the great gate of that house and make my petition. I must ask forgiveness of Psyche as well as of the god. I had dared to scold her (dared, what was worse, to try to comfort her as a child) but all the time she was far above me; herself now hardly mortal.... if what I saw was real. I was in great fear. Perhaps it was not real.... Then as I rose... the whole thing was vanished.

Related Characters: Orual (The Queen) (speaker), Psyche (Istral), The god of the Grey Mountain (the Brute/the Shadowbrute)
Related Symbols: The Palace on the Mountain
Page Number: 133
Explanation and Analysis:

In the brief moments of the early morning during which Orual actually sees Psyche’s palace, she perceives all of her mistakes and repents. She understands that Psyche is no longer under her power, but in fact is far superior to her in every respect. In effect, Orual realizes that she has offended the gods for no reason and she must make amends. However, even as Orual understands all of this, she also doubts her own perception of reality. In contrast to Psyche’s immediate faith when shown a glimpse of the god West-wind, Orual isn’t sure that she can trust her vision of the palace any more than she could trust its invisibility earlier. It could be a trick of the gods, or it could be her own mind fooling her. Her concerns become even more pressing when the palace vanishes.

The rest of the story actually hinges on this moment, as Orual manages to convince herself that the palace was only an illusion. Deep down, she knows it was real, but it works to her advantage to deny its existence and insist that Psyche isn’t really living with a god. Though Orual complains that the gods don’t speak clearly to humans, this moment shows that even when the gods do speak, the real problem lies in humans’ faulty listening skills.

Part 1: Chapter 13 Quotes

Then I did a thing which I think few have done. I spoke to the gods myself, alone, in such words as came to me, not in a temple, and without a sacrifice. I stretched myself face downward on the floor and called upon them with my whole heart. I took back every word I had said against them. I promised anything they might ask of me, if only they would send me a sign. They gave me none. When I began there was red firelight in the room and rain on the roof; when I rose up again the fire had sunk a little lower, and the rain drummed on as before.

Related Characters: Orual (The Queen) (speaker)
Page Number: 150
Explanation and Analysis:

After Orual’s visit to Psyche in the valley, she struggles to figure out what she should do about the situation, since she doesn’t know whether Psyche’s story is the truth, or whether Psyche is being deceived. Bardia and the Fox both have opinions, but Orual doesn’t know which to believe, so she asks the gods directly for guidance.

Orual’s decision to speak to the gods herself, rather than through a priest or sacred rituals, is reminiscent of certain Protestant religions that encourage their followers to interpret God’s word for themselves rather than having to rely on clergy for interaction with God.

This is a rare moment in which Orual turns to the gods in trust and faith rather than raging against their unfairness and cruelty. However, neither approach gets her any closer to getting divine guidance. She blames them for refusing to speak to her and letting her blunder into an unwise course of action; she doesn’t recognize, though, that even if the gods did speak to her, she wouldn’t accept their words, because she can’t yet face the truth of her own motivations and character.

Part 1: Chapter 15 Quotes

He made it to be as if, from the beginning, I had known that Psyche’s lover was a god, and as if all my doubtings, fears, guessings, debatings, questionings of Bardia, questionings of the Fox, all the rummage and business of it, had been trumped-up foolery, dust blown in my own eyes by myself. You, who read my book, judge. Was it so?

Related Characters: Orual (The Queen) (speaker), Psyche (Istral), Bardia, The god of the Grey Mountain (the Brute/the Shadowbrute)
Page Number: 173
Explanation and Analysis:

When Psyche looks at her lover’s face, he destroys the valley and appears to Orual. He seems to know everything about her, and he makes it seem that she knew the truth all along and willfully denied it. As Orual is writing her complaint against the gods, the god’s apparent changing of the past forms one of her accusations of wrongdoing. At the same time, the fact that she asks for the reader’s judgment should make the reader really consider this question. Although she seems to expect the reader to side with her, once the god raises the question, one can see the truth in his interpretation of events.

Orual never wanted Psyche’s lover to be a god, because she didn’t want to give Psyche up to anyone else, much less to someone so clearly superior to Orual herself and someone who is likely, in Orual’s eyes, to take up all of Psyche’s love and leave Orual nothing. But Psyche would never lie to Orual, and she seemed perfectly sane. Furthermore, Orual did see the palace for a moment. This evidence probably made Orual know the truth on some level, but she made the situation seem much more complicated in her own mind so that she could find reasons to tear Psyche from her lover and have her all to herself again.

Here, the god causes Orual to come close to self-understanding, but she’s so deep in denial that even when he describes her character to her, she cannot recognize the truth of the portrait. Later, Orual will realize that this is exactly why the gods don’t speak to humans—even when they do, humans can’t listen properly until they can see themselves truly.

Part 1: Chapter 20 Quotes

I must now pass quickly over many years... during which the Queen of Glome had more and more a part in me and Orual had less and less. I locked Orual up or laid her asleep as best I could somewhere deep down inside me; she lay curled there. It was like being with child, but reversed; the thing I carried in me grew slowly smaller and less alive.

Related Characters: Orual (The Queen) (speaker), Psyche (Istral)
Page Number: 226
Explanation and Analysis:

After Psyche’s exile, Orual becomes the Queen and finds that the work of running a country beneficially distracts her from her grief at the loss of her sister. She also finds that she can become someone new as Queen and thus completely bury the old Orual, whom she thinks of as being weak and full of pain. Though she doesn’t acknowledge it, the old Orual is also wracked with guilt at the role she played in ruining Psyche’s life. In burying Orual inside the more noble and stoic role of the Queen, she can also deny her guilt and avoid examining the awful deeds she has committed in the name of love. Though the gods will eventually force Orual to recognize what she has done and who she really is, making herself into an entirely new person allows her to delay this painful process.

Orual likens the process of repressing her old self to a sort of inverse pregnancy. As she becomes more the Queen and less Orual, she also taps into conventionally masculine aspects of herself. She kills a man in a duel to affirm her reign and, by veiling her face, denies everyone the ability to judge her based on her appearance, which is how women are typically judged. She even feels that Bardia and the Fox work better with her because they treat her like a fellow man. It seems, then, that in exercising her masculinity, she also represses her femininity, particularly her ability to feel emotion. In trying to kill the more feminine Orual, the Queen performs the opposite of the process that is seen as the ultimate feminine one—pregnancy. Her femininity withers, and instead of growing a life, she shrinks one to nothingness.

My second strength lay in my veil.... [A]s years passed and there were fewer in the city... who remembered my face, the wildest stories got about as to what that veil hid.... Some said... that it was frightful beyond endurance; a pig’s, bear’s, cat’s or elephant’s face. The best story was that I had no face at all; if you stripped off my veil you’d find emptiness. But another sort... said that I wore a veil because I was of a beauty so dazzling that if I let it be seen all men in the world would run mad; or else that Ungit was jealous of my beauty and had promised to blast me if I went bareface. The upshot of all this nonsense was that I became something very mysterious and awful.

Related Characters: Orual (The Queen) (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Veil, Faces, Ungit
Page Number: 228-29
Explanation and Analysis:

Orual is discussing how her reign as Queen proceeds after she kills Argan and becomes a powerful ruler. She has begun to cover her face with a veil at all times ever since Psyche went into exile, and she finds that the veil makes her particularly mysterious, giving her a certain authority over her subjects. Before, she was simply ugly. Now the absence of certainty as to her appearance means that anything at all could be behind her veil. Even if she’s still ugly, her ugliness has become mythic, giving her power in what used to be her weakness.

With her veil, the Queen puts to her own use the mysterious quality of the gods that has always so frustrated her. Ungit, particularly, has no face, as she is only an uncut rock. As a result, her followers can see her face in everything and see any face in the crevices of the rock that represents Ungit. She is not confined to being one thing. The Queen’s veil gives her a similar power and suggests that she’s already becoming Ungit even before she comes to truly believe that she is Ungit. However, the veil also allows comparisons between the Queen and Psyche, as some people say that the veil hides a beauty that makes the gods jealous, like Psyche’s. Near the end of the novel, Orual will see that she has in part become Ungit, but has also been living Psyche’s life alongside her and taking on her pain. The Queen’s veil makes her into a blank slate on which her links to both Ungit and Psyche can begin to make themselves known.

But the change of my quarters, and later changes (for I tried every side of the house) did no good. I discovered that there was no part of the palace from which the swinging of those chains could not be heard; at night, I mean, when the silence grows deep. It is a thing no one would have found out who was not always afraid of hearing one sound; and at the same time (that was Orual, Orual refusing to die) terribly afraid of not hearing it if for once—if possibly, at last, after ten thousand mockeries—it should be real, if Psyche had come back.

Related Characters: Orual (The Queen) (speaker), Psyche (Istral)
Related Symbols: The Chains in the Well
Page Number: 229
Explanation and Analysis:

When Orual becomes Queen, she begins to be haunted by the sound of a girl crying outside, which she rationally knows is only the sound of chains creaking in the well. Part of her always hopes that it really is Psyche, returned from exile. Though she tries sleeping in all different parts of the palace, she can always hear the sound of the chains. The fact that she can’t escape it suggests that the sound really comes from within her, representing the guilt that she feels at having caused Psyche’s exile.

The Queen feels frightened of the sound because it forces her to consider parts of herself that she doesn’t want to acknowledge—particularly her own ability to cause such harm to someone she loves. The sound also prevents her from completely killing her old self, Orual, and becoming entirely the Queen. Orual still fiercely loves Psyche and feels the pain of her loss, so as long as the sound of Psyche’s crying tortures the Queen, Orual lives on within her and she must deal with the faults of her true character.

Part 2: Chapter 1 Quotes

Oh, Queen Orual, I begin to think you know nothing of love.... Perhaps you who spring from the gods love like the gods. Like the Shadowbrute. They say the loving and the devouring are all one, don’t they? ...You’re full fed. Gorged with other men’s lives, women’s too: Bardia’s, mine, the Fox’s, your sister’s—both your sisters’.

Related Characters: Ansit (speaker), Orual (The Queen), Psyche (Istral), Redival, The Fox, Bardia, The god of the Grey Mountain (the Brute/the Shadowbrute)
Related Symbols: Ungit
Page Number: 264-65
Explanation and Analysis:

When the Queen is visiting Ansit after Bardia’s death, Ansit accuses her of devouring the lives of everyone she’s ever loved. She speculates that, since the royal family is supposed to have divine blood, the Queen loves in a similar way to the gods. In the Great Offering in which Psyche was sacrificed, the Priest of Ungit said that the Shadowbrute would both lie with and devour Psyche, and now Ansit likens Orual’s love to that of the Shadowbrute.

The Shadowbrute is linked to Ungit, who is also associated with this devouring love. Later, the Queen will see herself as Ungit due to the similar way of loving that Ansit perceives here—in this circumstance, the Queen will also wonder if people might see her as the Shadowbrute, which confirms the truth of Ansit’s accusation. Ansit forces Orual to see a part of herself that she has long denied. Orual defines herself by her love for others, so she doesn’t want to acknowledge that her possessive love destroys the lives of those she loves. However, this is the essential self-realization that she must come to accept in order to fulfill the god’s prophecy and become purified.

Part 2: Chapter 2 Quotes

“Do not do it,” said the god. “You cannot escape Ungit by going to the deadlands, for she is there also. Die before you die. There is no chance after.”

“Lord, I am Ungit.”

But there was no answer.

Related Characters: The god of the Grey Mountain (the Brute/the Shadowbrute) (speaker), Orual (The Queen)
Related Symbols: Ungit
Page Number: 279
Explanation and Analysis:

After the King comes to Orual in a dream and forces her to see that she has become Ungit, Orual goes to the river, intending to commit suicide to rid herself of the goddess she hates—or, more accurately, to rid herself of the part of herself that she has been forced to recognize and cannot stand. However, a god appears and tells Orual that she can’t rid herself of Ungit through death. This truth suggests that Ungit makes up an integral part of all humans, but Orual especially, and that part of Orual will still exist within her even if she dies. Instead, Orual must first rid consciously herself of that cruel part of herself in order to be purified in death.

Orual doesn’t yet understand all of this, and so she thinks that since she actually is Ungit, she won’t be able to separate Ungit from herself. In fact, Orual does have an existence outside of Ungit, just as Ungit lives through all humans and does not depend solely on Orual for her existence. The gods flow through humans and through each other.

Additionally, Orual will later see that Psyche, too, came to the river to kill herself. When she sees this happening, Orual says, “Do not do it,” just as the god says to her here. Since Orual and Psyche share the burden of the tasks Psyche must complete as the gods’ punishment, it seems possible that they flow through each other just as Ungit flows through Orual. Thus, the voice of the god telling Orual not to jump may also be Orual’s own voice as she tells Psyche not to jump. Though this may not make logical sense, the gods’ constant mysteries make it possible.

Part 2: Chapter 3 Quotes

But to steal her love from me! ...Do you think that we mortals will find you gods easier to bear if you’re beautiful? I tell you that if that’s true we’ll find you a thousand times worse. For then (I know what beauty does) you’ll lure and entice. You’ll leave us nothing; nothing that’s worth our keeping or your taking. Those we love best—whoever’s most worth loving—those are the very ones you’ll pick out.... It would be far better for us if you were foul and ravening. We’d rather you drank their blood than stole their hearts. We’d rather they were ours and dead than yours and made immortal.

Related Characters: Orual (The Queen) (speaker), Psyche (Istral)
Page Number: 291
Explanation and Analysis:

When Orual comes in a vision to the divine court in the mountains, she reads her complaint against the gods before a judge. However, she finds that what she reads isn’t what she wrote; in fact, she reads the truth of her motivations that she has concealed from herself for her entire life.

Orual’s speech here explains her jealousy and resentment of the gods when they took Psyche from her. She knows that as a mortal, she can hardly hope to compete with the gods for Psyche’s love. In fact, the more beautiful the gods are, the more mortals will hate them. Orual can’t stand the fact that Psyche was happy to go to the gods and that she was happier with her divine lover than she was with Orual. Orual would rather have retained complete possession of Psyche than have Psyche become loyal to someone else, but the gods’ beauty made this entirely impossible.

This passage also seems to have echoes of Lewis’s own conversion to Christianity. He converted reluctantly, only when he could see no other truth. Here, he suggests that people resent their loved ones’ faith because God is far better and more fulfilling than any human can ever be.

Part 2: Chapter 4 Quotes

The complaint was the answer. To have heard myself making it was to be answered.... When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about the joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?

Related Characters: Orual (The Queen) (speaker)
Related Symbols: Faces
Page Number: 294
Explanation and Analysis:

Once Orual has read out the truth of her motivations in her conflict with Psyche and the gods, she realizes that she actually has no accusation to make against the gods, though she has long sought justice for the wrongs she believed they did to her. Instead, she sees that she is to blame for everything that happened.

Orual’s main complaint against the gods was that they refused to guide humans clearly towards right. However, seeing herself truly for the first time, she realizes that humans are at fault for the gods’ silence. Even if the gods did try to speak to mortals (as, in fact, they have tried to speak to Orual, giving her signs such as the vision of the palace), mortals wouldn’t accept what they had to say. The gods can see the essential truth of each person that people can’t even see in themselves, and there’s no reason that gods should try to speak to the false persona that humans wear in order to keep from acknowledging their own faults.

Throughout the book, faces represent people’s true characters. Orual now realizes that she has had no face until now; in other words, she has hidden her true character from herself. She has actually denied her face in a more physical way as well, by veiling herself. Now, her veil removed, she finally sees her own face and can meet the gods. Essentially, Lewis argues that in order to find God and faith and to allow divine wisdom to be a guide, a person must first understand who they truly are.