Tonight, I finished Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis, which is a retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche. In case you’re not familiar, here’s a relatively brief version of the story. The gist of it is that the youngest of three princesses, Psyche, is so beautiful that she inspires Aphrodite’s wrath. She is ordered to be sacrificed, only to be rescued by Cupid, Aphrodite’s son, who has fallen in love with her. She lives with him in a glorious palace most happily until her sisters are brought to visit her. Jealous of her good fortune, they goad her into confessing that her husband only comes to her at night, and won’t let her see his face. They suggest that this is because he’s a monster, and urge her to bring a lamp and a knife to bed with her that night to find him out and kill him if it’s true. Doubts creep in, so she does so. Only, the light of her lamp reveals the fairest of all the gods, Cupid. A drop of oil falls on his shoulder and wakes him. He chastises her for disobeying him and leaves her. To win back her place at his side, she has to suffer through peril and hardship.
Cupid and Psyche (1798) by Francois Gerard
However, C.S. Lewis’ retelling is from the point-of-view of one of Psyche’s sisters. When I found this out, I had misgivings. Reading the description above, can you think of any way to look at this story that does not make the sisters into awful human beings? Who would want to spend a whole book with such wretched people? The only obvious way I saw to make them likable was to make Psyche a villain, which wouldn’t sit well with me, either. So as much as I love the myth, and as devoted as I am to C.S. Lewis, the man who made me love the fantasy genre, it took me a long time to actually muster the courage to read this book.
Boy, am I glad I did. In case I ever doubted (I didn’t), the man is a genius. Not only is Orual, the narrator of the book, likable, but she’s a flawed, brave, loving, wise woman who I enjoyed every moment with. Her relationship with Psyche in this book is not the least bit adversarial. For the most part, it’s anything but. She raised her youngest sister, and regards her as almost a daughter. And while Orual is mocked and mistreated by others because she is so ugly, her sister’s great beauty doesn’t cause her jealousy. She loves her all the more for it.
Cupid and Psyche (1867) by Alphonse Legros
So how, you might ask, do we get to this necessary place of betrayal, where Orual insists that her sister disobey her husband? It has to happen, after all, to stay true to the myth. And we get there. Oh, we get there, and we get there without losing one whit of Orual’s love and devotion to her sister. The device Lewis uses is deceptively simple, but truly, it’s genius. I’m not going to tell you what it is, because I feel like it’s more delightful if you discover it yourself, but trust me when I say, that twist, alone, makes the entire book worth reading.
Ultimately, I never expected to get such a rich, emotional experience from a retelling of a simple myth. But then, in C.S. Lewis’ hands, it’s not a simple myth. Not only does he manage to add a few twists to the familiar yarn, Lewis makes the world and the characters so rich and compelling that the whole thing comes to life. It stays true to the bones of the story, without which it wouldn’t really be a retelling of Cupid and Psyche, but adds details to make a more complex and fulfilling picture. It’s what all the best retellings do, really– without taking away any part of what makes us love a story, they make it into something brand new.
What’s more, the book manages to turn the plot around on you twice, making you look at everything that came before completely differently. It’s like when you’re having your eyes examined and they put that metal mask to your face with the different lenses for each eye. They ask you if this lens is better, or this one? You might think, “Ah, this is the one, I can see everything well enough now,” but then the lens changes again, and you’re surprised by how much more there was to see.
And the language. Oh, the language. I could quote it ad nauseum, but I’ve already done so on my tumblr. If you’re looking for glorious detail, head on over there. Here, I’ll give you a few snippets:
- “Don’t you think a dream would feel shy if it were seen walking about in the waking world?”
- “I was like water put into a bottle and left in a cellar: utterly motionless, never to be drunk, poured out, spilled or shaken.”
- “And that is another thing about the voices of the gods; when once they have ceased, though it is only a heart-beat ago and the bright hard syllables, the heavy bars or mighty obelisks of sound, are still master in your ears, it is as if they had ceased a thousand years before, and to expect further utterance is like asking for an apple from a tree that fruited the day the world was made.”
Ultimately, it will probably take me a few read-throughs to feel like I understand all of the nuances of this book, or even most of them, but by no means was it a difficult book to read. In fact, every time I sat down to read it for a moment, it turned into hours of being engrossed. It made me think, it made me dream, and it made me write. It also made me realize all over again that C.S. Lewis deserves every bit of his fame. So if you’re looking for a book that does any one of those things, this is the book for you.
Buy your copy here.