In writing a fundamentally Christian book that focuses on a Greek myth, Lewis manages to mix two quite different religions. In Greek mythology, the gods are almost pettily involved in human life, frequently interacting with mortals in both love and anger and even having children with them. Humans generally don’t become divine unless a god particularly likes them and doesn’t want to lose them to death—people don’t work to gain enough merit to become divine. In Christianity, on the other hand, the faithful grow closer to God by following Jesus’s example and obeying God’s law. In fact, Lewis argues in his book Mere Christianity that God will make any believer into a god if they’ll let him, though the process of becoming perfect will be painful. Till We Have Faces, then, seems to make use of both the Greek and Christian visions of becoming divine. On the one hand, Psyche is naturally almost perfect enough to become divine in the Christian sense, but she clinches the deal by becoming a god’s lover, a definitely Greek plot point. On the other hand, the entire book traces Orual’s painful journey from earthly to divine as she mends her soul to become perfect, gesturing to Lewis’s Christian view.
Throughout the book, the boundaries between human and god constantly blur, even as Orual herself tries to keep them separate by writing the testimony of a human against the gods, putting the earthly at odds with the divine. The entire book sets out Orual’s complaint against the gods, which is one that humans often bring against divinity: If some divine power exists, why does it remain silent instead of guiding humans towards right and away from wrong?
Orual’s predicament when she finds Psyche in the valley essentially hinges on the question of whether Psyche’s experiences have been caused by divine powers or by earthly delusions. Psyche claims to be married to a god and living in a divine palace, but because Orual, as a mortal, can’t see the palace, she believes Psyche has been tricked by a human or a beast. The gods refuse to clarify what is earthly and what divine. Although she does not acknowledge it as readily, Orual also hates the gods because both when Psyche is sacrificed and when Orual finds her in the valley, Psyche has a choice between remaining loyal to Orual and going to the gods. Both times, Psyche does not fight the gods, but goes to them readily, and Orual resents their undeniable ability to take her beloved from her, a mere human.
The gods and their priests are often positioned as enemies of the human characters. The King dreads the influence of Ungit’s Priest in his kingdom, and the royal coffers are depleted by sacrifices to the goddess. The King threatens the Priest, human threatening divine, and Ungit demands human sacrifice. Orual begins her lifelong battle against the gods when she fights her father’s decision to allow Psyche to be sacrificed to the Shadowbrute.
The Fox fights the gods in a different way—by using Greek logic to deny their existence and arguing that everything is a product of nature, of the earthly rather than of the divine. Since he raises Orual, she also doubts the gods’ existence at times, although she more often worries that the Fox will stumble into trouble with his denial of the gods’ power. When she’s trying to decide what to do about Psyche’s apparent delusion of her marriage to a god, she thinks she must discern whether Bardia’s god-based explanation or the Fox’s atheistic explanation is more likely true. Although she discovers the Fox is wrong because the god of the Mountain appears to her, she only hates the gods more for knowing that though they do exist, they still refuse to guide humans to the truth.
As mentioned above, the book also probes the boundaries between human and divine within individuals. According to tradition, the royal house of Glome has divine blood. Both Psyche and Orual seem at points to become gods, or at least to embody them temporarily. When the people worship Psyche as a goddess, Ungit’s wrath falls upon her, and yet Psyche later does become a goddess, as though the people have discerned some divine element in her even when she was entirely human. Orual eventually realizes that she herself is the goddess Ungit when her father forces her to look in a mirror in a dream. She goes into the streets without her veil, wondering if those who see her will worship her as Ungit. It seems unlikely that Orual has been Ungit all along; rather, Orual and Ungit have merged at some point during Orual’s long history of destructive love, a characteristic which also defines Ungit.
Eventually, it becomes clear that gods and humans are hardly separate at all. Instead, all people and gods are interconnected, and their identities easily merge and flow through each other. Thus, Orual’s fight against the gods has been entirely futile from the beginning, because it’s impossible to entirely distinguish the gods from those whom she loves, and even from herself.
Earthly vs. Divine ThemeTracker
Earthly vs. Divine Quotes in Till We Have Faces
The Fox clapped his hands and sang, “Prettier than Andromeda, prettier than Helen, prettier than Aphrodite herself.”
“Speak words of better omen, Grandfather,” I said, though I knew he would scold and mock me for saying it. For at his words, though on that summer day the rocks were too hot to touch, it was as if a soft, cold hand had been laid on my left side, and I shivered.... I knew it is not good to talk that way about Ungit.
Her beauty, which most of them had never seen, worked on them as a terror might work. Then a low murmur, almost a sob, began; swelled, broke into the gasping cry, “A goddess, a goddess.” One woman’s voice rang out clear. “It is Ungit herself in mortal shape.”
And when the Brute is Ungit it lies with the man, and when it is her son it lies with the woman. And either way there is a devouring... many different things are said... many sacred stories... many great mysteries. Some say the loving and the devouring are all the same thing. For in sacred language we say that a woman who lies with a man devours the man.
I, King, have dealt with the gods for three generations of men, and I know that they dazzle our eyes and flow in and out of one another like eddies on a river, and nothing that is said clearly can be said truly about them. Holy places are dark places. It is life and strength, not knowledge and words, that we get in them.
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.
And he took me... and pulled me right out of the iron girdle... and carried me up into the air, far up above the ground, and whirled me away. Of course he was invisible again almost at once. I had seen him only as one sees a lightning flash. But that didn’t matter. Now I knew it was he, not it, I wasn’t in the least afraid of sailing along in the sky, even of turning head over heels in it.
For the world had broken in pieces and Psyche and I were not in the same piece. Seas, mountains, madness, death itself, could not have removed her from me to such a hopeless distance as this. Gods, and again gods, always gods... they had stolen her. They would leave us nothing. A thought pierced up through the crust of my mind like a crocus coming up in the early year. Was she not worthy of the gods? Ought they not to have her? But instantly great, choking, blinding waves of sorrow swept it away....
“Get up, girl,” I said. “Do you hear me? Do as you’re told. Psyche, you’ve never disobeyed me before.”
She looked up (wetter every moment) and said, very tender in voice but hard as stone in her determination, “Dear Maia, I am a wife now. It’s no longer you that I must obey.”
I learned then how one can hate those one loves. My fingers were round her wrist in an instant, my other hand on her upper arm. We were struggling.
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?
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.
For if the true story had been like their story, no riddle would have been set me; there would have been no guessing and no guessing wrong. More than that, it’s a story belonging to a different world, a world in which the gods show themselves clearly and don’t torment men with glimpses, nor unveil to one what they hide from another, nor ask you to believe what contradicts your eyes and ears and nose and tongue and fingers.
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?