Besides the famous Chronicles of Narnia and Space Trilogy there is C. S. Lewis’ “other” novel, Till We Have Faces. It is a pity that it is not well known, because it is Lewis’ greatest work.
Lewis’ background material is the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche, a tale about a mortal girl who is married to the god of love. Cupid would only visit his bride in their palace at the dead of night, not letting her see his face. Psyche’s sisters, after visiting her in the palace, jealous of the girl’s luck, convince her to disobey her husband by lighting a lamp in the bedroom once the god fell asleep because, they argued, he might not be a god at all but a monster. That night when Psyche sees his face, she is so transfixed by her husband’s beauty that she does not notice a drop of hot oil that falls from her lamp and burns him. The god awakes enraged, and for punishment, he condemns Psyche to wander the earth, subject to torments of his jealous mother, Venus, dashing her hopes of happiness in this life.
Lewis transforms story by telling it from the perspective of Psyche’s oldest sister,
Orual. The book is her written accusation against the gods for all the evil they have done to her
from childhood, above all by stealing away her beloved sister, Psyche. Orual is the book’s first
strength, and I would argue that she is Lewis’ greatest literary creation; her fierce loves and
hatreds, courage and desperation, intelligence and humiliations carry the book as she recounts her
own life along with her role in her sister’s undoing. If nowadays Lewis is accused of being a
misogynist, it is because Orual is not better known.
The book’s second strength is its “atmosphere”. The tone is dark, emotive, and dense with symbols. The barbarian kingdom in which the story takes places is far from enlightened Greece. The local version of Venus is the goddess Ungit, a volcanic rock at the heart of a fertility cult that demands occasional human sacrifice.
In the end, the work of writing her accusation slowly reveals Orual to herself, and
reveals to us the limitations of human love, which must be integrated into divine love if it is to
David Monahan, LC studies for the priesthood in Rome.
Question or comment? Please, write to Fr. Nathan Miller, LC at [email protected]
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