There is a simplicity in the work of C.S. Lewis. His writings are either straight-forward and literal (A Grief Observed, The Four Loves, Mere Christianity) or directly allegorical or interpreted (The Chronicles of Narnia, The Screwtape Letters). It is rare that he breaks from these two molds.
But Till We Have Faces is more Tolkein-esque, relying upon an entirely separate world with no modern ties and steeped in layer upon layer of indirect allegory. It is beautiful and haunting, and I have loved the tale’s pages since I first read it nearly a decade ago.
This retelling of the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche is set in the barbaric realm of Glome. We find ourselves in the presence of a king with daughters – one ugly, one beautiful, and one a saintly figure seemingly destined to save the kingdom in one way or another – and the king despises them all, for they are not sons.
While I won’t visit all of the details of this “myth retold,” it is certainly worth a read. Lewis believed that the power of myth was that it all pointed back somehow to the truths of what has happened since the commencement of our world – and he has buried so many thought-provoking pieces of truth in the depths of this incredible novel that make me come back to plumb the depths of my soul time and again.
This is definitely not a child’s story, but neither was Tolkein’s Middle Earth. Its darker, heavier, and more honest look at the lengths men will go to in order to preserve themselves before earthly and divine powers. It illumines the heart and base condition of man as being anti-god. I see in its pages a shattering glimpse at my own heart, and my own desire to pretend that God doesn’t exist.
After re-telling the traditional iteration of the myth in his note at the end, Lewis describes his process in crafting his version:
The central alteration in my own version consists in making Psyche’s palace invisible to normal, mortal eyes – if “making” is not the wrong word for something which forced itself upon me, almost at my first reading of the story, as the way the thing must have been. This change of course brings with it a more ambivalent motive and a different character for my heroine and finally modifies the whole quality of the tale. I felt quite free to go behind Apuleius, whom I suppose to have been its transmitter, not its inventor. Nothing was further from my aim than to recapture the peculiar quality of the Metamorphoses – that strange compound of picaresque novel, horror comic, mystagogue’s tract, pornography, and stylistic experiment. Apuleius was of course a man of genius: but in relation to my work he is a “source,” not an “influence” nor a “model.”
The tale captivated Lewis, as I’m sure did the truths within it. And it captivates me, too. After revisiting Lewis’ “myth retold” for the third or fourth time, I am in awe of his ability to weave both story and truth into a tale that still draws me in and splits me open.