Old School Wednesdays is a regular Book Smuggler feature. We came up with the idea towards the end of 2012, when both Ana and Thea were feeling exhausted from the never-ending inundation of New and Shiny (and often over-hyped) books. What better way to snap out of a reading fugue than to take a mini-vacation into the past?
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Title: Till We Have Faces
Author: C.S. Lewis
Publication date: First published 1956
Paperback: 368 pages
In this timeless tale of two mortal princesses- one beautiful and one unattractive- C.S. Lewis reworks the classical myth of Cupid and Psyche into an enduring piece of contemporary fiction. This is the story of Orual, Psyche’s embittered and ugly older sister, who posessively and harmfully loves Psyche. Much to Orual’s frustration, Psyche is loved by Cupid, the god of love himself, setting the troubled Orual on a path of moral development.
Set against the backdrop of Glome, a barbaric, pre-Christian world, the struggles between sacred and profane love are illuminated as Orual learns that we cannot understand the intent of the gods “till we have faces” and sincerity in our souls and selves.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone
How did I get this book: Bought
Format (e- or p-): print
This is another entry in a series of Old School Wednesdays posts, brought to you by the amazing folks who supported us on Kickstarter. As one reward level, backers were given the opportunity to pick an Old School title for one of us to read and review online.
I didn’t know this book existed until it was recommended to me! A retelling of Cupid and Psyche, Till We Have Faces is Lewis’ last book, one that was years in the making and a work that is the result of Lewis’ fixation on what he thought was the original tale’s lack of internal logic when it comes to Psyche’s sisters’ actions. He addresses this by retelling the myth from the perspective of Psyche’s sister, Orual.
The novel’s is narrated by Orual as though written by her as an accusation against the Gods and their unjust, capricious whims. Her tale, told in two parts, is one of love and loss:
It tells her story from the moment she is born as the ugly, deformed child of a minor King in the fictitious Kingdom of Glome. Unloved, overlooked and without the prospect of ever getting married, Orual’s one source of happiness comes in the form of a beautiful, perfect half-sister whom she effectively cares for as her own daughter. This child is of course, Psyche.
Then one day, a jealous Goddess demands that Psyche is given as a sacrifice to the terrifying God of the Mountain. Orual tries everything in her power to prevent Psyche from being taken away from her to no avail. When she is finally able to mountain a rescue months later, she finds Psyche alive and well, happy and loved by a husband she has never seen – Orual immediately thinks Psyche is either being fooled or is mad. Moved by her love for Psyche, Orual tries to convince her of these falsehoods and free her – but that does not go down well. Psyche is banned and Orual doesn’t see her again.
Part one continues with Orual’s growth as a powerful leader, architect and politician taking over from her father’s death – something that she is able to do due to the care and support of her beloved teacher Fox (a Greek slave) and of the Captain of their Guard who teaches her how to fight. At the end of part 1, when Orual is old, she hears the tale of Psyche and decides to tell her own side of the story, which is how we got here. Interestingly enough, Part two is a renunciation of her renunciation when we learn the depth of Orual’s unreliable narrative in different ways.
It is interesting to note that Psyche and Cupid are minor characters here, the story focuses largely on Orual and her perspective. Till We Have Faces proved to be better than I was expecting overall, both from a myth retelling perspective and as a great, engaging story about female empowerment with Orual growing into a capable, awesome leader to her people.
On the flip side, the novel does feature Lewis’ preoccupation with female beauty ( I will never forget you, Susan). This runs as a thread throughout – which in fairness, fits into the mould of the Greek’s obsession with beauty and punishment of great beauty as well as fitting the specific tale of Psyche. But I wonder what was Lewis doing when writing Orual as so ugly she had to cover her face for most of her life. What does it mean that the character who is ugly is the one that proves to be capable and powerful and eventually allowed to grow and regret facing off with the Gods?
In the end, I enjoyed the chance to read Till We Have Faces a whole lot.
Rating: 7 – Very good