Takeaway: A story of regret and complaint, joy and pain. Much like the story of many of us.
As regular readers of this blog well know, I have been intentionally reading a lot of CS Lewis for about 18 months. Lewis is an icon of Christian literature. And there are few that can compete with the breadth of his work, from apologetics, to memoir, to children’s literature, to serious adult fiction, to serious academic work, to contemporary essays.
I first read Till We Have Faces nearly three years ago before this most recent reading. I liked it much more this time. I think I both understand Lewis and have more context than the previous reading and I think I probably read the book better.
Till We Have Faces is a retelling of the story of Cupid and Psyche from the perspective of one of Psyche’s sisters. I didn’t really know the story of Cupid and Psyche before, and so I intentionally read several things about it before I re-read this to make sure I have the basics of the story in my head.
Books and Cuture had a good review by John McWhorter of a book on the history of jazz. The thing that has really stuck with me is McWhorter’s comments about a 1957 Looney Tune cartoon that riffed off of the three little pigs story with jazz musicians.
What McWhorter notes is that in order to understand the ‘Three Little Bops’ cartoon, the audience had to understand the original story of the three little pigs. And similarly, when jazz was popular music, the jazz solo was riffing off of a known melody and song. But as jazz has become a more ‘classical form’ it has taken more work to understand the original musical stories that are currently being riffed off of.
That is in a nut shell my problem with reading classics. To often I just don’t get the stories or references that the classics takes as standards. So it takes more work for me to intentionally seek out that understanding.
As jazz has lost its popularity it has become an academic music, only those that intentionally study, really understand. Similarly, classic literature because we often pay so little attention to the classics becomes something that is for the academics.
I love a good modern popular novel as well as any one. But I do see the value in studying the classics (and the even older works they were referencing). Lewis was from a world that thought that Latin and Greek were part of a standard education. He knew old mythology, whether it be Norse or Greek or European, both as an academic study and also as his childhood reading (and many of these he read in the original languages.)
So my ignorance of the story of Psyche and Cupid (and the resulting missing of so much of the book originally) is similar to someone that listens to a pop song remake of a classic without understanding that it is a classic, or understanding the references. There can be some appreciation, the melody may be nice, the music video might be well shot, but without the original context the meaning is lost.
Psyche was a beautiful younger sister. Her older sister, Orual (in this book a very ugly, but responsible and skilled princess) cared for Psyche from the time of her birth because of the death of Psyche’s mother (and Orual’s step mother.) Because of a famine and other bad luck in this small kingdom (and some jealousy), it is determined that Psyche needs to be offered up to the God of the Mountain (the Brute). This sacrifice is in the form of a marriage where Psyche is taking to the holy mountain and chained to a tree where the God of the Mountain can take her.
Later Orual, when her negligent Father, the King, is away at a hunt, goes to find Psyche’s body and give it a proper burial. Orual has been given an education by a Greek slave and has been taught to reject the superstition of the Gods, and she does, mostly. But when she goes looking for Psyche’s body, she finds Psyche instead, alive, happy and married. Psyche tells of her husband and her castle. But because of the power of the God of the Mountain (and maybe Orual’s unbelief) she cannot see the castle or the finery or the reason behind Psyche’s happiness.
Orual is convinced that Psyche has either gone made, or has been tricked by some common shepherd/thief. So she plots to force Psyche to leave her husband and her happiness.
I could spend a lot of time talking about the various plot points. But what is important is that Orual believes she is doing the right thing. And this whole book is written as a complaint against the Gods for what they have done to Orual. This is written toward the end of her life. She has been a great Queen, done much good, cared for her people and those around her, but always been alone with her pain, never really loving again (Psyche left her husband the God, but did not return with Orual).
In the final pages Orual is given her conference with the Gods and is judged and found that she is far less innocent than she had believed. She has been cruel and heartless in many ways to others, just as she has felt the sting of other’s cruelty and heartlessness.
There is healing in the end, but not all can be erased.
This feels like the end of the book of Job. The Gods respond but not directly with the answer the Orual wants because her questions were the wrong questions.
As she stands before the Gods (and all those that have died prior) she opens her book to read her complaint, but instead of the complaint she wrote, she confesses her own weakness and sin as well as her hurt.
This is not an expressly Christian narrative. There is not a Jesus figure like Aslan or real presentation of sin or forgiveness. But this is still a real story about pain and our own role in it, even when we don’t see it initially ourselves.
I would recommend Till We Have Faces much more after this reading than after the previous. But I would also recommend being familiar with the story of Psyche and Cupid (at least reading the Wikipedia entry or Shmoop.)
Till We Have Faces by CS Lewis Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audible.com Audiobook – Part of the Kindle Unlimited Collection. Audiobook is discounted to $2.99 with purchase of Kindle Book