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.
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.