Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold
C. S. Lewis
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Reviewed by Marian Powell
his is a wonderful story that is almost completely unknown. It is the last novel written by C.S. Lewis and he himself thought it was his best work. He is renowned for the
series - that wonderful children's fable that can also be enjoyed by adults; the best known of the volumes being
The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe
. Lewis also wrote a science fiction
Till We Have Faces
is not related to either of these. It's a brilliant work, one that came from the end of his life, and is, I suspect, intended as a summary of his life and thought. I have read it several times for I find that I cannot dip into it without getting utterly caught up in the story again. It's a book that repays repeated readings.
ill We Have Faces
begins as a historical novel set in the mythical kingdom of Glome. The king's daughter, Orual, is a princess but she is also extremely ugly. Her father the king hates her for that reason. Ironically, it is clear that she is ugly only because she looks like her father who is a great and admired warrior. Lewis, in this novel, shows a remarkable ability to get into a woman's mind and soul. He shows a strong, intelligent woman fighting to find a place for herself in a society that values her sex only if they are pretty. Considering that the story was published in 1956, before the women's liberation movement, this is an even more remarkable achievement.
t's a novel that works on many levels. There is the story of Orual's struggles as she grows up. There is a deeper level of an unloved and unwanted child searching for affection and finding it in her feelings for an elderly slave (who becomes a teacher and a father to her) and then for her incredibly beautiful baby sister who becomes the center of her life and therefore the center of this story. The name of the baby sister is Psyche and this novel is actually a retelling of the Greek myth of
Psyche and Eros
. For those not familiar with it, Lewis puts the original myth at the end of the book along with a few comments.
he novel is very different from the myth although it follows the basic storyline. The myth allows Lewis to comment on how destructive we can be to those we love and how we can do the wrong thing with the best of intentions. And it gives Lewis a place to write about his deepest concern, which is man's spiritual journey. Orual begins by hating all the gods. Halfway through the book she meets the gods and hates them even more as she seems to lose what she loves most in the world. However, we're only halfway through the novel. The tone changes and darkens as Orual learns to live with terrible loss, live with it and triumphantly reach a higher level in the world than she could ever have imagined as a child.
ost authors would have stopped there with Orual becoming a kind of
Xena, Warrior Princess
. Lewis keeps going, taking us with Orual on a vast spiritual journey into the very depths of her soul that at last reveals the meaning of the title
Till We Have Faces
. Readers should be warned that the tone changes to a mystical dream in the final sections of the book as Orual at last confronts the gods, tells them what she thinks of them and then realizes that she is confronting the depths of her own soul. I can't say more without spoiling the plot. It's a remarkable book. If you read it, you will embark on an incredible journey with Orual.
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