When most of us think of C.S. Lewis, we think of his hugely popular “Chronicles of Narnia.” Despite being a longtime devotee of the Narnia books, I never read any of his other works – until this one. “Till We Have Faces” is a wonderful book, full of all the beautiful language and innovative plot twists that one would expect from C.S. Lewis. The content and the language are clearly directed at an adult audience, but the things that made me love his writing in the Narnia books are still present – most importantly, his ability to weave a story from some of the most fantastical elements and still make it seem real.
“Till We Have Faces” retells the classic myth of Cupid and Psyche from the point of view of Psyche’s sister, Orual. Lewis creates the story in the setting of an ancient society, which believes in the power of the gods and still practice sacrifices to please them. Orual and Psyche are born as princesses in this world, daughters to the king of a small and failing kingdom.
I was surprised at this setting for a retelling of a myth such as this, because I was expecting Greece, a grand palace or at least a bit more prosperous kingdom. But I think that Lewis uses this unexpected setting and its uniquely harsh language to mirror the harsh qualities of the narrator, Orual.
Though Orual was born a princess, she never received love from her parents or respect from any of her peers. She is said to be an extremely ugly child and is shunned by much of the kingdom, giving her a generally dark attitude towards people and life in general – that is, until her sister is born. Orual is still seen as the ugly one, but she finds a new purpose in life by caring for her little sister. As Psyche grows older, Orual finally has a friend and knows love in a way that she never had before . Lewis does a wonderful job illustrating this bond between siblings.
In a way, it even reminded me of the bonds described in the Narnia series. This is another of Lewis’s talents – depicting the bonds of human relationships. There aren’t specific incidents to point to, really, or even one poignant scene that stands out above the rest to illustrate this relationship. Rather, it is the way in which he mixes these together with the smaller everyday moments to create the nuances of a sisterly bond that is truly unique.
It doesn’t take long to discover that, despite their bond, the two sisters are strikingly different. Psyche is everything that Orual is not: pretty, accepted, loved. Orual, whom we may expect to be jealous of her sister, is surprisingly not. Instead, she loves her sister more than anything else in the world, but it is this love that will prove dangerous to Psyche in a way that neither of them ever imagined.
In a way, I think that Orual’s love for Psyche allows her to live vicariously through her sister. When she is with Psyche, she is overshadowed, but acknowledged. She is constantly around Psyche, so she gets to see first-hand what kind of adoration and respect she receives all the time. Though she isn’t jealous of it, I think that she does rely on it and tries to claim some of it as her own, in some strange way.
One day, Psyche draws the attention of a god (Cupid, no less, the god of love). While Psyche is thrilled, Orual does not want to believe that it is true – she does not want to lose her sister. She is torn between wanting to believe her sister and letting her go and denying that it could be true in order to keep Psyche with her. While I obviously won’t tell you what happens, suffice it to say that the choice Orual makes will affect not only both of their lives forever, but everyone around them.