Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis
Rating: ★★★★★ // A retelling in a classic fashion
First Line: “I am old now and have not much to fear from the anger of the gods.”
Till We Have Faces is C.S. Lewis’ final book, and, allegedly, was his favorite of all his written work.
Summary (via GoodReads)
In this timeless tale of two mortal princesses- one beautiful and one unattractive- C.S. Lewis reworks the classical myth of Cupid and Psyche into an enduring piece of contemporary fiction. This is the story of Orual, Psyche’s embittered and ugly older sister, who posessively and harmfully loves Psyche. Much to Orual’s frustration, Psyche is loved by Cupid, the god of love himself, setting the troubled Orual on a path of moral development.
Set against the backdrop of Glome, a barbaric, pre-Christian world, the struggles between sacred and profane love are illuminated as Orual learns that we cannot understand the intent of the gods “till we have faces” and sincerity in our souls and selves.
If you are unfamiliar with the myth of Cupid and Psyche, I’ll give you the short version. There was a girl, the youngest of three daughters, Psyche, who was so beautiful, that people started to pay homage to her instead of to Venus, the goddess of love. This upset Venus and she asked her son Cupid to take care of the issue. Instead of doing what his mother asked, he fell in love with Psyche and took her to be his wife, however he kept his identity a secret to her and only came to her in the dead of night. The sister’s learn of this mystery husband and convince their sister to bring a light into the bedroom and shine it upon her husband, therefore learning his identity. Cupid flee’s the scene and Psyche is left to wander the wilderness, searching for her long lost love.
Now, that was a very short version of the story, but you can go and read the long version, or you can do what I did and just read Lewis’ retelling of the story…which is what I highly recommend (I then went back and reread the original because I wanted to see what he altered or added).
Lewis’ version comes from the point of view of the Psyche’s oldest sister, who acts like a mother to the beautiful child, as their mother died shortly after Psyche’s birth. This sister is neither beautiful or charismatic like Psyche, but instead clings to her studies to give her comfort in life.
“Child, to say the very thing you really mean, the whole of it, nothing more or less or other than what you really mean; that’s the whole art and joy of words.”
The story continues much like the myth does, but if goes further, and tells of what happens to the older sister after seeing her sister fall into ruin. She becomes the ruler of her land but is continuously reminded by the fate of Psyche and she is always questioning whether or not it actually took place.
Like all of Lewis’ books, the philosophy is rich in this book, but the incorporation of the myth make it read like a classic fantasy book.
I don’t remember why, but I stopped halfway through this book and left the second half unread for about a month before I picked it back up. Once I did, it was finished very quickly. I really don’t know why I did that, because I did really enjoy the first half, I think it was just a natural point to stop and I got sidetracked. I will say, I enjoyed the second half more than the first, which is odd because the first half is they myth half and the second half is the aftermath, and I would think the first would appeal to me more.
Till We Have Faces was written much differently than I expected it to be, and the incorporation of the myth into a normal society was fascinating. There was this constant battle between understanding reality and believing in the gods that kept the myth alive, while at the same time doubting that it could be true. This puts the reader in the position of the eldest child, Orual, but we, the reader, still feel compelled to believe the impossible, which is the story Psyche tells us.
“I saw well why the gods so not speak to us openly, nor let us answer…Why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”
I was surprised how well Lewis told the story from a woman’s point of view. There are many times that male authors talk of women in an exaggerated way, but there were so many times where Orual or Psyche said things that I felt came from my own mind. He is such a talented author that he can even perfectly describe a mind that he has never has of his own. This is true talent.
As seen with my five star rating, I highly recommend this book. It is a lesser known C.S. Lewis novel that deserves much more attention. I read Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis as a part of The Classics Club Book Challenge. To see my complete challenge list of classics books, click here.