Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis
This novel is a re-telling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche. The story is narrated by an aging Orual, the eldest daughter of Trom, now Queen of Glome, written in first-person. Her aim is to “accuse the gods; especially the god who lives on the Grey Mountain.” As part of her complaint, Orual narrates her life story.
Orual loved her younger half-sister Psyche. When Psyche was still young, the Priest demanded a “Great Offering” to the god Ungit in order to mitigate the kingdom’s current woes, and the lots fell on Psyche. Orual was understandably devastated, but the sacrifice was carried out: the victim was bound to the Holy Tree on the mountain and left there. Later, when Orual visited the mountain in order to gather Psyche’s remains, she found Psyche alive. Psyche claimed that she was now happily living in the palace as the wife of the god.
Of course, the palace was invisible to Orual and Psyche admitted that she was forbidden to look on this god. To Orual, Psyche’s husband could easily have been a monster. Orual, in her disbelief and wishing to have Psyche return with her, demanded Psyche “test” the god by looking on him using an oil lamp. Psyche eventually agreed and did so. As a consequence of this betrayal, both Psyche and Orual are punished. Orual later ascended to the throne and although Glome prospered under her competent rule, her life was a continual struggle dealing with her loss, hence her complaint against the gods and her demands for an answer.
Till We Have Faces was first published in 1956 and Lewis considers this to be his best work, and it probably is.
Like Lewis’s other writings, the prose is simple and plain. There are no long words nor clunky descriptions. It’s as if both the author and viewpoint character say what they mean and mean what they say. (This also happens to be one of the themes of the novel.) In that respect, it is easy to read. But thematically, this is a dense and very complex story. It is a multi-layered and multi-faceted exploration of the classic question regarding the meaning of suffering. And, related to this question, it also deals with faith and reason, love, death, seeking the “hidden” God, and our identity.
There are obvious parallels between Orual’s complaint and those made by Job. Lewis has masterfully weaved the Christian themes into this pagan myth. The imagery, Scriptural allusions and relationships between characters have multiple meanings. It is not a simple case of Orual is us as individuals and Ungit is God; they can be reversed if one analyzes the text from a different angle.
Despite the story being set in the ancient world, the story is nonetheless engaging and Orual is a relatable character, intellectually and emotionally, probably because most of us are like her.
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