Falling in Love with Pure Beauty: The Nature of God in Till We Have Faces

Photo by Stephen Leonardi

Orual’s face is grotesque. In C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, beauty is never in the eye of the beholder. The contemporary reader’s desire for equality demands a character who finds Orual beautiful. That character never materializes. Compared to Psyche’s inner and outer beauty, Orual is a “swollen spider” (315). People worship Psyche as a goddess (32); the man Orual loves ceases to think of her as a woman (148). Psyche finds the object of her love (183); Orual’s love consumes everyone she touches (315). The beautiful Psyche is lovable; the ugly Orual is unlovable. It appears to be a binary opposition between beauty and ugliness in relation to love, but Lewis recontextualizes the binary in relation to God. In this essay, I will argue that Till We Have Faces illustrates how both inner and outer beauty is dependent on God’s beauty; love directed towards God (the supreme beauty) reaps life while love in itself sows death.

1. The Mythological Framework

In Lucius Apuleius’s Metamorphoses, people worship Psyche instead of Venus, the goddess of beauty and erotic love. Psyche’s beauty is godlike: “the poverty of language is unable to express its due praise” (Bulfinch). Venus burns with jealousy because she wants people to love and worship her; she does not love people. The name “Venus” means a “desire for sexual intercourse; indulgence of sexual desire; lust, venery” (“Venus”). Venus’s name implies a desire for selfish gratification. In The Four Loves, Lewis distinguishes between Venus and Eros in relation to being in love (131). Venus relates only to “the carnal or animally sexual element within Eros” (131). Eros relates to love for the person in themselves: “Eros wants the beloved” (134). In the myth of Cupid and Psyche, Venus is like a contemporary popstar: she wants her “fans” to both sexually desire and think of no one but herself.

Cupid falls in love with Psyche because of her wondrous beauty (Apuleius 243). Likewise, Psyche sexually desires Cupid’s “beautiful body” (242). While lying beside Cupid, “Psyche of her own accord fell in love with Love” (242). During Psyche’s sexual rapture, she spills hot oil on Cupid, who wakes up to condemn her: “I inflict no other punishment on you than to leave you forever. Love cannot dwell with suspicion” (Bulfinch).

Unlike Lewis’s God of the Grey Mountain, Cupid’s love is selfish. He hides his face for a self-serving reason: “I would rather you would love me as an equal than adore me as a god” (Bulfinch). Cupid wants Psyche’s love untainted by unequal standing; he engineers the situation to avoid the appearance of coercion. Psyche mistakes Cupid’s love for something greater than it is. Lewis’s God wants Psyche’s trust. Psyche’s test of obedience is related to the biblical Garden of Eden: bliss is guaranteed provided that she trusts the God who knows better than herself. Psyche may freely obey the God she loves.

In Apuleius’s myth, what is outwardly beautiful ought to be loved and pursued as an end in itself. Love of beauty is a pathway to self-fulfillment. Love is inherently possessive; it holds fast to the thing itself. If that love is rejected or betrayed, jealousy and rage are appropriate responses. This love is, at root, self-centered. Orual operates from Apuleius’s mythological framework of beauty and love in Till We Have Faces.

2. Beauty and Love

Orual is Venus (“Ungit”); she is “gorged with men’s stolen lives” (315). She uses people to meet her needs. Orual’s love for Psyche, like Cupid, exemplifies selfish love. In Ch. VII, Orual rebukes Psyche for not being terrified of her sacrifice to the Shadowbrute (80). Instead of offering comfort, Orual wants Psyche to feel as miserable as herself: “there was…a sweetness in our misery” (80–81). Orual is hurt because their impending separation “seemed to cost her [Psyche] so little” (82). Psyche seems heartless. The juxtaposition between Psyche’s apparent detachment and Orual’s passion amplifies a clash of worldviews. Psyche explains that she has always had “a kind of longing for death” (84). When she gazed at the beauty of the “Grey Mountain,” it made her long “to find the place where all the beauty came from” (85) The death that awaits her is like returning home (87). Psyche believes she will meet her “lover” and be happy (87). For Orual, Psyche’s impending departure is like a break-up: her partner is ambivalent, even indifferent to the idea of separation.

The textual referent for Psyche’s longing is Plato’s conception of beauty. Plato observes that human life consists of eventually losing whatever we possess though we long to hold onto it: “a picture of mortality as an infinite longing” (Sartwell). Plato connects our longing to love: “Love is a longing for immortality” (qtd. in Sartwell). Love signifies “a lack or absence that seeks its own fulfillment in beauty” (Sartwell). Beauty is the foremost bridge or ladder between “the material and the spiritual” (Sartwell). When we love what is beautiful, we climb the ladder to beauty itself. Psyche believes that earthly beauty is a ladder to perfect beauty.

Orual is not a Platonist. The Fox trained Orual to be a nominalist and, like Bardia, she disregards the gods (32, 154). Orual hates the philosophical comfort of Psyche: “Psyche, did you ever love me at all?” (83). Psyche responds that she loved both Orual and the Fox: “We have been three loving friends” (79). That is not what Orual wants to hear (84). Orual feels bitterness towards Psyche’s unwavering belief in beauty residing at the Grey Mountain; it has permanently separated them (86). Orual wants all of Psyche’s love. She does not want what is best for Psyche; Orual wants what is best for Orual. Psyche is Orual’s idol: a beautiful thing that both meets Orual’s needs and ensures self-fulfillment. When Psyche departs for the Grey Mountain, Orual is bereft of the beautiful.

If Orual cannot keep Psyche from leaving, then she must conceptualize beauty like Edmund Burke and exert power over it. Beauty must conform to Orual’s motherly instincts; she must regain her power as Psyche’s surrogate mother. Orual confronts the newly wedded Psyche with a false dichotomy: either Psyche’s husband is the Shadowbrute or a villain (182). This fallacious form of reasoning omits one vital alternative, namely, that Psyche’s husband is who she claims. Orual further commits the hasty generalization fallacy: “Nothing that’s beautiful hides its face. Nothing that’s honest hides its name” (181). Orual only understands human conceptions of beauty and hiddenness and presupposes that these conceptions must apply to anything that exists. Psyche attempts to undercut these assumptions by explaining to Orual that the Fox and Bardia cannot possibly know her husband because she alone is his wife (183). The roles of Orual and Psyche are reversed; Psyche is now the mother in the relationship explaining love to a child (185). Psyche trusts her husband has a good reason for hiding his face (186). She may not know the reason, but that does not mean the reason is arbitrary or non-existent. Orual dispenses with reasoning and resorts to a power play. She commands Psyche to use her lamp to reveal her husband’s face (186). When Psyche explains that her duty is to her husband, not to Orual, Orual threatens to first kill Psyche and then herself (186). She seeks dominion over Psyche by using Psyche’s love as a tool of manipulation (188). It is a pernicious appeal to emotion. Psyche does not care about losing her life but makes a piercing remark about Orual’s love: “I am not sure whether I like your kind better than hatred” (187). Orual’s love is toxic; it hates the beautiful thing it cannot dominate. Psyche agrees to save Orual’s life by sacrificing her happiness (189). Psyche thinks her husband will not be cruel like Orual, who is a tyrant.

In The Four Loves, Lewis establishes the Christian Orthodox view of God as a face we have always known — not a malevolent stranger like Orual assumes (190). Turning to God’s beauty is like turning from a picture to the real thing, the one who made us beautiful and lovable in the first place (191). Lewis’s view relies on St. Augustine’s fusion of Neoplatonic and Christian ideas. “Natural beauty,” for Augustine, “is like a shadow of God’s beauty, rather than fully actualized beauty” (Spicher). Only God is “supremely beautiful” because God exemplifies perfect beauty, the blueprint for copies of beautiful things (Spicher). Augustine notes that “the degree to which things are in their proper place is the degree in which they are beautiful” (Spicher). The implication of Augustine’s view is that our inner beauty is in direct proportion to our relationship with God. If we desire inner beauty, our lives must be directed towards God. Augustine perceives that we must not enjoy the things of this world but use them to reach beauty itself (9). He defines enjoyment of a thing as “hold[ing] fast to it in love for its own sake” (9). The only thing worthy of our enjoyment is the Trinity (10). Useful things “give us a boost” on our road to happiness, and “we apply [them] towards the purpose of attaining what we love” (9). Human beings, Augustine believes, must be loved on account of God; humans are not to be loved as ends in themselves. To hold fast in love to humans is termed “abuse” because only God is the “proper object” of our love (9, 17). It is only by loving God (love Himself) that we may love ourselves and our neighbors properly (17).

Lewis follows Augustine’s belief that God is the source of beauty and love: “God is our true beloved” (191). Inner and outer beauty is never independent of God’s beauty. Love is compromised if the underlying object is not God Himself (191). Psyche’s outer beauty reflects God’s perfect beauty, but she only possesses inner beauty because her life is properly directed towards God. Orual does not comprehend the relation of beauty to God. She believes that Psyche may be loved as an end in herself.

The full extent of Orual’s possessive love is laid bare when she reads from her book of “vile scribble[s]” (331). Orual accuses the gods of stealing Psyche’s love away from her (331). She knows the true gods are not like Ungit (331). If the gods had been like the malevolent Shadowbrute or the detestable Ungit, she could tolerate them (331). Orual concedes that she had many signs and glimpses of the truth, but she deliberately suppressed them (332). She does not want to know the gods (332). She hates the gods because they stole Psyche’s love from her by means of beauty: “Do you think we mortals will find you gods easier to bear if you’re beautiful?” (331). For Orual, this is a human rights violation: “We’d rather they were ours and dead than yours and made immortal” (332). All Orual wanted was Psyche: “The girl was mine…She was mine…Mine!” (333). Orual wants full property rights over the totality of Psyche’s life and thought. What might have started as a reflection of God’s love has degenerated into a perverse objectification of Psyche. Orual never wanted Psyche to grow up into adulthood; Psyche is Orual’s commodity: “There’s no room for you and us in the same world…We want to be our own” (333). Orual’s ownership rights outweigh the gods’ gift of happiness for Psyche. Orual is not a lover; she is an abuser.

3. The Source of Beauty and Love

Love turned Orual into a monster: her inner ugliness matches her outward appearance. We pity her. We cannot judge her. In Mere Christianity, Lewis uses the idea of raw material, our psychological and biological make-up, to put our outward behaviour in perspective (91). Many of our good qualities, Lewis notes, were inherited from our parents and conditioned by our upbringing which operated in harmony with our raw material (91). Lewis observes that “We see only the results which a man’s choices make out of his raw material” (91). It is the central part of ourselves, the part that chooses and must bend their raw material (to the best of their abilities) that is preeminent in our relation to God (91–92).

Psyche’s natural beauty and good-natured personality are gifts (211). They would disappear if Psyche had a crippling disease or received a disfiguring facial burn. Orual had to drive a “wretched machine” (215). Her mother died while she was young; she had an abusive father and an extraordinarily ugly face (5, 21). Orual’s love of Fox, while self-serving, was due to loneliness. She had no other friends (uncomplicated by love or queenship) who valued her company. Orual’s crush, Bardia, did not love her. Her desire to torment Bardia stems from being loveless. Orual wanted to be wanted. She loved Psyche like the child she never had. Psyche and Orual’s raw material must be bracketed off from Lewis’s articulation of the real question: “Will they, or will they not, turn to Him and thus fulfill the only purpose for which they were created?” (212). Choosing God results in inner beauty; rejecting God breeds inner corruption. Loving God leads to life and eternal happiness; loving merely ourselves and others invariably leads to death.

The tragedy of Orual’s life is that she mistook Psyche’s beauty for the beautiful thing in itself. Psyche’s inner and outer beauty ought to have directed Orual to the source of beauty. Since Orual did not love God, she could not love Psyche properly. When we treat ourselves and others as ends in themselves, we divorce ourselves from God’s love and beauty. If we cannot let go of earthly beauty, our love is terminal. Lewis observes that “The only things we can keep are the things we freely give to God. What we try to keep for ourselves is just what we are sure to lose” (213). Only God possesses what we need.

During Orual’s final vision, she meets Psyche and admits she has been a “craver” (348). Orual recognizes the perversity of her love, which was not love but abuse: “Never again will I call you mine; but all there is of me shall be yours” (348). Orual now loves Psyche for “another’s sake” (350). Instead of valuing Psyche as the only thing to enjoy, “it was not…she that really counted” (350). Orual realizes that God is the only thing to enjoy: “the earth and stars and sun, all that was or will be, existed for his sake” (350). She discerns that “the only dread and beauty there is, was coming” (350). Orual’s earthly appearance is irrelevant; she now sees the reflection of her heavenly body. “You also are Psyche,” God declares (351). God’s love is independent of Orual’s love. Orual’s beauty is dependent on her relationship to God. She will remain ugly like Ungit if she does not love God. She must love the God who loves her to find inner beauty — the sign of a right relationship. God is her true Father, her true lover, the only Beloved worthy of her absolute love.

Works Cited

Apuleius. Metamorphoses (The Golden Ass), Volume I: Books 1–6, edited and translated by J. Arthur Hanson, E-Book, Harvard University Press, 1996.

Augustine, St. On Christian Teaching. Oxford Paperbacks, 2008.

Bulfinch, Thomas. “Cupid and Psyche.” Folklore and Mythology Electronic Texts, www.pitt.edu/~dash/cupid.html. Accessed 24 Mar. 2020.

Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity. Harper San Francisco, 2001.

Lewis, C. S. The Four Loves. HarperOne, 2017.

Lewis, C. S. Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold. HarperOne, 2017.

Sartwell, Crispin. “Beauty.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2017, https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2017/entries/beauty/. Accessed 22 Mar. 2020.

Spicher, Michael R. “Medieval Theories of Aesthetics.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://www.iep.utm.edu/m-aesthe/#SH3a. Accessed 22 Mar. 2020.

“Venus.” OED Online, 2020, www.oed.com/view/Entry/222324. Accessed 21 March 2020.

Creative writer, Essayist.

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