Thursday, April 12, 2012

Review: Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis

Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss, Antonio Canova

Reviewed by Christina

Published: 1956

It's about: Till We Have Faces is the myth of Cupid and Psyche, retold from the point of view of Psyche's oldest sister, Orual.

I thought: I loved it. After reading 200 or so agonizing pages of Modelland, switching to C.S. Lewis' traditional, eloquent storytelling was a huge relief. I could go on and on about his graceful, subtly witty prose, but chances are you're already familiar with it.

The narrator/protagonist, Orual, is a strong, complex character- a warrior queen who defies and despises the unjust gods who rule her world. She adores Psyche and tries to save her from the unseen monster to whom Psyche has been wed/sacrificed, but human understanding falls short and Orual and Psyche are both subject to the wrath of the gods. The story is dark, much darker than any of this author's better-known books. If there's an explicit moral, I couldn't find it. Unlike the famous Narnia series, Lewis wrote Till We Have Faces to stand independently from theology; the myth haunted C.S. Lewis from his pre-Christian days onward, and he considered Till We Have Faces his most mature work. There are definitely theological and philosophical musings in this book, but no clear answers.

If you've read this, I'd love to hear your thoughts. As I read I kept looking for some obvious metaphor or message, since the other Lewises I've read were Narnia and The Screwtape Letters (both pretty moralistic pieces of fiction). Honestly, Till We Have Faces is miles ahead of those more famous works in terms of thematic subtlety and complexity. The recurring ideas that I noticed all seem to be opposites: beauty/ugliness, humanity/divinity, the nature of love (especially the struggle between love and doubt), and truth/myth.

Verdict: Stick it on the shelf! I'm dying to read this again with a book club. There's lots of potential for intelligent discussion.

Reading Recommendations: If you think you don't like C.S. Lewis, check this one out. If you think you're a big fan of C.S. Lewis, there's still a good chance you haven't read Till We Have Faces. Read it! And then talk to me about it!

Warnings: None. Well, I guess there's some sex-related stuff, but nothing worse than what you learned in your 8th-grade Greek Mythology unit.

Favorite excerpts: "I did not weep nor wring my hands. I was like water put into a bottle and left in a cellar: utterly motionless, never to be drunk, poured out, spilled or shaken. The days were endless. The very shadows seemed nailed to the ground as if the sun no longer moved."

“The complaint was the answer. To have heard myself making it was to be answered. Lightly men talk of saying what they mean. Often when he was teaching me to write in Greek the Fox would say, 'Child, to say the very thing you really mean, the whole of it, nothing more or less or other than what you really mean; that's the whole art and joy of words.'

A glib saying. When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you'll not talk about the joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”

What I'm reading next: Russian Winter by Daphne Kalotay