A rare and beautiful book by a master of Christian fiction.
C. S. Lewis wrote lots of Christian fiction: not just the Narnia books. There’s the science fiction series: Out of the Silent Planet, Voyage to Venus, That Hideous Strength; the allegories: The Pilgrim’s Regress, The Great Divorce and, of course, The Screwtape Letters. All great, all classics, all worth reading.
I’m going to look a rather more obscure story of his, called Til We Have Faces. It is a retelling of the Greek Cupid and Psyche myth. If you are not familiar with this, it is a little bit like the ‘Cinderella’ myth, and C.S. Lewis gives a brief summary of it in his introduction. He takes the essence of the myth and weaves it into a spell-binding and perfect story.
It is a tale of jealousy, over-possessive love, loss and redemption: set in a strange pre-Roman land. The story is told from the point of view of the ugly sister, Orual. She loves her beautiful sister Psyche too much to allow Psyche to be happy without Orual herself. Rather than lose her sister to the ‘unknown god’, she coerces her sister to leave him and so breaks her sister’s heart. Psyche vanishes into lonely exile. Orual returns to find her father, the king, is failing. After his death, she takes the throne and, hiding her face behind a veil, becomes a powerful queen, but is haunted by the ghostly sound of Psyche weeping for her lost love. Orual writes the story herself, as an accusation against the injustice and heartlessness of the gods.
It is an allegory about beauty and ugliness, about masks, about how petty, faulty mortals cannot face the huge glory of the gods. It is about how we dare to challenge their ownership of us and the shock we receive when we see ourselves through their eyes. It’s a cold, clear, mystical tale set in a world of thrones and temples and priests and kings. It’s one of those stories that lingers in one’s thoughts long after it’s been read: intriguing, moving and as beautiful in its telling as Psyche herself.