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Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold by C.S. Lewis

29 August 2008

Posting this a little early, as I’m going out of town for the weekend. I’d intended to put this together with Studies in Words, the other C.S. Lewis book I’ve been reading lately, but this review’s long and complicated enough that it really needs to stand on its own.

Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold by C.S. Lewis

The myth of Cupid and Psyche is a fairly well-known story, one of the many tales involving the troubles of relationships between mortals and the gods. Venus, goddess of love, becomes jealous of the incomparably beautiful Psyche and orders her son Cupid to make the girl fall in love with the foulest creature on earth. Cupid, however, falls in love with Psyche himself, and has the West Wind whisk her away to a castle where he may keep her as his wife. He visits her nightly, but never allows her to see him. When Psyche’s elder sisters come to visit her in her new home, they become consumed with envy at her wealth and attempt to convince her that her husband is really a foul monster. They advise her to take a sharp knife and a lamp to bed with her so that she may look upon his face before she slays him. Half-convinced, Psyche brings the knife and the lamp to bed, but when she sees her sleeping husband for the first time she falls in love with him on sight. But when a drop of hot oil falls from her lamp and lands upon Cupid, he awakens and vanishes, leaving Psyche alone. In her quest to return to her husband, Psyche faces many arduous tasks and challenges put to her by a vindictive Venus, but in the end she is brought up to Olympus, given immortality by the gods, and reunited with Cupid.

The main character in Till We Have Faces is not Psyche herself, but one of her sisters. In Lewis’s story, the narrator is Orual, the eldest of the three daughters of the cruel king of the land of Glome. Orual often bears the brunt of her father’s anger for being ugly, because a girl who cannot even be used to broker a marriage alliance with a neighbouring noble family is nothing more than a worthless mouth to feed. Orual’s only real friend at the court is the Fox, a Greek slave who shares with her the basic teachings of his homeland’s philosophers and tries to give her more of an enlightened education than her ‘barbarian’ culture would normally allow. When her father’s newest wife dies in childbirth, Orual takes on the responsibility of raising her half-sister Istra — Psyche, in Greek — and soon grows to love the child more than anything else the world. Yet the small amount of love and happiness that Orual has been able to find in Glome is suddenly taken from her when Psyche is ordered to be sacrified to appease the wrath of the gods. As the story progresses, Orual struggles with her grief, anger, and desperate loneliness in her search for her beloved Psyche, and eventually has the opportunity to bring her grievances directly to the gods themselves as both accuser and accused in the greatest trial she will ever face.

Till We Have Faces reworks the Cupid-and-Psyche myth in a very novel way, adapting the basic framework of the tale to focus on the multifaceted nature of love and its ability to nourish or destroy the heart, mind, and soul. This particular theme is one of C.S. Lewis’s favourites — it appears in several of his other fictional works, most notably in The Great Divorce, and it is one of the primary themes in his nonfiction work The Four Loves. The love theme is only one of many Lewisian tropes that feature prominently in Till We Have Faces, to the point where a reader who is familiar with Lewis’s other fiction and nonfiction writings will have no trouble spotting the themes and ticking them off one by one, as if following a well-worn shopping list. Examples include a variation on his ‘lunatic-liar-lord’ argument, given in both Mere Christianity and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and his interest in the neo-Platonic approach to Christianity, which is a common thread in most (if not all) of his literary, academic, and religious writings. But considering that Lewis worked on this book off and on for nearly all of his adult life, beginning in his undergraduate years at Oxford, it is hardly surprising that it should contain most if not all of the themes and ideas that he incorporated into his other works. (Till We Have Faces was his last complete work of fiction; interestingly enough, it was published in the same year as The Last Battle.) Although the book is not nearly as well known as most of Lewis’s works, Till We Have Faces is quite possibly his most complex and thoughtful piece, an extended meditation on the capacity for love within all of us and how we may use it that love for good or for ill.

One additional point should probably be mentioned in the context of this review. C.S. Lewis has often been accused of misogynist tendencies or outright misogyny in his writings, especially in his fiction, and because Till We Have Faces is very much a story of women in a warlike, masculine world, it is difficult to know how to address these accusations in the context of this book. Those who go into the text hunting for misogyny can find it quite easily — most easily, for instance, in Lewis’s rather unsympathetic depiction of Orual and Psyche’s vain and silly middle sister, Redival. Yet Orual as both a character and a narrator is far from a simple stereotype, primarily in her position a woman who is uniquely aware that she cannot fit into either the men’s or women’s roles dictated by her culture and her place in society. Some reviewers have suggested that Lewis’s wife Joy influenced the final development of the story, and claim that her guidance was instrumental in smoothing out the rougher edges of her husband’s story and characters. Whatever may have influenced the final product, Till We Have Faces is the book that Lewis considered to be his best, and its blend of philosophy, religion, literary reflection, and storytelling may easily be seen as an embodiment of Lewis’s entire creative output.

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