Sunday, June 6, 2010

Sunday Review: Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis

I love books that make me cry, and I love books that make me laugh. The Loser Letters, the new book by Mary Eberstadt, made me laugh out loud on almost every page; that's why we're reading it next month at the Catholic Post Book Group. Go get it now so you'll be ready. You'll thank me, I promise.

But Till We Have Faces is one of those that make me cry.

A lesser-known novel of C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces is a retelling of the Cupid and Psyche myth, told from the perspective of a sister of Psyche. I believe C.S. Lewis considered it his finest novel, and though our family is completely enamored of all things "Narnia," (the books for which he is most famous these days) I have to agree.

I have read this book multiple times over the years, and I can't recall a time it didn't bring tears with it. I read it once as a newlywed while traveling with my husband on the Cape May-Lewes Ferry. I vividly remember being on the ferry, with the water all blue and shimmery around me, and there I was, crying profusely as I read, saying over and over to my husband, "This is so beautiful." And he, poor husband, having grown up with only brothers, learned a little more about women that day.

Almost from the time I open up this book, my eyes start to well up. 

There is something so powerful in Greek mythology, and Lewis taps into this. Lewis called mythology "good dreams" from a culture that understood the sacred but had no revelation from God.  Mythology is a way to represent the longing for love and the transcendent universal in all cultures, and can be a kind of prefiguring of the truth of Christ.

In the myth of Cupid & Psyche, Psyche's older sisters and evil and jealous of Cupid's love for her.  In the novel, Orual, an older sister, is the narrator, and she is not jealous of Cupid's love, but possessive of Psyche and anything that would separate them, in particular any kind of faith.  When Psyche is not killed as Orual has thought by being offered to the gods, but instead claims to be married to Cupid, Orual  pleads with Psyche to abandon her love:

"Oh Psyche, ... you're so far away.  Do you even hear me?  I can't reach you.  Oh, Psyche, Psyche! You loved me once....come back.  What have we to do with gods and wonder and all these cruel, dark things?  We're women, aren't we?  Mortals.  Oh, come back to the real world.  Leave all that alone. Come back where we were happy."

Lewis comes back to this theme again and again in this work; I can think of a character in The Great Divorce and The Screwtape Letters who are possessive in spiritually unhealthy ways.  There are many other themes explored in Till We Have Faces, such as friendship, beauty, powerful women, the Greek search for truth and beauty leading inevitably to Who created them.

I'm only kidding a little bit here when I say I'm shocked (shocked!) to find that not everyone loves this novel as I do. Some years back I proposed this book as a parish book club read, and it was a big fat failure.  I can't remember one person among those faithful, lovely people, who loved it or even liked it.  So clearly it's not for everyone.

But if you do enjoy Greek mythology or are a fan of anything by C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces is a great read.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Nancy,

    A production of C.S. Lewis THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS is currently showing in New York at the Westsie Theatre until September 5th.

    It is produced by FPA, a Christian theatre company. With it's highly spiritual and specifically Christian theme we believe that you readers and subscribers would be interested in hearing about the production or maybe even seeing it if they live locally to New York.

    If you are interested in learning more about this fantastic production plaese e-mail me at thomas (at) heronpr (dot) com


    Thomas Moquet