Sunday, 28 April 2019

Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis (1956)

Cupid Finding Psyche by Sir Edward- Burne Jones (1865-1867)

Till We Have Faces is a book I’ve been avoiding for a while, mostly because I had the idea that it would be a stiff and ponderous read, but what a strangely captivating story it turned out to be!
Subtitled, A Myth Retold, C.S. Lewis took the story of Cupid and Psyche originally written about 125 AD by Lucius Apuleius Platonicus (which you can read here) and retold, or re-interpreted it, from the point of view of Psyche’s older sister, Orual.
Lewis said of his book that it was, ‘...the straight tale of barbarism, the mind of an ugly woman, dark idolatry and pale enlightenment at war with each other...'

Orual is the ugly eldest daughter of Trom, the widowed King of Glome, an ancient barbaric kingdom, and Psyche is her beautiful younger half-sister. Orual is an unreliable narrator and presents everything in the light of her skewed perspective; her outer ugliness a reflection of what’s going inside her. She expresses a love for Psyche that she considers to be akin to maternal love but it is manipulative and devouring.

The Wedding of Psyche by Sir Edward- Burne Jones (1895)

When Psyche submits to leaving her home to be the ransom for all Glome, Orual vents her anger and hatred upon the gods. Becoming more bitter and twisted as she grows old, she covers up her outer ugliness with a veil.
For most of the book, Orual presents a compelling case, but we begin to see her unreliable nature as a narrator or interpreter of events as the book comes to an end. She had written her complaint in a book she authored but at the end of her life as she stands before the judge with her book in her hand, her veil is removed and she stands naked before countless gazers. She is then told to read her complaint aloud.

'I looked at the roll in my hand and saw at once that it was not the book I had written, it couldn’t be; it was far too small. And too old - a little, shabby, crumpled thing, nothing like my great book that I had worked on all day, day after day...
A great terror and loathing came over me. I said to myself, “Whatever they do to me, I will never read out this stuff. Give me back my Book.” But already I heard myself reading it.'

As Orual read aloud, her voice was strange to her but she knew that now she was hearing her real voice.

'I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word 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?'

Orual was being ‘unmade.' She admitted that she had never had one selfless thought of her sister, Psyche. She confessed that she was a craver.
Orual ends her narrative with these beautiful words before she died:

'I ended my first book with the words No answer. I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away...'

The myth of Cupid and Psyche takes on a new meaning with Lewis’s interpretation. How easy it is to be unreliable narrators and only view our lives as we ourselves see it outworking. This struck me so forcibly as someone who sometimes relies on a narrow view of circumstances.
Till We Have Faces has a strangely beautiful twist that echoes a little of the Book of Job in the Old Testament -  to my mind, anyhow.
It is a wonderfully layered, deep book that reverberates in your soul but is surprisingly easy to read.
I have this selection of books in one volume (see below) by the author and it's the copy I read.
For the book on its own see this edition in print.


Marian H said...

Wonderful review! I read this a couple of years ago and it really hit home with me, almost too well.

I'm about to read William Golding's The Double Tongue, which has a similar theme, and it will be interesting to compare the two novels.

Carol said...

It does sound like it has a similar theme judging from the synopsis I read but minus the underlying theme of redemption that I think is there in Lewis’s work. I only know Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Interesting to see he’s written something quite different.

Cleo @ Classical Carousel said...

Fabulous review .... I think you get to the heart of it. I was talking to a friend about this subject today. We each see things from our own (mostly selfish) perspective and we are so married to that perspective we refuse to see anything else. How can we hear if we refuse to? How can we see if we refuse to? I must read this again. It was Lewis' favourite book and one of my favourites of his too.

Carol said...

Thanks, Cleo. I nearly didn’t bother writing a review as I found it hard to express how I felt about it. It was the unreliable narrator that triggered my thoughts. It reminded me of Daphne du Maurier’s narrator in Rebekah who had a completely skewed perspective and re-interpreted everything in line with her own thinking.

Ruthiella said...

Sounds fascinating! Like so many readers I suspect, I've only read Lewis' children's books. I also typically really enjoy unreliable narrators in fiction, so I will definitely add this to my list.

Carol said...

Ruthiella, apparently this was one of Lewis’s favourites. It had been on his mind to author a retelling for years. I thought it was very different to most of his other books. 🙂

Aflyonmyhomeschoolwall said...

I am surprised to read that this book is out of print! How grateful I am that a wise college professor made it required reading for one of my classes many years ago! It is a book that affects me deeply each time I read it. Thank you for your insights--they deepened my understanding.

Carol said...

I was wrong, Anne. It is in print. I couldn't find it when I was looking before. I'll update it in my post.

GretchenJoanna said...

I am completely shocked that it could be out of print! I hope that changes soon...

This book affected me greatly; I read it twice, with tears, and even listed it on my About page as a favorite. But I could not have articulated one thing about why it seemed so important or how it went deep into the soul. I must have needed someone like you to read along with!

It's been many years I last read it, and you make me want to read it again soon. I have recently been listening to a Teaching Company lecture series on Lewis and his writings, from a professor at a Baptist university. I have only one lecture left, and it's on Till We Have Faces. After reading your review I am motivated to listen to the end, and maybe I will come back to your post more prepared to learn from it, and ready to grasp more from the book next time. Thank you, Carol!

Carol said...

I know exactly what you mean, GretchenJoanna! I finished it & had an emotional reaction that I didn’t know how to express at first. I wondered if I had over interpreted things but regardless, what I wrote is how I feel about it.

Brian Joseph said...

Though I have read a fair amount of CS Lewis I have not read this. Based on your commentary I think that I would like it a lot. I recently read Madeline Miller’s retelling of Circe and I thought that it was fantastic. In the right hands, the retelling of myths can work so well.

Carol said...

Oooh, that sounds interesting! I’ll see if I can find a copy 🙂

Sharon Wilfong said...

I remember when I first discovered Till We Have Faces. The very first Books A Million had opened in the town I was living in and I was browsing the hundreds of books, feeling like I was in a literary paradise. And there was Till We Had Faces. A book by Lewis I had not known about. Exciting!

I loved the book then and I still love reading it. It's funny how over the years, you read something and it's like a different book because of where you are in life. You see things you did not before and you don't like things you did before.

Carol said...

There are some books that really affected me when I read them - some in a negative way although I knew they were well written books. I just wasn't ready for them at the time. 'The Good Earth' by Pearl Buck was one of those. It haunted me for ages but I don't think I'd react to it in the same way now.
But I won't know until I read it again, I suppose. :)

Hamlette (Rachel) said...

Just read this for the first time last month, and I agree it was a wonderful surprise. And very hard to review. So nuanced and layered and complex. Wow. I am agog.