Nearly 50 years have passed the death of C.S. Lewis — he died of illness in 1963 on the same November day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated — yet Lewis remains a household name and a best-selling author. Although he taught at both Oxford and Cambridge, where he was a respected medieval and Renaissance scholar, he is today best known for his novels and his tomes on Christian apologetics. The release of different films based on the Chronicles of Narnia have only enlarged his audience for these stories, his space trilogy continues to attract readers, and many Christians, new and old alike, are familiar with his books on faith: The Great Divorce, Mere Christianity, Surprised By Joy, and others.
Often, however, even readers who are reasonably well-acquainted with the work of Lewis express surprise when asked about his novel Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold. Though this book, which some critics regard as the best of Lewis’ novels, lends itself to rereading, deep discussion, and numerous interpretations, many Lewis fans have never read Till We Have Faces, and many more have never heard of it.
This is regrettable, for these readers are missing a deep, rich mine of a book, a dark story scintillating with bright gems: strong characters, bold themes, a universal story. Till We Have Faces recreates the myth of Cupid and Psyche, which, as Lewis writes in a note at the end of the book, he took from Metamorphoses, or The Golden Ass, by Lucius Apuleius Pltaonicus. In the original myth as recounted by Apuleius — and there are several variations — Psyche is the mortal daughter of a powerful king. She is the most beautiful maiden in all the land. Eventually, Venus becomes jealous of Psyche and directs her son, Cupid, to punish Psyche. Cupid, however, falls in love with Psyche and takes her to his bridal chamber. Psyche, however, at the urging of her sisters, disobeys Cupid’s command not to look on him (he visits her only in the night), is apprehended, and must then wander the earth looking for her lover. After many trials, she and Cupid are finally reunited.
This myth gives readers much to ponder. Cupid is Eros, the god of sexual desire, and Psyche means soul in Greek (It also means butterfly, of which Thomas Bullfinch once wrote that “there is no illustration of the immortality of the soul so striking and beautiful as the butterfly, bursting on brilliant wings from the tomb in which it has lain … to flutter in the blaze of day and feed on the most fragrant and delicate productions of the spring.”)
In this ancient myth we see the workings of Eros on love, and yet we sympathize with Psyche as well as she reveals the sufferings which the soul must undergo to attain the deepest and fullest measure of love. The child eventually produced by the union of Cupid and Psyche is strikingly named Pleasure — not the term as we generally understand it, but pleasure meant more in the sense of pleasing. The offspring of Eros and Soul, in other words, is pleasing, right, good.
In Till We Have Faces, Lewis gives us the same general tale as Apuleius, but he deepens the characters, adds more detail to the plot, and more fully develops his own theme. In Lewis’ version, Orual, Psyche’s older sister, tells the tale of her family and the kingdom of Glome, of which her father is the king. Orual is a complicated character, rejected by her father for her ugliness, obsessively in love with her sister, a girl who by the end of the book becomes a cunning queen and a harsh judge of people. Always suffering from the loss of her sister, for which she blames on the gods, Orual has even prepared a brief against these deities for the pain they have brought to the kingdom of Glome, to her sister Psyche, and to herself.
In addition to Psyche, two other characters play important roles in the book and in Orual’s life. The first is her tutor and good friend, the Fox, a Greek slave and an atheistic philosopher who represents rational thinking. The second is Lord Bardia, her chief military commander and close friend, who encourages her in the ways of duty, honor, and justice. Through her own selfishness, Orual eventually destroys the lives of both men, wanting them, as she wanted Psyche, completely for herself and for her own needs, rather than allowing them the small freedoms of life due to them.
By his retelling of this myth, Lewis has given us a very modern story about love, the will, the soul, and the relationship between them. He delves more powerfully than Apuleius into the central theme of the Greek myth, that Cupid, who is Love, is made for Psyche, or the soul, and that their union results in Pleasure, which is the pleasure of a soul infused with love.
Through Orual’s account of her life we also come to understand what happens when we pervert or twist love. We see the many masks of false love we wear, the facades we erect, most often unwittingly, to protect ourselves, the disguises we wear in our self-righteousness to justify our actions. Here Orual becomes our mirror. As she slowly comprehends her terrible flaws — her domination of those around her, her twisted sense of true love, her quarrels with the gods — we readers become aware of our own awful failings and misjudgments, of our own responsibility for so horribly wounding those around us, particularly those whom we profess to love most. We may even come to understand, at some level, the lesson finally learned by Orual: that we cannot meet the gods face to face till we ourselves have faces.
Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold by C.S. Lewis. Harcourt Brace & Company. 324 pages