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.
Self-understanding Quotes in Till We Have Faces
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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’.
“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.
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.
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?