Despite his importance to the fantasy genre, I’ve never been a big reader of C.S. Lewis. I read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe just a single time as a child, and the story was so un-engaging that I promptly forgot what happened. Subsequent attempts to read the book led to me stalling right around the time Lucy encountered Mr. Tumnus.
However, I love stories that reinterpret classic myths, and this particular interpretation was analyzed wonderfully by Karen Burnham and Karen Lord, so Till We Have Faces leapt onto my TBR pile.
And boy, am I glad that it did: I am not ashamed to call this book a masterpiece.
Orual, the veiled queen of Glome, is old, alone, and approaching death. One thing she is not, though, is pious. She has seen the gods for the charlatans they are, and wants the whole world to know what she knows: that they are cruel, and delight in taking only the most precious of things from humanity, leaving nothing in return. Such a thing was her sister, Psyche. Years after Psyche’s ruinous disappearance, Orual wants to tell her side of the story and hold the gods accountable. And so she writes:
Orual is the eldest daughter of the king of Glome, a small kingdom near Greece that worships the dark goddess Ungit and her son the Brute. Orual is so ugly that it is immediately understood by her lout of a father that the only value that she’ll bring to the kingdom is to be educated as a man would – her younger sisters Redival and Psyche are far better marriage material. As a child, Orual is happy because despite her ugliness, she has people who love her: the Fox, a Greek slave who is her tutor and her father’s most valued advisor, and Psyche, who is gifted with both great physical and spiritual beauty.
However, when drought and plague strike the kingdom and rumours spread that Psyche is being worshipped for her beauty, it is taken as blasphemy of the highest form. Despite the philosophical interpretations of the Fox (who says that Ungit is really a debased version of she whom the Greeks call Aphrodite), the high priest of Ungit decrees that she must be sacrificed on a mountainside to the Brute.
Orual learns of this and takes ill. Upon her recovery, she resolves to find Psyche’s remains to give her a proper burial – Antigone was able to do at least that much, she reasons. However, upon her journey to the sacrifice site, she finds out that her sister is alive and well. Orual is shocked and convinced her sister has gone insane – what Orual sees as a sprig of wild berries Psyche sees as a feast in a palace. And how can Psyche, who is so beautiful, love something as ugly as the Brute? Has Psyche lost all sense of sisterly duty?
Who, really, is in the right? And why should the gods, who are powerful, make such playthings of humans, who are weak? Orual resolves to test her sister’s newfound happiness, with disastrous results for both of their souls.
For a long time, Lewis was dissatisfied with the classical story of Psyche and Cupid. Nothing about it – Psyche’s sisters’ jealousy, Psyche’s own gullibility and disobedience towards her husband – made any sort of sense to him. Till We Have Faces was his attempt to create fully-fleshed, believable characters whose actions were consonant with those of the original myth.
Lewis succeeds in doing this by making Orual a real piece of work. She may be physically ugly, but she makes up for it with a keen intellect and a good sword hand. However, she’s also desperately lonely and needy, unwilling to be honest with anyone about her true motivations, least of all herself. Orual’s insistence that Psyche look upon her own husband’s face is not only a test of loyalty, but also a desperate gambit on Orual’s part to make her sister realize the truth about her life on the mountain.
I really don’t know how well I can describe the book after this point. Both sisters pay a terrible price for their actions. Psyche disappears. Orual becomes queen and rules successfully for decades. But deep inside she’s a thornbush of guilt. It is only at the end of her life that she’s willing to delve into the reasons why she originally forced Psyche’s hand.
In fact, it’s easy to see that the series of visions she has (which are chock-full of Jungian imagery) before her death leads to a conversion experience. C.S. Lewis was known for writing extensively on Christian themes, so it’s interesting to note that he manages to lend a Christian veneer to Orual’s experience, despite the fact that she worships the gods of ancient Greece.
Considering conversations in the last year about whether female characters should be likeable, Till We Have Faces is a timely book to read. In many ways Orual is not likeable – she’s needy and manipulative, and convinced that the sacrifices she forces other characters to make are made for the right reasons, rather than for her own happiness. But within the confines of the story, the choices do make sense, especially when viewed through the funhouse mirror that is Orual’s mind.
What I mean is that more people should be reading this book. After hearing Burnham and Lord talk about it, I was desperate to read it myself. But you know what? It appears to be out of print. I couldn’t buy it through my Kobo. I couldn’t even find a copy of it through the Toronto Public Library, which quite an is impressive feat. Scanning Abebooks resulted in finding copies that were a bit out of my price range. So when my friend sent me a pirated PDF version of this book, I threw up my hands and said “good enough.”
Let me repeat that: I have a huge library of eBooks. Hundreds of books and magazines that were purchased legally, or gotten for free through otherwise legitimate means. I am generally against eBook piracy. Yet I was willing to read a pirated version of this book, because it was otherwise so hard for me to find.
Lewis’s Space Trilogy just got a handsome new reissue from HarperCollins for its 75th anniversary. Of course, I wish that Till We Have Faces was still in print, but the 60th anniversary of its original publication is only a few years away. Will anyone else be rooting for a new print edition to celebrate?
Up next: Blood: The Stuff of Life by Lawrence Hill