Most people are familiar with C. S. Lewis' famous books, The Chronicles of Narnia. If they haven't read the books, they may have seen the movies, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and Prince Caspian.
Others may have read his Science Fiction trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength.
If you haven't read those books, I can't recommend them enough. Especially if you're an adult and a huge fan of science fiction, I recommend Lewis' Space Trilogy. I have friends who prefer it over his Narnia Chronicles.
This review, however, is about a lessor known work of Lewis. It is a retelling of the Greek myth, Psyche and Cupid. When I was a young teenager, this was probably my favorite Greek myth because it was so romantic. For those unfamiliar with the story here it is briefly:
Psyche is a young woman, the youngest of three daughters. All the daughters are beautiful, but Psyche is the most beautiful. In fact she is so breathtaking that men start to worship her and neglect the alters of Aphrodite. Aphrodite notices this and determines to destroy Psyche. She sends her son Cupid to earth to cause her to fall in love with a hideous monster who presumedly will eat her.
Cupid comes to earth and enters Psyche's room. When he sees her, he falls deeply in love with her and instead of doing what his mother tells him to, he takes her away to a palace where he keeps her as his wife.
The catch is that for the time being, he only comes to her in secret at night. She may not see who he is and has to have faith that he is truly a beloved husband that loves her.
Psyche is OK with this until her sisters come to visit. They persuade Psyche that her husband is really a horrible monster that is planning on eating her. They convince her that her only hope is to kill him in his sleep.
Psyche determines to do this, but when she lights a candle in order to see, she realizes that her husband is not a hideous monster but the manifestation of love itself, Cupid. Cupid wakes to see Psyche looking at him, holding a knife and departs. His parting words are, "Love cannot exist without faith."
Lewis takes this theme but turns it into a metaphor for something real and greater: an eternal love story between God and mankind.
The story is told through the eyes of a woman, now old, named Orual. She wants her side of the story told because she believes that she is unfairly accused of what transpired between her and her younger sister, Psyche.
Psyche and Orual are the daughters of a ruler of a pagan land, contemporary with the ancient Greeks. They worship a goddess, Ungit. Due to their father's inept ruling and drought, it is decided that Ungit wants a sacrifice. Only the most beautiful and pure of heart will qualify. Orual is disqualified because she is considered too ugly. In fact, her father thinks her so ugly that she takes to wearing a veil across her face for the rest of her life.
Psyche on the other hand, is very beautiful. Not only is she lovely to look at, but she is kind and compassionate as well. She willingly goes as a sacrifice out of a sincere desire to help the people of her country.
For many days after Psyche is left alone on a mountain, Orual is sick and bedridden. When she is able to get up, she rushes to the mountainside where Psyche was left. When she arrives, she is surprised and delighted to discover that Psyche is alive and well, living on the mountain.
When Orual questions Psyche about how she is able to survive by herself on a desolate mountain, Psyche informs her that she is not alone. She is married to the God of the mountain. Orual demands to see her palace. Psyche tells her they are standing in front of it. Orual sees nothing but mountain and trees and decides that Psyche is crazy.
A hot debate ensues between Psyche and Orual ending with Orual demanding to know what the God of the Mountain looks like. Psyche admits that she is forbidden to look at him. Orual uses this piece of information to wedge a chink of doubt into Psyche's heart.
Orual wants Psyche to return with her so they can continue to live as sisters. She begs and cajoles Psyche proclaiming her great love for her and that she is living a lie and a delusion. There is no God of the mountain, and she is really living with a monster who is biding his time to kill her. Why a monster who would have nothing to lose would take so long and take such good care of his supposed victim, Orual refuses to explain.
Finally, to prove her sincerity and ardor, Orual takes her knife and thrusts it through her own arm. This so shocks Psyche that she agrees to Orual's demands. Namely, to take a candle and look upon her husband to see if he is really a monster or not.
Pysche disappears to fulfill this. In a moment, Orual hears a heart rending scream. Not of someone who has seen a monster, but of someone who realizes they have lost the most precious thing in the world to them.
For a brief moment, Orual looks up to see a huge palace and Psyche walking away, her hands covering her face, sobbing. Then she sees a man walking up to her. He informs her that "Psyche goes into exile" and that Orual "shall know herself and her work" and "also shall be Psyche".
Orual interprets this to mean that she will share in Psyche's punishment. She returns home, and shortly after, on her father's death, becomes ruler of the country.
Unlike her father, she proves herself to be an able, just and wise ruler and her country soon prospers. But she lives a lonely life, always covered with her veil because of her ugliness.
Interestingly, many of the women she knew as a youth, she realizes that after they married and had children, they no longer stayed beautiful but their husbands still were devoted to them. She slowly comes to realize that she allowed her father's cruel words to determine her own value and self-perception.
In her old age, Orual comes across a shrine in a forest dedicated to the worship of Psyche. She listens to the priest tell the story and realizes that she, Orual, is presented as the villain. She explains that is why she has written her narrative. So she can be vindicated.
But something happens as she writes the story. She begins to see what she really did and the final part of the book ends with Oraul accusing the God but suddenly realizing what she actually did:
You stole [Psyche] to make her happy, did you? Why, every wheedling, smiling, catfooted rogue who lures away another man's wife or slave or dog might say the same. Dog, now. That's very much to the purpose. I'll thank you to let me feed my own; it needed no titbits from your table. Did you ever remember whose the girl was? She was mine. Mine." (292; Part II, Ch.3).
And that is the crux right there. Finally Orual admits to herself that she was angry with the God of the mountain for taking what she believed was hers. That it cost Psyche her husband, her happiness, her life, mattered not at all. She wanted Psyche back because she believed that Psyche belonged to her.
As she confesses her selfish motives a dawning revelation shatters everything she thought she knew and made her bitter. Psyche never belonged to her. She belonged to the God of the mountain. She always belonged to Him. She stole that which belonged to Someone else.
And not only that, Orual also belonged to Him. When she finally gives up her selfish rebellion against him, she has a vision where Psyche returns to greet her at a river. She looks into the river and sees that she, too, is as beautiful as Psyche. She also is the bride of God.
The metaphor is that the original goddess, Ungit, is man rebelling against their true God. Instead of having a relationship that is so deep and personal that it is compared to marriage with Him, they choose instead to worship and enslave themselves to something that is not real. Their sinful nature makes horrible barbaric demands on themselves and others that they attribute to the goddess.
The writing of Till We Have Faces is in the formal, grave manner of ancient Greek stories. The text is pure Lewis with all the perspicuity, charm and wit that all his stories contain. One will need to read the original myth first, I think, and also understand the scripture:
For your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is his name; and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called. Isaiah 54:5
Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure”— for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are the true words of God." Revelation 19:7-9
Till We Have Faces is the last book C.S. Lewis wrote. His inspiration was his wife, Joy Davidman, to whom he dedicated the novel.
$8.52 on Kindle:
Heroic Orual and the tasks of Psyche
Bride of Christ scripture
C.S. Lewis and the numinous of relationships