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C. S. Lewis: Till We Have Faces

C.S. Lewis' Till We Have Faces is his last work, retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche from the perspective of Psyche's older sister Orual. In the version I have, Lewis' introduction outlines the myth plainly.

Framed as Orual's charge against the gods, Orual narrates her life to provide evidence of the gods' cruelty. The King of Glome largely ignores or beats his daughters, and when Psyche is born a girl, he ignores her also. For most of Psyche's youth, Orual and her tutor the Fox become a family, with the Fox still mentoring Orual, Orual mothering Psyche, and the three forming their little world of their own. When Psyche is taken away to be a sacrifice to the King of the Mountain, cracks start to appear. Orual manages to sneak into Psyche's chamber the night before Psyche is left for the Shadowbrute, but she is dismayed and angered by Psyche's calm acceptance of her fate. Orual makes the climb up the mountain later to try to retrieve Psyche's body, but discovers that Psyche is still alive, and apparently delusional. Psyche says that the god of the mountain has literally made her his bride and that she lives in a palace on top of the mountain. The palace is invisible to Orual, and so she tries futilely to bring Psyche back to Glome. Grief-stricken, Orual and The Fox believe that Psyche's gone crazy, and Orual convinces Psyche to light a lantern when her lover returns, so Psyche can see his face. She does so, and is cast out into the world and into the hands of a vengeful Aphrodite. Although Orual becomes (in any other novel) a ruler of legendary greatness, she's haunted forever by what's happened to Psyche. Narrated from Orual, the novel is nevertheless centered about Psyche.

One of the most beautiful parts of Till We Have Faces is Lewis' writing. It's at once clearly antiquated but perfectly in line with the story he's telling, with turns of phrase which make the novel a pleasure to read. He writes in a style that went out of date thirty or forty years ago, the sort that uses exclamation marks unselfconsciously, but it's not just that--Lewis really does have an ear for language. And as for the writing intersecting with the story: Orual lives in Glome, a backwater little state far from civilized places like Greece, Fox's homeland. Throughout the novel there's the constant comparison of Glome to Greece, superstition (of Glome) and philosophy/poetry/logic (brought by the Fox, an educated man), and between the gods of the two places--Glome's terrible Ungit, and Aphrodite, her counterpart. Even Orual, so ugly that men apparently flinch from her and she ends up wearing a veil for the rest of her life voluntarily, is utterly different from Psyche, "prettier than Andromeda, prettier than Helen, prettier than Aphrodite herself." At the end of the novel all the dualities seem to merge. The widow of one of Orual's trusted advisors, worked to death, calls Orual a devourer of men, the same as the Shadowbrute and Ungit, only that she takes lives willingly from her victims. Ungit and Aphrodite merge as a terrible, vengeful and beautiful goddess in Orual's eyes. And the vision that Orual has of the two Psyches, herself and Psyche, comes true too. Both Orual and Psyche shoulder the burdens that the mythical Psyche does--collecting golden wool from murderous rams, etc. The unreliable narrator device gets used and then reversed; the book is in two parts, with one as the charge and the second with her attempt to overturn the first narrative. Put like that, the reader's left doubting whether any of it's accurate.

I retain an entrenched dislike of Christian theology, and because of that, I did not like the implied idea that divine grace is necessary for love. Orual's love for Psyche, no matter how well-intentioned or genuine or powerful initially turns inexorably into bitterness and hurt. The greatest emotion of love is the greatest bitterness. In his defense, Lewis does write the transition believably; the castle that Psyche lives in is invisible to Orual, and Orual's understandably afraid of madness. But like the realization of the allegory for the Chronicles of Narnia, it leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.

Despite everything, everything that I've said, it's really a beautiful, well-written book, well worth the energy spent thinking and reading about. There's a blend of storytelling and philosophy which really does reward further analysis. 10/10

And finally, I am not either of the nonnies in this f_fa thread about the novel but if you are, please friend me posthaste. The link has a trove of thought-provoking analysis about all sorts of ideas in Till We Have Faces.

Crosspost: http://silverflight8.dreamwidth.org/130122.html.


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 27th, 2013 09:44 am (UTC)
Hi! I was wondering if you were "either of the nonnies" yourself - that is, I was wondering if you were the other nonnie, since I am one. (I would consider myself a small-book-fandoms person. I thought about joining in on the friending meme, but lately I haven't been talking about a lot of fannish stuff in my journal, so I didn't join in. But I wanted to say hi!)

Lewis really does have an ear for language

-Doesn't he just. I am now reading The Discarded Image, a study of the medieval English (or Western European, maybe) 'model' of the universe, and what influences shaped it. Have a quote:

"The present study, however, is interested not in the short-lived impact of the new religion on the old but with the enduring effect of the old upon the new. The last, and neo-Platonic, wave of Paganism which had gathered up into itself much from the preceding waves, Aristotelian, Platonic, Stoic, and what not, came far inland and made brackish lakes which have, perhaps, never been drained."

Isn't that neat? I feel as though That Is How You Do Metaphor.

(On the note of divine grace being necessary for love - I find it interesting that there is love in the books between people who haven't been through Orual's experiences with 'the god of the grey mountain'. Ansit's love for Bardua. Orual's people's love for her. I don't know quite what that says, but I find it reassuring.)

Edited at 2013-05-27 09:44 am (UTC)
May. 27th, 2013 10:02 pm (UTC)
Sadly I am not Other Nonnie. Your discussion with them made me go out to the library to re-borrow it today though! Also I think I've seen you around--probably yuletide? Anyway, I don't mind non-fannishness in journal entries so I've friended you. (No obligations either way.)

About the divine grace & love thing--Ansit to me always felt bitter. She says to Orual that she ended up with the dredges (she says "I'll not deny it; I had what you left of him", and at the end of the chapter "For it needs no Oedipus to guess that, many and many a night, her jealousy of me had welcomed him home, late from the palace, to a bitter hearth" [both from the first chapter of the second part]) although you're right, it's more of a bitterness directed towards Orual than anyone else. And again with Ansit, she calls Orual a devourer of men (taking their loyalties but not exactly loving them back, separated).

Yes! It's just a delight to read. Like right down to the sentence structure, the punctuation, the everything *in raptures*
May. 27th, 2013 11:10 pm (UTC)
Your discussion with them made me go out to the library to re-borrow it today though! Oh, neat.

Yes, I am pretty active around Yuletide. It's a high point of the year for me.

I may be cherry-picking from the parts of Orual and Ansit's conversation I found most interesting: what I remember is that Ansit contrasted Orual's devouring/possessive tendencies with her own love for Bardia, which allowed Ansit to let Bardia go to his work, and wear himself out, day after day without protest. But it's a very fraught scene - neither Orual nor Ansit are at their best. And since that's the only time we hear Ansit speak, it's hard (for me) to decide if she is truly bitter all the time, or if we're seeing only through Orual's dark glass.

Thanks! I'll friend you back. Maybe at some point I'll post something of general interest.
May. 29th, 2013 01:37 am (UTC)
True--Ansit loves him enough to let him do what he loves even while it takes him away from her. Same with her son.

Yay! I look forward to it.
May. 27th, 2013 04:10 pm (UTC)
But like the realization of the allegory for the Chronicles of Narnia, it leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.

Despite everything, everything that I've said, it's really a beautiful, well-written book,

i agree with you 100%. the heavy-handed "Christian faith is the best faith" kind of made me feel sour and uncomfortable at times. but beneath the overtly Christian allegory, there was just something so painfully human and beautiful on Orual's story. because i think in her we recognize that all too human part of ourselves that strives to do good, longs for beauty, and often feels ugly or unfulfilled. i think Lewis really did capture something fundamental about the human condition in this book, even if he was writing from an overtly Christian standpoint.
May. 28th, 2013 02:05 am (UTC)
Yes. There are no hard edges at all anywhere in his novel--no one's reprehensible or all good, they're all just muddy and real. I especially like the unreliable narrator trope that gets used so much; even at the very end, the priest adds his own view, and every time Lewis does it it's like your knowledge of the world is flipped over again. Orual has the same limited view of anyone, but yeah--really, really human.

I'm glad I realized afterwards, because that definitely helps. Same with Narnia; I actually only realized years after (and by then I'd also been really disappointed and frustrated with The Last Battle. Still haven't reread it ever, and I reread stuff all the time.)
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )



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