Thursday, 25 October 2001

C.S. Lewis: Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold (1956)

Edition: Fount, 1978 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 975

All of Lewis' fictional writing is an apologetic for Christianity, except for this novel. It still has a related message, but one which is simpler and broader in scope: it is an attack on the ideas of rationalism, on the view that the material world is all there is.

The story of Cupid and Psyche is quite well known, even though its first appearance is quite late for Greek or Roman myth (in Apuleius' Golden Ass). Psyche was a girl so beautiful that she aroused the jealousy of Venus, who sent her son Cupid to destroy her. But he fell in love, and carried Psyche away to a mysterious palace where all her wants were met. He visited her every night, but would not permit her to see his face, because his glory would overwhelm her. After some persuasion from Psyche, Cupid brought her jealous sisters to visit her, only to poison her mind by asking what kind of monstrous lover would be unwilling to show his face to her. Staying awake after they made love, Psyche uncovered a lamp to see Cupid as he was, only for some oil to spill and wake the god. He returned to heaven and she mourned him until, after the gods took pity on her, she was made an immortal and married to her lover.

The story is adapted by Lewis principally through being told from the point of view of one of the sisters, Orual or Maia, who is made far from spiteful, not even realising the emotion that prompts her to act for what she rationalises as Psyche's own good. The three sisters are made the daughters of a Middle Eastern barbarian king in the period of ancient Greek civilisation, who on the one hand grow up in a country which belongs to the anti-rational, frightening goddess Ungit (whose idol is a grotesque black stone) but who on the other have a Greek tutor, who acts as the voice of rationalism.

The crucial moment in the novel is when Orual visits Psyche in the palace built for her by her lover. The magnificent buildings and gardens Psyche sees are invisible to her sister; with the eyes of rationalism, it seems to Orual that Psyche is living in a mountain valley in the open. This is the essence of what Lewis wants to say, that there are experiences which are beyond rational explanation and that it is wrong to reject them. It is not even enough to regard others' descriptions of their mystical experiences as metaphors, as Orual does when Psyche offers her a magnificent wine (invigorating spring water) from a beautiful cup (her hands). Clearly, this kind of parable in no way proves Lewis' point, but it certainly provides an interesting illustration.

Whether or not the reader agrees with Lewis, and even if it is read as a simple story with no deeper meaning, Till We Have Faces is an enjoyable novel.

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