Although I was raised on The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, a retelling of the Greek legend of Cupid and Psyche, will always be my favorite of his fiction writings. As I have re-read this book year after year, I’m struck by the theme of redemptive confession mirroring the sacrament of Reconciliation. In a sense, the entire novel is the confession of the protagonist Orual, older sister to Psyche. Through her confession, she journeys from self-deceit to true contrition, does penance, and is absolved. But to reach redemption, she must own her failures, and she will need supernatural grace to do so.
An unattractive, motherless daughter with a cruel father, the young Princess Orual loves her beautiful younger sister Psyche. When famine strikes the kingdom of Glome, the priest of Ungit (the Glomish Aphrodite) calls for Psyche to be sacrificed to the god of the Grey Mountain, Ungit’s son. When Orual makes a journey to the mountain, intending to bury Psyche’s bones, she discovers Psyche herself, healthier and more beautiful than ever. Psyche claims that the god is her bridegroom, and they live in a sumptuous palace that Orual cannot see. Orual, partly motivated by disbelief and partly by a desire to draw Psyche away from her lover, manipulates Psyche into disobeying her husband. Psyche is exiled and heartbroken, and Orual must return to Glome alone with the knowledge that she has destroyed her sister’s happiness. Convinced she is a victim that the gods have unjustly robbed of all joy, it takes Orual the journey of her whole life to gain the self-knowledge to see her own culpability in her fate and Psyche’s.
In the ancient Greek legend that Till We Have Faces is drawn from, Psyche’s older sisters are jealous that she has the good fortune to wed a god. But in Lewis’s retelling, Orual is not jealous of Psyche; she is jealous of the god of the Grey Mountain. She is jealous for Psyche’s love. But she lacks the self-awareness to understand the selfishness fueling her actions. Orual’s concealment of her true self is symbolized by the veil she begins wearing after Psyche’s exile. Mocked and insulted as ugly by her father since her birth, covering her face is not merely about self-consciousness over her physical appearance. The veil represents the barrier between Orual and the rest of the world. Even her closest confidants, the Fox, her former tutor, and Bardia, the leader of her military when she succeeds her father as ruler, do not see her face and her persona, as the Veiled Queen even hides Orual from herself. Believing herself to be a blameless victim cursed with loneliness and ugliness by the gods, she fails to see the disfigurement of her soul.