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Till We Have Faces a Myth Retold by C.S. Lewis Review and Summary
To those familiar with the Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis' novel Till We Have Faces A Myth Retold may come as a pleasant surprise. Till We Have Faces is a dark, complex novel suitable for adults. As a childhood fan of C.S. Lewis myself, I stumbled upon this sophisticated retelling of the Greek Myth of Psyche and the god Cupid years ago, which Lewis himself admitted was his greatest work of fiction.1
Till We Have Faces retells the myth of Psyche and Cupid from the point of view of Psyche's jealous sister, who in the novel bears the name Orual. Orual, Psyche, and their wanton sister Redival live in the gloomy land Glome under their tyrant-father's care. Glome is a barbaric city-state that worships a Babylonian-like version of the Greek goddess Venus, called Ungit. Ungit is a dark-some goddess, a cruel and mysterious goddess that demands sacrifices, sometimes human.
When the land is plagued by disease and poverty, Ungit demands a holy sacrifice, a virgin of the King's house. Psyche is chosen and chained to a tree, and left to be devoured by the Shadowbrute. After Psyche is offered to the Shadowbrute, all is once again well in the land, and Orual courageously seeks to find Psyche's remains and give them proper burial. But Psyche is not slain. Through events that are not explained in the story, Psyche becomes the bride of the God of the Mountain, who is said to be the son of Ungit, or perhaps the husband of Ungit. The citizens of Glome don't fully understand the mysteries of their gods, but they fear them.
What Orual finds is a glowing, healthy, and strong Psyche, who seems to be sheltered from the harsh elements in a hidden valley of the mountain, even though the terrain appears rough and even inhospitable. Psyche tells Orual that she has a husband she is not allowed to see, and glows with joy as she describes a sumptuous, but invisible palace and servants that she can only hear. Orual is convinced that Psyche is mad, and devises a plan to convince Psyche to view her husband by lamplight, which is strictly forbidden. Twisting Psyche's love by threatening to kill herself and then Psyche, Orual convinces Psyche to submit her husband to the test. The result is the pivotal event in Orual's life that changes and hardens her against the gods, and the cause for her complaint.
Psyche reluctantly agrees to this horrible test, although she knows it means the end of her relationship with her groom:
You are indeed teaching me about kinds of love I did not know. It is like looking into a deep pit. I am not sure whether I like your kind better than hatred. Oh, Orual, to take my love for you, because you know it goes down to my very roots and cannot be diminished by any other newer love, and then to make of it a tool, a weapon, a thing of policy and mastery, an instrument of torture—I begin to think I never knew you. Whatever comes after, something that was between us dies here. Till We Have Faces, Chapter 14
Orual finds that she has confused love with betrayal, and loses all that is dear to her: her relationship with her sister, her ability to relate to her dear friend and mentor the Fox, and even her own identity as a woman.
The novel begins with Orual, as an old woman, making her case to the gods. She feels she has been wronged and seeks justice. She is ravaged by the memory of her pivotal night of betrayal to her beloved younger sister Psyche, whom she loves in a possessive way. The story unfolds as Orual explores her faltering memory of the fateful evening when her actions cause her young sister to lose her place in her immortal husband's invisible palace, and sends her into the vast world wandering and bereft.
As Orual explores her memories in the first part of this exceptional novel, we see her character develop from a watchful older sister who has a few close and beloved friends, and a sheltered life with guarded loyalties, to a cold and stony-hearted queen who privately relishes the terror she brings to her father on his deathbed, as she hovers over him in her black veil.
The novel is subtly written, and you will find Orual a persuasive advocate. I must confess I have read this novel and reread it many times. It is a personal favorite. Only after many, many re-readings did I see the ugly progression of Orual's consuming and prideful "love", because I wanted her to be justified in her behaviors, as did she herself. Lewis' characterization and writing of Orual is so compelling and believable that you want to believe her self deceptions, just as she herself does.
As an aside, the theme of self-deception is also found in Lewis' apocalyptic novel in the Narnia series, the Last Battle, in which an anti-Christ plays a key role in the story.
Till We Have Faces explores the themes of love, companionship, and fidelity that appear in some of Lewis' other writings for children and adults, such as in The Four Loves, and in his series of novels for children, The Chronicles of Narnia.
Names in Till We Have Faces
In a fascinating article Kathryn Lindskoog1 of the New York C.S. Lewis Society explores the significant names found in Till We Have Faces:
Ungit, the feared god of Glome, is a Babylonian-styled mother earth shaped like a dark and pitted rock. The word "Ungit" has many associations with oil and oiliness, which in the New Testament was used to represent anointings.
Orual, has associations with mining and the Ural Mountains that divide the Russian and European continents. Orual herself is stony and rock-like as an adult. She has no loving relationships, friends, or lovers. Though she jealously guards her advisor Bardia, whom she robs of a personal life and keeps selfishly away from his family, mirroring her earlier behavior towards sister Pysche.
Another name association not addressed by Lindskoog is the "oral" link to Orual's character. Orual's love for psyche is devouring. It is selfish and consuming, and not open or free. As Orual's character develops, we see that she herself has become like Ungit, a dark, and devouring presence that frightens and inspires awe.
The Role of The Fox
The Fox, Orual's aging Greek teacher, plays an interesting role as foil to Orual's schemes and justifications. The Fox is Orual's Greek tutor, a slave captured and sold to the King of Glome during Orual's early life. The Fox becomes a father-figure to Orual, Psyche, and Redival, imparting philosophy, advice, and reasoned thinking that explains away the supernatural and mystical elements of Orual and Psyche's experience of Cupid. Though the three sisters share Fox as a teacher, each comes away from his teachings having learned a different lesson.
Orual is tormented the night after she returns from the mountain, after she has witnessed the god with her own eyes, by the Greek's compassionate and loving response to her return.
"Well, you have a secret from me," he said in the end. "No, don't try to turn away from me. Did you think that I would try to press or conjure it out of you? Never that. Friends must be free. My tormenting you to find it would be a worse barrier between us than your hiding it. Some day—but you must obey the god within you, not the god within me. There, do not weep. I shall not cease to love you if you have a hundred secrets. Till We Have Faces, Chapter 16
The Role of Reflection in Till We Have Faces
C.S. Lewis uses the device of an old woman reflecting on her memories to tell the story of Psyche and Cupid, and Orual's role in the tale. Orual's memory is protective, prideful, and yet shifts subtly as the story unfolds. There are moments in the story when her tale reveals a certain blindness on the part of Orual, as if her eyes have clouded over and she refuses to draw the correct inferences in the story.
Lewis' use of the memory device in his novel creates a complicated, subtle, and believable characterization of Orual. She is complex, three-dimensional, and deeply flawed. Only as the novel draws to a close, and Orual once again faces the gods, does she see with clarity the role she played in Psyche's banishment and in her own pain.
I love this novel and find it has many gems of wisdom about the nature of loving relationships. I would even go so far as to say it is one of the best Christian books I have ever read, because it doesn't follow the all-too-familiar sappy and florid story lines that give Christian books a bad name in the world of literature. Lewis as a master storyteller delivers a page-turning read that is also a work of literature. You may find the language a bit stilted at times, but it is a brilliant masterpiece of storytelling and characterization, which I strongly recommend!
1Ungit and Orual: Facts, Mysteries, and Epiphanies, by Kathryn Lindskoog. 2000, CSL
Cupid and Psyche Myth
- Cupid and Psyche as told in Bullfinch's Mythology.
- Cupid and Psych story from Orpheus: Myths of the World
- "Thou knowest me, thy husband. Do not yield to the counsel of thy sisters and inquire concerning my bodily form. If thou dost, thou and I may never again embrace each other."
My Book Reviews
The Big Rock Candy Mountain by Wallace Stegner ♦ Till We Have Faces, A Myth Retold by C. S. Lewis ♦ The Awakening by Kate Chopin ♦ Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse ♦ Where You Once Belonged by Kent Haruf ♦ Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen ♦ Bee Season by Myla Goldberg ♦ 12 Novels Featuring The American West ♦ Five Quarters of the Orange by Joanne Harris
C.S. Lewis on HubPages
- C.S. Lewis: His Contribution to the World
50 years ago today C .S. Lewis entered eternity. An avowed atheist turned born again Christian, C.S. Lewis' prolific writings touched the world, non-believers and believers a like. I give him tribute.
© 2008 Carolyn Augustine