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.

Little, Big by John Crowley

My third read for the Once Upon a Time Challenge is a fairy tale of sorts. Neil Gaiman called Little, Big one of his favourite books in the world and I do know why.

The book is massive, not in size but in scope and delightfully intricate, the kind of book that slowly makes its way into your thoughts, till it’s all you can think of. It took me a little more than a month to reach the last few chapters of the book, and then, just a couple of hours to devour it completely! It’s not a book full of action nor drama. It is quiet, almost lazy, but quite strong.

The book starts as Smoky Barnable journeys by foot to Edgewood to marry Daily Alice Drinkwater, whom he was prophesied to marry long before he knew her. What follows is a story spanning a hundred years, of the lives of four generations of Drinkwaters and their relations in a strange country house situated on the border of Fairyland. Daily Alice, her sister Sophie, her parents and aunts and children are all part of a Tale that is still unfolding and yet, is already written in the cards. Most of the family seem to sense the existence of the other land, and many, like Smoky, though unconvinced, go along with it. The odd creatures from the other world rarely make an appearance in the book, but they’re always there, watching, manipulating. As the story unfolds, the inevitability of the fate which was written by a mere stack of cards only strengthens.

The book is massive, I said, but it’s also small. Little, big, like the title. It’s a small glimpse of something that keeps on spiralling into new things, it’s a young story from an ancient world. It’s Smoky and Alice’s boy Auberon writing scripts for a soap opera and at the same time, it’s His Majesty Frederick Barbarossa, Holy Roman Emperor, being resurrected after an eternity to rule a minuscule land.

The book made me think a lot about people. About me, of course, and about loving someone or losing someone and how both the things are in a pathetic way, quite the same. “Love is a myth”, the book tells us, like summer is a myth during a long winter; but it does come and just as surely summer goes away, becoming once again, just a rumour. The book gave me a different perspective on life and a whole new way of looking at destiny: the idea of living without letting the ultimate, total loss of control make you feel helpless. It made me wonder how we automatically assign wickedness to all things unknown, and how wickedness is just a crazy sense of humour. It made me realize how little we are. 

And so, it made me think about the supposed little things, things like the faces in the cracks of your ceiling and the imaginary friends all our parents have caught us talking to, the stories in our head about life, family, goals and jobs and the big secrets that we let rule our thoughts. Little things that make no big difference do make small differences, I guess. The real big things, big enough to be important in this old, wide world are far beyond our reach. And so the little things do matter, because while they may not change the wide world, they’re the things that we control and that change us. We’re all a part of something small and something unimaginably huge and balancing it out, often in vain, is what life’s all about. Right? 

For the first few hundred pages, it felt like I was reading a dream until it occurred to me that I was, in fact, reading a life: the prose, with all its meandering nuances was life, rambling on as it does. The story felt so real, precisely because it was so boundless.

“In the good old
days, when polls were as common as house-to-house searches were now, pollsters
asked viewers why they liked the bizarre torments of the soap operas, what kept
them watching. The commonest answer was that they liked soap operas because
soap operas were like life.

Like life. Auberon
thought “A World Elsewhere,” under his hands, was coming to be like a
lot of things: like truth, like dreams; like childhood, his own anyway; like a
deck of cards or an old album of pictures. He didn’t think it was like life–not
anyway like his own. On “A World Elsewhere,” when a character’s
greatest hopes were dashed, or his task all accomplished, or his children or
friends saved by his sacrifice, he was free to die or at least to pass away; or
he changed utterly, and reappeared with a new task, new troubles, new children.
Except for those whose embodying actors were on vacation or ill, none simply
came to a stop, all their important actions over, haunting the edges of the
plot with their final scripts (so to speak) still in their hands.

_That_ was
like life, though: like Auberon’s.

Not like a plot,
but like a fable, a story with a point, which had already been made.”

Oddly, the book bore an uncanny resemblance to another favourite: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. They are both so richly… magical. It’s odd, because when it comes to the content, they’re very different. The magic itself is vastly different. But both books carry that air of something initially mysterious and incomprehensible and at the end, honest and strikingly witty. Reading both the stories was like trudging through a long winding road, expecting a concrete destination, maybe a final showdown and realizing at the end just what the road was all about. It was when the pieces fell together, so to say, that I realized that they always were together; the picture was always complete, I just hadn’t deciphered it. The experience, though fascinating and intriguing, left me feeling almost silly both times, like when you first notice the faces in Rubin’s vase and wonder how you could have missed them. Perhaps the next time I read such a story, I won’t be fooled. And so, it would, I imagine, be an altogether different journey to re-read either of these books. I am curious to know whether I’d discover, learn everything then, that I’ve overlooked  now.

The Folklore of Discworld by Terry Pratchett and Jacqueline Simpson

I’ve been on too long a break. This has been lying in my drafts, sad and unfinished for a while now. It is only fair to post it on my favourite author’s sixty-fifth birthday. Do I have to say it? Discworld is awesome and even if it seems impossible, this book is just as awesome. I am a big fan of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them or Quidditch Through the Ages and I didn’t think companion books could get any better. And then this came along in the mail. A little bit of Discworld was already spilling out from the middle of its delicious red cover. I couldn’t wait to dive straight into it.

The Folklore of Discworld: Its Legends, Magic and Customs
with Helpful Hints from Planet Earth has just what its title promises. Discworld, for those of you who haven’t read it (morons.) is a land somewhere in space – a turtle swimming idly through space carries on its back four elephants and on their heads rests the Disc; a world, which is quite like ours, but with magic. Accompanying the over thirty novels set in this world are a few other books, like the Science of Discworld and this book.

The Folklore of Discworld isn’t a non-fiction, quite unlike it, actually. It tells us about the uncanny similarities between the Earth’s legends and those of the Disc. About myths on the Earth that are actually real on the Disc and naturally, the other way around. You learn about the vampires, witches (and wizards, who are very different, of course) and zombies, the Luggage and the Feegles, the gods and Death. Our world and the Discworld do seem to have a lot in common and some of the reasons the author hypothesizes for this are: the constant drifting of particles of knowledge or through cosmic space, or the simple consideration that some or all of these creatures existed in all the worlds at some time or the other, and are now extinct. Read this book if you’ve read any books of the Discworld series, the fewer the better because a lot that is already in the books is repeated. But that doesn’t really matter as it is all very interesting and alo quite informative. For instance, I never knew that a story right out of Hindu mythology played with the idea of four elephants standing at the four ends of the world, holding it up, or something to that effect.

Pratchett’s writing is, as always, cheerful and witty. Good Omens told me that a collaboration isn’t really a bad thing and that Pratchett could really pull it off. The Folklore of Discworld doesn’t show any obvious there-are-two-authors-ey clumsiness, either. It is the kind of book that you can just open up to any page and start reading and before you know it, you’re buried nose-deep inside it.

As it has the word “folklore” in it’s title and everything, this book should qualify as my next read for the Once Upon a Time Challenge. And because I found this book extra nice, I have quoted an entire two pages – the story of how Ankh-Morpork, only the most horribly great city on the Disc, came to be. Read and laugh.

“Any self-respecting city has to have a legend about
its foundation. Ankh-Morpork, as is right and proper for the oldest city on the
Disc, has two.

The first is the official one. According to this, there were once two orphaned
brothers, mere babies, who had been left on the shores of the Ankh to die.
There they were found by a she-hippopotamus, who suckled them. When they grew
up, they decided to build themselves a home, and so founded what must at the
time have been a very small city indeed. In memory of this, the shield on the
coat of arms of Ankh-Morpork has as its supports deux Hippopatames Royales
Baillant, un enchaine, un couronne au cou. Which, stripped of its aristocratic
herald-speak, means two royal hippos yawning, one wearing a chain and the other
with a crown round its neck. The conventions of heraldry do not permit the sex
of the beasts to be clearly indicated, but in view of the tale we can safely
state that at least one of them is female. The legend is also commemorated by
eight hippo statues on the city’s Brass Bridge, facing out to sea. It is said
that if danger ever threatens the city they will run away.

Some people have expressed doubts over this ancient and uplifting tradition.
Why and how, they ask, would a she-hippo suckle human babies? And how could
they thrive on this eccentric diet? Did they but know it, these doubters could
find a tale on Earth proving that such thing are perfectly possible. It tells
of twins, Romulus and Remus, who were the sons of Mars the God of War and a
human princess. Their evil great-uncle, having just usurped his brother’s
throne, seized the boys and threw them into the Tiber, for fear they might grow
up to challenge him.* But the river washed them safely to the bank, where a
she-wolf fed them with her milk until a kindly shepherd found them. Later they
built the city of Rome. Considering what wolves normally eat, this tale is even
more wondrous than that of the hippo, but the Romans had no difficulty in
believing it. And, naturally, making a statue about it.

The second legend is not told quite so often by the citizens
of Ankh-Morpork, but is surprisingly widespread in other towns. It is said that
way back in the fogs of time there was once a great flood sent by the gods, and
that a group of wise men survived by building a huge boat into which they
crammed two of every type of animal then existing on the Disc. After a few
weeks the combined manure was beginning to weigh the boat low in the water, so
– the story runs – they tipped it over the side and called the heap
Ankh-Morpork. Anybody who doubts the truth of this should go and stand on one
of the bridges over the Ankh, preferably on a warm day, and breathe deep.

* Tyrants insist on doing this, despite the fact that it
never works.”


Ragnarok: The End of the Gods by A.S. Byatt

I must say, this was a great start to Once Upon a Time VII. Join the challenge here.
When I saw this at the book store, I immediately bought myself a copy,
even though I knew nothing about Ragnarok (the Norse Armageddon) and very
little about Norse mythology in general. Why? Well, firstly, it’s part of a series of books on mythology, of which I’ve read the first introductory book; The Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong. Secondly, well, it’s written by A.S. Byatt, who has grown to be one of my favourite authors, and not without
reason. Byatt is a brilliant writer, a wordsmith. Her prose is rather
poetic; a combination of apt imagery and beautiful sounds, which
together with the strong emotions that her stories invoke in you, leaves you
If you’re a mythology fanatic or an expert, you might find this
book a little too basic, as some of the Goodreads reviews seem to suggest. But
if all you want is a general glimpse into the Norse myths, without having to
struggle through a reference journal, the book is perfect. It is far from scholarly, and that, somehow is the magic of it. Throughout the book, Byatt maintains these careful inconsistencies, even with the names; because, she says, myths are always changing, there is no right or wrong, no accurate version. Where you’d have footnotes and in depth analyses of the different allegories, you have a thin young girl, who has had to move to the English countryside with a war raging around them, reading and shaping her world according to a book she loves called “Asgard and the Gods“. It draws parallels to our world, at every step, through the mind of that little girl, who likens her father being away bombing the enemy’s planes to Odin’s Wild Hunt. 
At the same time, it’s just a story, of how the world was fashioned by the gods from the Giant Ymir’s corpse, of the creation of Ask and Embla, the stories of Odin or Wodun, Thor and Baldur the beautiful God, who was killed by his blind brother. We also read about Loki or Loptr, the playful shape-shifting fire God and his spawn; Jormungandr, the giant sea serpent, Hel, ruler of Niflheim, where the dead go and Fenris, the monstrous wolf. We experience, finally, the eponymous end of the gods, the terrible Ragnarok. With her writing, Byatt brings the myths alive, to the point where we don’t only find Loki interesting, but want to read further to find out what happened of him. It’s not informative, as an academic book about myths would be, instead, it’s engaging.
All of Byatt’s writing is heavily influenced by mythology, I’ve read enough of her books to recognize its hold on her. The thin child is based, after all, on Byatt herself, as a young girl, first finding her way to these myths. In her Booker Prize winning novel, Possession, one of the main characters is a poet called Randolph Henry Ash. These lines are from the epic he writes about Ragnarok. 

And these three Ases were the sons of Bor
Who slew the Giant Ymir in his rage
And made of him the elements of earth,
Body and sweat and bones and curly hair,
Made soil and sea and hills and waving trees,
And his grey brains wandered the heavens as clouds.
These three were Odin, Father of the Gods,
Honir, his brother, also called the Bright,
The Wise and Thoughtful, and that third, the hot
Loki, the hearth-god, whose consuming fire
First warmed the world, then grown beyond the bounds
Of home and hearth-stone, flamed in boundless greed
To turn the world, and Heav’n, to sifting ash.
(Chapter 13, Possession by A.S. Byatt)