Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold, by C.S. Lewis
Myths generally passed mouth-to-ear for centuries. Some, like Gilgamesh, were captured in writing but still were lost to time until the language could be learned. Still, most stories of these kinds flowed through time until they were captured in a static state in writing. Before then they altered with the teller, some better than others. We know this because myths were often told differently from region-to-region, even by city, and the written versions are often different. Even the Brothers Grimm found this in trying to collect and catalog folk tales in Germany. Finally the person with pen and paper has to make a decision about what should be committed to eternal print.
It’s appropriate that C.S. Lewis, creator of the Narnia modern myths, would have his last book of fiction be a recreation of a story from ancient Greece.
Lewis first had the idea of retelling the myth of Cupid and Psyche while in university. When he was younger he tried writing it as poetry, but from the start he intended to write it not as a dispassionate narrator but through the eyes of Psyche’s older sister Orual.
Lewis died in 1963. This book was published in 1956. The book is no longer published in paperback though there are used copies available. There’s an expensive hardback version, a version for Kindle, and an Audible version, which is the one I am reviewing.
The book is in two parts, told by Orual at two different times in her life. Orual is considered so ugly that she only ventures outside with her face completely covered. Younger half-sister Psyche is beautiful. So beautiful that she attracts the attentions of the gods. In the best-known version Psyche is so beautiful that people in her kingdom make offerings to her and neglect Venus. Jealous Venus commissions her son Cupid (or Eros) to kidnap Psyche and have her fall in love with something or someone hideous. But he scratches himself with his own dart and takes her as his own wife.
In the Lewis version the jealous god is Ungit. To appease the god Psyche is to be sacrificed to the “God of the Mountain”. Orual searches for her sister and finds her on the mountain. But Psyche is in a beautiful palaces that only she can see while Orual thinks her sister has been entranced to believe that the barren place she lives is a palace.
Orual writes as a bitter young woman, angry about her own ugliness and the loss of her sister. Returning to the kingdom of her father she becomes a warrior, diplomat, and accomplished in many other things.
In the second part of the book, Orual is an old woman and appends her original writing. She admits that after many years she has had a change of heart (Lewis stopped short of calling it a “conversion”) after many dreams, including one in which Psyche goes to the underworld to bring back a box containing beauty, which she gives to Orual.
This is C. S. Lewis, so there are abundant Christian metaphors. Wonderful writer that he is these are under the surface while the main read is a beautiful fantasy about a woman toughened by her anger who finally releases that anger in her old age. The Audible book is read beautifully by Nadia May, one of the best British readers you’ll find on Audible, and is at a price cheaper than a credit costs. Used paperbacks can be had for $.74 plus the normal $3.99 shipping. I enjoy Lewis as a writer but am usually more fond of his essays. If you’re a fan of Narnia or Screwtape letters you’ll want to make sure this is in your library.