“Till We Have Faces – a Myth Retold” by C. S. Lewis
The lure of our ancient past has intrigued humanity since long before we had the means to record it with tangible markings. Oral tradition has passed along myths and legends. Eventually put down in written form, each new storyteller creates a new variation, developing the tale over the centuries into what we have today.
The unique writing style used by C. S. Lewis to create “Until We Have Faces: a Myth Retold” is no exception. This book was originally copyrighted in 1956 and is a retelling by Lewis with his own interpretations and plot twists of the Cupid and Psyche myth. This myth is from a Latin novel called “The Metamorphoses” (sometimes called the Golden Ass), written by Lucious Apuleius Platonicus in the second century A.D. The setting is Greece, the hub of civilization at the time, and Greek culture’s influence had begun to spread outward to distant lands.
The story takes place near the outreaches of civilization, in the small fictitious kingdom of Glome, where Greek philosophies and enlightenment has not yet reached the people. The royal family of this undeveloped kingdom is introduced to the culture ofGreecevia a learned man captured as a slave and ensconced in the Palace of Glome as teacher and advisor to the King and Royal Family.
The main character is the oldest daughter. Orual, whose most noticeable characteristic is her supreme ugliness. Her mother the Queen has died, leaving Orual and her younger sister to the crude upbringing the King absentmindedly provides.
When the King remarries it is to a young girl not much older than his own daughters and another girl child is born, full of beauty and goodness like her mother. But the young wife dies in childbirth leaving the eldest princess, Orual, along with the Greek teacher, to raise both younger daughters. The story is told in the first person from the eldest daughter’s perspective and is a tale of her journey through life with her struggle to find happiness and peace. Of course, I wanted her to succeed.
The cryptic title is not referenced until the last fifteen pages of the book and Orual’s torment with man and god build to a crescendo until the answer to her question is finally revealed. In the beginning her cruel King-father insults her ugliness, beats her and seems to be her nemesis, but we are soon drawn into her emotional struggle with life itself. Survival and anger drive her to be strong. In the end she begins to learn that to give up selfish needs is to truly gain peace.
C. S. Lewis uses his heroine’s love for her youngest sister as both her reason to live and her downfall, and intertwines the emotions that drive her masterfully. The author uses a quite distinctive style in his choice of words and sentence structure. He gives the speech an old world flavor with his grammatical patterns, such as an encounter between Orual and the Greek teacher nicknamed The Fox.
“You darken our counsels–and your own soul–with these passions,” said the Fox. “If there were anywhere she could lie hidden (if we could get her!)”
“I had thought,” said I, “we could hide her in Bardia’s house.”
They are discussing the protection of the youngest sister but the phrasing of sentences is unfamiliar to our modern way of speaking. Though distinctive it is sometimes difficult to follow and I found the many character thoughts included in parenthesis throughout the book distracting. Lewis’ technique of taking the reader inside the character’s head in this manner broke concentration and the flow of the story line for me.
The use of similes such as, “It may be that she and I must go out into the wide world together–wander like Oedipus” and “He’s as amorous as Alcibiades” reference other ancient myths or legends. While they add to the feeling of the era and keep the reader within the boundaries of this time period, they only work if the reader is well read in this genre.
The character of the old teacher, the Fox, gives a thread of stability to the tale, his Greek philosophy lending contrast and credibility to the backward kingdom’s superstitions. The Teacher’s contribution offers credibility to a reader with any knowledge of ancient culture and makes the rituals, sacrifices and beliefs that bring the heroine along her path in life more believable.
The story is organized well, drawing the reader in at the beginning with the opening line from the main character.
“I am old now and have not much to fear from the anger of gods.”
This immediately says that she’s survived a long life and the tale to come will show how she came to this place in old age. It introduces the reader to her as the protagonist and makes a veiled reference to her conflict with the gods as antagonists in the first sentence. Launching into the story during her youth and the King’s abuse of her draws the reader into the childhood that shaped her emotions and beliefs.
Lewis’ use of sarcasm in the main character’s disposition is not lost when the middle sister asks the oldest, now queen, to get her a husband.
“You’ll get me a husband, Queen, won’t you?”
Orual, the new queen whose kingdom is poor and has very little to offer suitors, replies to her sister’s question.
“Yes, probably two…I’ve a dozen sons of kings hanging in my wardrobe.”
Arnom the Priest, Orual’s confidant for years, being unsure of the handling of her book in the end did not ring true, nor did Orual’s complaint against the unjustness of the gods since the book had taken her almost a lifetime to complete. His thought that maybe it should be taken to the center of culture in Greece made the entire story seem empty to me and took away from the satisfaction of reading to the end.
For the most part, I found the book to be entertaining. It held my attention until near the end when the main character’s revelations and reconciliation with the gods became a little clouded. The note at the end helped in clarifying the story line of the original myth which Lewis calls a ‘stylistic experiment.’ He credits the second century author, Platonicus, with genius but labels him as merely a source and certainly not an influence nor a model for Lewis’ own version. In comparison to the reference of the older version, I feel Lewis took great liberties with his interpretation.
Lewis’ brief summary of the original ends with “Venus was reconciled and they all lived happily ever after” and reflects blatant sarcasm. As if he finds happiness too trite and unacceptable an ending. I did feel despair at Lewis’ own ending of the main character dying in mid-sentence. Quite possibly he succeeded in his alternate goal.
Though all stories do not have a happy ending I feel Lewis’ tale could have offered a little more resolution for me as a reader. Lewis crafted this ending to reflect the main character’s loose ends at her demise, and life is not always just and issues often do not get resolved or fulfilled. In any case, I came away feeling cheated. I prefer a finite ending; preferably happy but at least resolved. Call me a hopeless romantic.