Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Till We Have Faces

Till We Have Faces: A Myth RetoldIf you like ancient myths and the retelling of myths, I've got a book recommendation for you, Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold by C. S. Lewis. If you've only encountered Lewis through his Narnia series, you'll meet a different side of Lewis in Till We Have Faces.

The myth in question is the story of Cupid and Psyche. In the original tale, Psyche is the extraordinarily beautiful youngest daughter of a king. Unfortunately, Psyche's beauty leads men to worship her as a deity (forsaking the worship of Venus) and no one will propose marriage. The oracle of Apollo tells the king there is no hope for a mortal suitor and that he should leave Psyche on a mountainside. The king follows the oracle's suggestion. Venus has devised a punishment for Psyche and asks her son Cupid to afflict Psyche with desire for the most base and despicable men. When Cupid sees Psyche he falls in love with her and has the West-Wind carry her to a secret palace where they became lovers with Cupid visiting her each night but forbidding her to see his face. Psyche pleads with Cupid to allow her two older sisters to visit. Cupid relents and brings them to the palace where they enjoy its splendors. The sisters become jealous of Psyche for their husbands are mortal and their homes far less grand. They convince Psyche that her husband is something monstrous and that she should hide a lamp in her bedroom and look at him while he sleeps. Psyche does as they ask, but when she sees Cupid, a drop of oil falls from the lamp and wakes him. Enraged, Cupid rebukes her and vanishes. The two sisters die soon after as a result of Cupids interventions and Psyche is left to wander desolate and wretched. Venus later takes Psyche for a slave and gives her what Venus believes are impossible tasks. With help--from ants, an eagle, and voices--Psyche completes the four tasks. However, at the end of her fourth task, she gives in to curiosity and peeks inside a cask containing the beauty of Persephone. Psyche immediately loses consciousness, but Cupid comes to her, forgives her, and intercedes on her behalf to make her a goddess.

Lewis tells the story as a first person narrative by Orual, Psyche's beloved, elder half-sister. While Psyche enjoys unnatural beauty and a loving innocence, Orual suffers from unnatural ugliness. Orual's strength of character, intelligence, and physical prowess--she is a natural and gifted sword fighter--compensate for her facial deformity. Redival, the middle sister, enjoys some beauty but is shallow, vain, and weak. Orual tells her story--her autobiography--during the last days of her long and successful rule as queen of Glome. She claims that her story is an accusation of the gods, a testament to what they have done to and taken from her. Orual and her Greek tutor raise Psyche, whose mother died in childbirth. Their father, who has no sons, takes little interest in his daughters. The people of Glome worship a goddess named Ungit. In the midst of a series of natural calamities, including drought and disease, the chief priest of Ungit demands a human sacrifice to be given to the brute (some type of hideous beast) that lives on a nearby mountain. The lots point to Psyche. The king, who initially thought he was to be the sacrifice, is relieved and readily agrees to sacrifice his daughter. Orual is devastated by the loss and convinces a captain of the guard to take her up the mountain so that she can bury Psyche's remains. To her amazement, she finds Psyche alive, healthy, and happy, living in a secluded valley. Psyche tells Orual that she is now married to a god and lives in a palace. Orual, however, cannot see the palace and believes Psyche is mad or being tricked and that she must save her and take her away. The problem, as Orual sees it, is how to convince Psyche that she is being tricked. Days later, Orual returns to the mountain valley with an oil lamp and convinces Psyche to break her promise not to look at her lover's face. The god condemns Psyche to wander the earth weeping, destroys the palace and valley, and appears before Orual to rebuke her. Orual suspects that she will soon die but instead lives a long and successful though lonely life. Sounds of a woman weeping haunt her. She decides to wear a veil to hide her face and reinvents herself as the queen of Glome, burying Orual deep in her mind.

Orual tells the story of her spiritual development with a powerful and stark narrative voice. In what I thought was a stroke of metafictional genius, Orual travels outside of Glome on a "sightseeing trip" near the end of her reign. One evening she happens upon a small temple devoted to the worship of a new goddess named Psyche. She listens intently to the story the priest tells her about the goddess, which is the traditional myth. Orual attempts to learn more about Psyche and correct the priest's story but the man is obstinate. I won't spoil the rest of the story for you. It ends well. If you're interested in retelling myths or merely want a satisfying read, Till We Have Faces is well worth your time.

1 comment:

  1. One of my favorites by Lewis!
    Dan Allendar, in chapter two of TO BE TOLD, quotes Orual, Queen of Glome, to illustrate the importance of writing which "forces us to think differengly about the story, to choose and structure carefully what we tell....writing clarifies our memory. It exposes the places where we have downplayed either the harm done to us or what we really felt in the scene....(Orual) wrote what she knew, & the writing exposed another, deeper, truth. The writing revealed her own heart."
    Thanks for sharing, Jeff - for perhaps introducing others to a great read.