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

I first started reading this book almost a year ago. I’m glad I didn’t continue reading it back then, I’m sure I wouldn’t have appreciated it as much then as I did now.
Till We Have Faces is a retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche and if you haven’t the slightest clue what it is, it’s a good idea to read up on it (that’s what I did) before reading the book. The book is also the last novel C. S. Lewis ever wrote and the only thing I’ve read by him. The book has two parts. The first is the story, as narrated by Orual, Psyche’s half-sister, a woman with a disfigured, unpleasant face, which she hides under a veil. Orual bitterly accuses the Gods of being unjust and writes her side of the story as a complaint against the Gods, even a challenge of sorts. 
Orual is the eldest daughter of the King of Glome, a city not far from Greece. The goddess of Ungit (whom the Greeks call Aphrodite) is jealous of the little Psyche’s beauty and is infuriated by the godly status, which the people assign her. The King is convinced of the existence of a curse and is commanded to sacrifice Psyche to save his kingdom. She is sacrificed to the “God of the Mountain”, Ungit’s son (Cupid is only alluded to in this story), who is supposed to devour Psyche, but instead, falls in love with her. He meets her in secret, however and Psyche is not allowed to look at her ‘husband’. In the original story, when Psyche’s sisters visit her new palace, they get jealous and plan to destroy Psyche’s happiness. They coax her into finding the identity of the God (or what they believe is a monster.) Cupid flees when Psyche sees him and she is put through a series of horrible tests to win back her love. In the retelling, Lewis shows us how it is impossible for the sisters to have seen the palace, when they simply didn’t believe. Telling the story from Orual’s point of view gives it a new… face, for lack of a better word. It poses all the questions that would come up in a mortal’s head after reading a story like this one. The second part of the book does a wonderfully unexpected job of answering those questions, with what could be called a re-retelling. Anything more I say about the second part, would just spoil it. And no, all this did not spoil the book (hence no ‘spoiler alert’.)

It’s a finely written book, which has a lot to say. I’m not sure I understand all of it, or if I ever will. But I do like how it made me really think; think for two days before I went ahead and wrote this post. The first part was interesting, in the way all mythology is, very crude and insanely fascinating; disturbing and beautiful at the same time. But it was in the second part (not Part II but the second half of the book) that it became smart, you know: that’s when you realize the whole point of having a retelling. It’s not a Peter Ackroyd retelling, the whole idea of which is pretty much to make things more ‘accessible’ or easier to read. The revised story here makes a point, the new perspective has a purpose and it’s a good one. The book adds the human aspect to a myth, expands on feelings, thoughts and dialogues and makes the myth all the more real. You can hardly relate to mythology, I mean, come on. But here you really can put yourself in Orual’s shoes and that’s one of the things I liked (or understood… I think?) about the book.

Here are a few lines I liked from the book: (*some contain details, which may spoil the reading experience for some of you and those of you’ve now been duly alerted.*)

“I, King, have dealt with the gods for
three generations of men, and I know that they dazzle our eyes and flow in and out
of one another like eddies on a river, and nothing that is said clearly can be
said truly about them. Holy places are dark places. It is life and strength,
not knowledge and words, that we get in them. Holy wisdom is not clear and thin
like water, but thick and dark like blood.”

Now mark yet again the cruelty of the gods. There is no
escape from them into sleep or madness, for they can pursue you into them with
dreams. Indeed you are then most at their mercy. The nearest thing we have to a
defence against them (but there is no real defence) is to be very wide awake
and sober and hard at work, to hear no music, never to look at earth or sky,
and (above all) to love no one.”

I was not a fool. I did not know then, however, as I do now,
the strongest reason for distrust. The gods never send us this invitation to
delight so readily or so strongly as when they are preparing some new agony. We
are their bubbles; they blow us big before they prick us.”

“A fat fly was crawling up the doorpost. I remember thinking
that its sluggish crawling, seemingly without aim, was like my life, or even
the life of the whole world.”

was the hardest work I’d ever done, and, while it lasted, one could think of
nothing else. I said not long before that work and weakness are comforters. But
sweat is the kindest creature of the three— far better than philosophy, as a cure
for ill thoughts.”

“When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at
last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years,
which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll
not talk about the joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us
openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they
hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till
we have faces?”

Have you read Till We Have Faces?

P. S. This is another read for the Once Upon a Time Challenge. My next book for the challenge is on its way: The Ocean at the End of the Lane. That’s right: Gaiman’s latest novel, I can’t wait to start reading it.

4 thoughts on “Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold by C. S. Lewis”

  1. My dad read this one to me when I was a kid. I think it may have been during my Greek mythology phase (and we'd no doubt finished Narnia by then). It's one I really should pick up, because I'm sure it would mean FAR more to me now! Although I do wonder if it's partially responsible for my fondness for retellings slanted from a formerly-minor character's point of view…


  2. I can't imagine what I would have felt about this story as a kid! But, like you, I would have probably liked even without completely 'getting' it. 🙂


  3. Have you read the poem "Ode to Psyche" by Keats? He doesn't really explore the actual myth very much but I think it would be an interesting companion piece here. I have not read this C.S. Lewis interpretation but you convinced me to check it out. Great review!


  4. i don't tend to like "re-tellings" of fairy tales, myths, etc. but i remember liking this when i read it. i'm not sure why i found it different.

    i love that last quote you selected.


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