Source of book: I own this.
Even though I finished reading this book several days ago, I have been contemplating, writing, and rewriting my thoughts. I read this book slowly enough anyway, and pondered it while reading, but I still haven’t come to a solid conclusion about it. It is undoubtedly a beautiful book, a haunting book, one that expresses the inexpressible; but it is hard to be sure entirely what Lewis meant by it, and even harder to decide what I feel about his meaning.
Till We Have Faces is an imaginative retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, from the point of view of the “wicked stepsister.” But it is more than that. Lewis adds psychological depth to an already complex story, and makes it in so many ways more terrifying and rending than the original.
The story of Cupid and Psyche dates back at least to the 4th Century BCE, as evidenced by artwork from that period. The written version of the tale appears as a story within the story in a novel by Apuleius, a Roman author of the 2nd Century CE. The book was largely forgotten after the fall of the Roman empire, but was rediscovered during the Renaissance. Since that time, it has been a source of inspiration for the visual arts, poetry, and prose. While many of the old myths continue to resonate with us as allegorical representations of truth, this one seems particularly timeless in its depiction of love, trust, and jealousy. Lewis takes it even further by creating a complex, flawed, and sympathetic character that tells us, ultimately, about ourselves.
Those who are already familiar with the underlying story can skip this part. I have noted before that I keep a Bible, a Bulfinch’s Mythology, and a dictionary handy when reading, because these three are indispensable for understanding much of literature.
Psyche was the youngest of three sister princesses, and had such beauty that the people stopped worshiping Venus, and started giving homage to Psyche instead. Venus became jealous, and incited the people to sacrifice Psyche by leaving her exposed to be devoured by (or perhaps married to) a monster.
Venus’ son, Cupid, sees Psyche, and falls in love with her. He has her taken to his palace, and comes to her at night and makes love to her, but forbids her to see him.
Psyche’s sisters are allowed to visit her, and they are overcome with jealousy at her palace, and conspire to destroy her happiness. They claim that she is married to the monster, and that is why he won’t let her see him, and convince her to take a lamp and look at him while he is sleeping. She accidentally wakes him up, and he banishes her.
After the sisters are lured to their doom, Psyche wanders the earth searching for her lover. She seeks divine assistance, but the other goddesses will not intervene. Venus herself is still furious, and sets Psyche to a series of impossible tasks, which she completes with assistance from animals, plants, and eventually Jupiter himself. At the very last, she gives in to curiosity, and all seems lost, but Cupid is able to convince Jupiter to make Psyche immortal, so they can be united in marriage. Thus love wins in the end.
C. S. Lewis was haunted and fascinated by the story of Cupid and Psyche throughout his life. He initially conceived the idea of the book, and indeed many of the ideas, during his undergratuate days. He would continue to mull over the questions and ideas for the next 35+ years, finally writing everything down in 1956. Lewis would dedicate the book to Joy Davidman, who he would marry later that year. She helped him with the book, and he later said that he patterned the final version of the main character in part after her.
The word “psyche” itself has multiple meanings. In its literal sense, it meant “breath” in Greek. But it also was used as the word for “butterfly” and for “the soul.” Thus, in the story and in real life, it was often used as a woman’s name. The little butterfly. But it also referred to the innermost being, and was used in that sense. So Cupid and Psyche could be understood allegorically as the wedding of love/desire with the soul. It also has been understood as an allegory of the Neoplatonic concept of the melding of the human soul with the Divine. Apuleius probably intended his version to be read that way, and later authors followed that basic idea, sometimes expanding the allegory by giving specific names to the parents and sisters of Psyche.
Lewis follows the basic idea of the union of the soul and the Divine nature, but makes some key changes to the plot. In my opinion, it is these that bring the complexity to the characters and to the fateful decisions they make.
The reason for the changes was simple. Lewis noticed that some of the characters behaved in ways that were illogical. The motivation seemed unclear, and hardly human.
Since Lewis elected to tell the tale from the point of view of the stepsister, he had to find a way to make her more than a cookie-cutter evil stepsister villain. So, he decided to make Cupid’s palace invisible to all except Psyche. Thus, she appears mad when visited by her sister, Orual. While Orual’s motives are not pure, she is motivated in large part by love for Psyche, and only realizes her error too late. Because she is the protagonist, she cannot be simply killed off by Venus early in the narrative. Instead, she is sentenced by Cupid to her own punishment, “You too shall be Psyche.” A good bit of the rest of the book is a departure from the original. Psyche’s tasks are given little time, while Orual’s life as queen takes center stage. Psyche herself is absent until the end.
There are some other changes to Orual as well. In the original, she is beautiful - just not as beautiful as Psyche. In Lewis’ version, she is ugly, and those around her are happy to tell her that. After the kingdom falls on hard times and a political marriage becomes unlikely, she has to resign herself to a lonely life. She initially compensates by pouring her love into her little sister, but when Psyche is taken from her, she buries her self in her role as queen. By all accounts, she is a strong, wise, and benevolent ruler, as the end of the book makes clear. But she has damaged those closest to her because her love for them is selfish and needy. She has damaged herself as well.
The book is divided into two sections, the first of which is much longer. It tells the story itself through the point in time when the older Orual writes down her story, which she intends to be her complaint against the gods. The second part is her epilogue after she has had an epiphany and sees things from a far different perspective. That moment might be characterized as her conversion, when she comes to peace with the gods.
It is this moment and the contrast that has given me the most trouble. I spent some time reading a variety of opinions about the book to see what ideas others have had. Most who have analyzed the book from the “Christian” perspective came to the conclusion that it was, to a degree, a representation of Lewis’ own conversion experience. (I use “Christian” in quotes, because there isn’t any one Christian viewpoint, any more than there is a one “American” viewpoint.) It is an interesting idea, particularly given that the book was conceived long before Lewis converted. It might explain why, to me at least, the second part felt a little disconnected from the first. Not that they didn’t fit together, but that the first part could have stood alone without the second.
This brings me to the discomfort at the heart of the resolution for me. True enough that Orual is biased. (The fact that she is an unreliable narrator is part of why she is such a likeable character.) True enough also that she cannot know or see everything, particularly the meaning of her own suffering. In that sense, it is like the Book of Job, where the questions are answered with another question, and the meaning is never known to the sufferer. Perhaps that is Lewis’ intent. In my experience, he often avoids attempting a complete answer to unanswerable questions. The resolution occurs, but the question remains. I was reminded of the question he grapples with in Perelandra: could the fall of mankind been prevented just by removing the temptor? In that book, the answer may be yes. Or it may not, and that is the thought that is left at the end.
Orual has a point, too. Had she been able to see clearly, had the gods revealed themselves to her, she would have made different choices. She is particularly pained when she hears her story told by a priest, who tells it like the classic legend, with all blame and no mitigation for Orual’s part in the story. I very much identify with Orual on this. There is so much in life that feels like groping and staggering in the rough direction of the good, of the truth, and yet it remains hidden to us.
That said, I do think that Lewis makes a valid theological point which is too often forgotten. No matter how much we know or learn or think, we will always see but a part of the picture. We do not know the answers, or at least the complete answer. For the old Orual, she concluded at the end of the first part that the gods themselves had no answer.
Let them answer my charge if they can. It may well be that, instead of answering, they’ll strike me mad or leprous, or turn me into beast, bird, or tree. But will not all the world then know (and the gods will know it knows) that this is because they have no answer?
The converted Orual realizes that the communication itself is impossible, and that the meaning cannot be seen until there has been some change in her (and in all mortals).
I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till the word can 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?
The second part then ends incomplete, as Orual dies before she can finish her thought entirely. But what she is able to say responds to the end of the first part.
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. What other answer would suffice? Only words, words; to be led out to battle against other words. Long did I hate you, long did I fear you. I might–
It is an interesting contrast. “No answer” and “I might.”
The transformation theme is one that Lewis used elsewhere. In The Last Battle, there is a contrast between what is “real” and what is really real. That which we see is a faded reflection of what truly is. Likewise, in The Great Divorce, which I read in my early teens, those who come to visit heaven from hell cannot tolerate the grass, because it is so real it hurts their feet. They are mere shadows, not yet become real. These are all connected to each other, and to an idea set forth by Saint Paul.
For now we see in a mirror, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know fully even as also I was fully known. (I Corinthians 13:12)
And also by Saint John.
Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is. (I John 3:2)
It is the mystery of how we shall someday have faces and be made real.
There were a few other things that stood out about the book. Orual describes her love for Psyche in very interesting terms.
I wanted to be a wife so that I could have been her real mother. I wanted to be a boy so that she could be in love with me. I wanted her to be my full sister instead of my half sister. I wanted her to be a slave so that I could set her free and make her rich.
Even in Orual’s own words, one can see that she is projecting her own disappointments onto the relationship. It is a selfish love, and it is consuming. That is why when Psyche is taken, it destroys pretty much every hope Orual has.
A couple of literary references were also noteworthy. Orual feels that her father has sacrificed Psyche in the same way Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia. But also, Orual would desire to be Iphigenia if that would save Psyche. Later, when it appears too late, Orual decides to play the part of Antigone, by seeking to give Psyche a decent burial.
In one of the central scenes, where Orual (who has learned to swordfight) challenges a neighboring prince to single combat to settle the dispute, she notes that most of the people are eager to see the fight as a novelty, the same way that people who lack musical discernment will come see someone who plays the instrument with his toes.
I will also note that sexuality is woven through this entire story, just as it is in the original. Psyche is ravished by Cupid, but cannot enter into marriage with him until she becomes a goddess. The shallow middle sister, Redival, invites her father’s ire because of her flirtatious ways, and he worries that he will not be able to get her to marriage with her maidenhead intact. Orual suffers from her own sexual frustration throughout. She feels (with some justification) that Psyche is talking down to her after her relationship with Cupid starts. Is the mere loss of virginity enough to give Psyche that confidence and security that Orual feels she lacks?
In the fight scene referenced above, Orual draws fatal blood with her sword, and finds herself feeling weak and as if something had been taken away from her. She muses, “I have often wondered if women feel like that when they lose their virginity.” It is an interesting question. Like Lady MacBeth, she has “unsexed” herself, wearing a veil, fighting like a man. She succeeds, perhaps, in losing any identity as a woman, because she has lost hope of ever measuring up.
That leads to one final thought. As Psyche attempts to explain to Orual why she felt ashamed in the presence of a god, she notes that she felt most ashamed of being a mortal. Orual asks, logically, “But how could you help that?”
Psyche’s response is profound. “Don’t you think the things people are most ashamed of are the things they can’t help?”
Orual is herself most ashamed of what she cannot help. She is ashamed of her ugliness, and that is the one thing she cannot control. I would go one further and say that we often try to make others most ashamed of what they cannot control as well.
This is a book that I probably will want to revisit in the future. There is a lot in there, and like most of Lewis’ works, it seems as if it will reveal new treasures each time it is read.