C.S. Lewis loved the story of Psyche and Cupid and spent a lot of time thinking about it from the first time he read it, sometime in his late teens. He attempted to write some poetry about it at 19. He began and then abandoned more than one project intending to retell the story. The tale held his interest during the years of his atheism, his movement into some form of deism, and his eventual conversion to Christianity.
In fact, Lewis himself says that in his first, youthful draft of the story, “(Orual) was to be in the right and the gods in the wrong.” The story was always about Psyche’s sister and her objection to the behavior of the gods, which Orual sees as unjust. It’s about a lot more, of course, which we’ll get to.
For those unfamiliar with the “original” version (which Lewis read from Apuleius), it went something like this: A king and queen had three daughters, two of whom were beautiful but common enough and one who was so beautiful that people turned their worship away from Venus and toward this young woman named Psyche. Venus sends her son Cupid to punish the girl, but he accidentally pricks himself with his own arrow and falls in love with her. Through a series of events, the parents ask the priest of Apollo what should be done and they’re told that Psyche is destined to marry and/or be eaten by a horrible beast that even the gods fear (supposedly).
So they sacrifice her on the mountain by tying her to a tree; the west wind takes her away to a beautiful palace where she meets her new beastly husband, but only in deepest darkness. Her sisters are brought by the wind for a visit, and, jealous of the beautiful palace, they hatch a plan to destroy Psyche’s home and marriage. They urge Psyche to try to get a glimpse of her husband in the darkness, which she does, but the oil from her lamp wakes him and she is sent into exile. She goes through a series of tasks to prove her worth and is eventually rewarded with an official, heavenly marriage to Cupid. Both her sisters, by the way, die before the story ends.
Lewis was immediately taken with the story, and also felt that “Apuleius got it all wrong.” The story didn’t make sense to him. It didn’t ring true. And even as a teen Lewis believed that myth must be, first and foremost, true. Over the years as he worked on the story, he came to think that when it came to Psyche’s story, Apuleius was the “transmitter, not the inventor.” So Lewis “felt quite free to go behind Apuleius” and write, as he thought it must be, the true story behind the myth.
Many of the changes that come in Lewis’ retelling stem from one big change: “The central alteration in my own version consists in making Psyche’s palace invisible to normal, mortal eyes – if ‘making’ is not the wrong word for something which forced itself upon me, almost at my first reading of the story, as the way the thing must have been.” It made little sense to Lewis that the sisters would see Psyche’s palace and, out of jealousy, destroy her life and themselves. It seemed extreme and impious that if they believed fully in the gods and saw their glory that they would cross them (and Psyche) in the ways that they did in Apuleius’ story.
This core change led to many others. It altered the themes and ideas of the story and also “…of course brings with it a more ambivalent motive and a different character for my heroine, and finally modifies the whole quality of the tale.” It allowed Orual to become a sympathetic, even understandable, character. Because of course she “couldn’t see Psyche’s palace when she visited her. She saw only rock and heather.”
Thus the theme shifts in a variety of ways. Orual’s “dreadful problem” becomes “Is P(syche) mad or am I blind?” It becomes a story about faith and doubt, proof, the gods, and whether it’s reasonable to punish human beings for their own inability to see (whether that means seeing themselves, seeing the gods, or seeing a beautiful palace in the remote and inhospitable mountains).
The book becomes, in effect, a sort of biographical tour through Lewis’ own spiritual life. It’s “the story of every nice, affectionate agnostic whose dearest one suddenly ‘gets religion’, or even every luke-warm Christian whose dearest gets Vocation.” (In this context, when Lewis talks about Vocation he’s referring to Christians who give their life to God’s service…a priest or nun, a missionary, someone like that.) And it’s the story of Lewis himself, whose life was much more like Orual’s than Psyche’s.
On top of that, Lewis realizes that this story will let him do something unique from his point of view: write a “Christian” novel from the point of view of an agnostic. As he wrote to a friend, the agnostic position was, “Never, I think, treated sympathetically by a Christian writer before. I do it all through the mouth of the elder sister.”
It is interesting to watch Orual struggle with the reality or lack of reality related to the gods. Her entire book, she says, is a treatise against the gods. But she makes it clear she does not look to the gods to judge (at least in Book One), but rather to the Greeks. “And now,” she writes, “let that wise Greek whom I look to as my reader and the judge of my cause, mark well what followed.”
She meets Psyche in the mountains and is thrilled to find her alive. They play games—or so Orual thinks—where Psyche serves her “fine wine” but it’s only water from the stream in Psyche’s own cupped hands. As they come to realize that they are seeing completely different realities, Orual is horrified (her sister must of course be mad), and Psyche is filled with “sober sadness, mixed with pity.” Psyche falls into mourning: “You can’t see it. You can’t feel it. For you, it is not there at all. Oh, Maia… I am very sorry.”
Psyche immediately leaves off trying to convince Orual that the palace is there, that anything is there. She knows that’s useless. How to convince her to believe in something she can’t see?
Ironically, this is what brings Orual “almost to a full belief.” Psyche’s certainty reminds Orual that this place was “dreadful” and “full of the divine, sacred, no place for mortals. There might be a hundred things in it I couldn’t see.” And with this remembrance comes deep grief. Because she and Psyche suddenly “were not in the same piece.” There was only “hopeless distance” between them now. The gods had stolen her sister away.
The conversation that follows between Psyche and Orual is a painful and beautiful one, where they both acknowledge and mourn the sudden distance that has come between them and wish for a way to bridge it…of course both hoping the other will cross over to their side. Lewis also touches once again on one of his favorite philosophical constructs for discussing the divinity of Christ: the “trilemma.” Basically, if Jesus claimed to be God he must be either a liar, mad, or truly God. (This is a simplification, of course, but that’s the basic point.)
Orual pushes Psyche into this same construct. She can see for herself that there’s no palace there, no god, no husband, and Psyche’s story of being freed from her chains by the west wind is ridiculous. So her story can’t be true. She knows that Psyche is not a liar, at least not purposely: “You don’t mean to lie. You’re not in your right mind, Psyche. You have imagined things.” It’s the fear. The drugs the priest gave her. The loneliness.
Psyche does try to convince her sister otherwise: how is she so healthy? Well-cared for? How has she eaten during her time on the mountain? Orual can’t deny those things, and yet cannot see the palace, either. So there must be another explanation…perhaps a mountain man has taken her in, is hiding her in his shack, feeding her and taking advantage of her madness.
In later years, when writing her account, Orual admits that she didn’t come to her conclusion of Pysche’s madness with complete honesty: “But I was lying. How did I know whether she really saw invisible things or spoke in madness?”
In fact, Orual’s agnosticism is very much in the middle. She doesn’t believe in the gods, but speaks of them often. She doesn’t see the palace (except for one brief moment, when she’s not sure if it’s truly a palace or the mist). She dreads telling the Fox of things that might make it seem that she does believe, and she mourns the way her own disbelief pushes her from Psyche.
And through it all, Orual is not painted as villain (which is sometimes the norm with religious presentations of agnosticism) but as someone who is doing her reasonable best. Now, Lewis does give us some clues that Orual is maybe being prevented from full honesty in her dealings with the gods by her own emotional state or situation, but even that doesn’t make Orual seem to be a bad person…or at least not to me. In fact, her objections that the gods should be clearer, should be more forthright, seem incredibly reasonable (because, of course, she is falling back on reason, again and again).
Faith must, after all, be a kind of madness to those who do not have it. At the same time, Lewis fully expects that any conversion must come from mystical experience…that is, from personal experience, not just being told what is or should be.
I can’t think of a single example in all our reading of Lewis where someone converts to Christianity (or following Aslan or the gods) in the absence of a mystical experience (the closest may well be Bardia in Till We Have Faces, who has enormous respect for the gods and plays it pretty close to his vest whether he’s ever seen them himself). In Lewis’ story worlds, no one is argued into a belief in God. No one comes to belief in the absence of seeing God/Aslan/the gods. The mystical experience, the moment when the invisible is detected and acknowledged is a key moment in conversion. And Lewis seems to have enormous compassion for those who have not seen the invisible…how could they believe? It would be laughable to do so.
I love where Psyche goes with it: “Perhaps, Maia, you too will learn how to see. I will beg and implore (Cupid) to make you able.” We have a lot more to unpack about this in the weeks to come, but at the core of it I think this is something to keep central as we read Till We Have Faces: Wherever you are in faith or lack of it, this book welcomes you. If you believe in the gods and are furious at them, this book is for you. If you are uncertain about the gods and whether they exist at all, that is a position that is welcome. If you deeply believe in the gods and are cut off from your family and those closest to you as a result, well, this is your story, too. Lewis has purposely designed this book—more so than any of his others—to be honest about his own journey through all those different places, and invites first and foremost our own honesty, not a necessary conversion to his point of view. I think there’s something beautiful and wonderful about that.