Most authors write their best novels early in their careers and then spend their remaining decades repeating themselves. Lewis was the opposite: he began publishing in middle age, producing (besides numerous works of Christian apologetics) the famous Chronicles of Narnia and a popular sci-fi trilogy. But Lewis saved his best for last, writing Till We Have Faces shortly before his death. It is by far his best book and, sadly, his least known.
Till We Have Faces is a retelling of the Greco-Roman myth of Cupid and Psyche. In the original myth, Psyche is a beautiful young girl who unwittingly offends the goddess Venus and must be put to death. One night, Venus’ son Cupid sets out to slay the girl with his famous bow and arrow, but when he sees Psyche he falls in love with her, spirits her off to his magic palace where he makes love to her, but does not let her see his face, for fear that his mother find out.
After a while Psyche’s sisters discover she is still alive and go to visit her. Jealous of her palace and her divine lover, they convince Psyche that if her lover refuses to show his face to her, he must be some kind of monster. They suggest she hide a lamp in her bedroom so she can see his face after he falls asleep in order to prove that her boyfriend is, in fact, a god. She does this, and when she sees the sleeping face of Cupid she is so transfixed by his beauty that she does not notice the hot oil drip from the lamp and burn her lover’s shoulder. Cupid awakes in fright and throws her out of his palace, leaving her to be tormented by his mother Venus, who burdens poor Psyche with impossible tasks that she solves with the help of friendly animals. Only after many trials is Psyche reunited with Cupid and made a goddess.
“Psyche” of course is the Greek word for “soul”, leading ancient Christian commentators to wonder if there wasn’t something to this myth of sin, penance, and salvation.
When Lewis was an eighteen-year-old atheist he had the idea to turn the myth on its head and write an epic poem about Cupid and Psyche from the point of view of the older sisters. Perhaps they were not jealous, but only looking out for the best interest of their little sister. It is the gods, after all, who were behaving irrationally; Venus being so vindictive and Cupid so weak. The older sisters would have plenty of reason to complain that the gods were being unfair.
The story stayed with Lewis even after his conversion to Christianity, and shortly before his death he put it into novel form.
The setting is not Greece or Rome, but a barbaric kingdom called Glome, set somewhere north of the Black Sea or perhaps in southeastern Europe. Their religion is not of the Greco-Roman kind, but a fertility cult that worships a black stone named Ungit who is honored with blood sacrifices, occasionally human ones. (Lewis was a careful student of ancient mythologies, and his depiction of ancient fertility cults was based on the best scholarship of his day.) The main character is not pretty little Pysche, but her older, uglier, half-sister Oural, who is writing her own version of events many years after they took place. The book is Oural’s formal accusation against the injustice of the gods who stole away her beloved sister.
In the ancient world “atheism” had a different meaning than it does now: now it means simple unbelief, then it meant taking a subversive stance against the gods that defended the nation, and it was considered a crime. Oural’s book is, in this ancient sense, a work of pure atheism; it isn’t that she does not believe in the gods, but that she hates them.
For all of her pent up rage, Oural is Lewis’ greatest creation, his most compelling character: she is smart, driven, brutally honest, brave, and passionate. Her childhood was formed by three men: her father, the unstable tyrant-king of Glome (whom I always imagine being played by Mel Gibson in a movie version); her teacher, a Greek slave (played, of course, by Robbin Williams); and the old masked priest of Ungit, reeking of blood and travelling with a bodyguard of drugged temple prostitutes.
From her father Oural receives a deep sense of insecurity. From the teacher she receives a classical education that is indifferent to whether or not gods exist. From the priest she receives a deep fear of all things divine; “holy” is almost a pejorative term in this book. What results is a fragmented consciousness: Oural’s rational mind is agnostic, but fear of the gods runs deep in her blood. Above all she is driven by a profound need for love, for she imagines herself to be unlovable. Her little sister Psyche was the only one who ever seemed to love her back.
In the original myth, the sisters could see and enter the palace where Psyche was living the high life. This is where Lewis rips the heart out of the old myth and turns it into something new: Oural travels to the mountains where Psyche had been the victim of human sacrifice in order to recover her bones, but instead discovers the child alive, happy and in perfect health, though dressed in rags and living off of berries in a mountain glen.
And after a tearful and joyous reunion the tragedy unfolds: Oural insists that Psyche must return home with her now before the winter sets in, and Psyche laughs her off saying that this is her home and besides, her husband wouldn’t want her to leave. It dawns on both of them that while Psyche sees herself living in the mansion of a god, all Oural can see is trees. They stare at one another across the chasm between belief and unbelief and realize they can never be friends again.
Why do I list this novel of C.S. Lewis as one of the more influential books I have ever read? I think it is because it helps me recognize something of Oural’s fragmented consciousness in both myself and in other people. I operate in a largely agnostic culture but with roots in a northeastern Catholic sub-culture; my education is part Christian, part agnostic. There are positive and negative elements of my personality which are probably rooted in my early childhood development. Finally, there is Faith, which (unlike Orual) I have, but why I have it, or why someone else doesn’t have it, does not seem to be reducible to any of those other elements above. In fact, in some ways my being a believer sharply contradicts many of the other elements that make me who I am.
Till We Have Faces helps shed light on the problem of faith, and teaches that judgement in matters of belief or unbelief are best left to God… if he exists.