Every once in a while, I pull an old favorite off the shelf and give it a read so that I can review it, fresh, for you. Till We Have Faces is one of my favorite books. Never heard of it? I’m sure you’ve heard of C. S. Lewis, the Christian apologist who also wrote the Chronicles of Narnia series. Well, Till We Have Faces is the last book he wrote, and it is both exactly something he would write and also something very distinct from the rest of his writing (which is comprised of the two categories of children’s fantasy and Christian theology). Till We Have Faces is a fantasy, officially, (though definitely not children’s) but it makes more sense to tell you that it is a rewriting of the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche but told in a strong first-person, almost stream-of-consciousness, perspective of Orual, the supposed older sister of Psyche.
Orual is the eldest daughter of the King of Glome, which is not a pleasant thing to be. She is restricted by her gender, despised for her looks, and frequently abused by the king. When the new queen dies in childbirth, Orual is tasked with the raising of the third princess, a task she shares with the only friend of her childhood, the slave-tutor, the Fox. It is clear from the beginning that Istra is special, surpassing everyone around her in all giftings including beauty. The gods can’t leave it at that. They must have Istra, for better or worse, leading Orual in a battle of the wills and a search for their many faces. Even after a few readings, you’re still discovering the truth behind the screen of Orual’s unadmitted anger and jealousy.
In general, I like to read third-person stories, not first-person tell-alls. (I also don’t usually favor dream sequences, but there is something about using dreams for authenticity here, that works better than usual.) First person writing often makes me feel suffocated, as though I’m reading through cotton. By nature, it also tends to tell more than it shows, and I am definitely a fan of showing much more than telling. But this novel is a complaint against the gods—which Orual tells us in the opening sentences—and I can’t imagine a greater need for the use of the first-person voice. The effect here is complete. We’re a hundred per cent stuck in Orual’s head. It’s not always clear. It’s not always true. It’s not always pleasant. It’s a journey, more spiritual than anything, though it’s also an emotional, relational, and chronological journey. Do we like these characters? We certainly have sympathy, and at times empathy, for them.
I have enjoyed reading ancient mythology since I was a child. This book is cool because it uses modern story-telling style and devices to blow open ancient (barbarian) Greece and its interactions with their gods, as well as retell a classic myth, and all while entertaining with good writing, immersive exploration of life and its meaning, and really strong characters and setting. It’s not very long, it’s not difficult to read. I would highly recommend it for students of Greek mythology, fans of C. S. Lewis, speculative fiction people, and just about any other teen-adult reader. If I were a high school teacher, I would also be tempted to include this in my assigned reading, as long as you could get away with the religious discussions that it would encourage. Knowing Lewis’s other works, it is interesting to think about where he was coming from, why he chose this story, and what he means to tell us by it.
“’And as for death,’ she said, ‘why, Bardia there (I love Bardia) will look on it six times a day and whistle a tune as he goes to find it. We have made little use of the Fox’s teaching if we’re to be scared by death’” (p72-73).
“To leave your home—to lose you, Maia, and the Fox—to lose one’s maidenhead—to bear a child—they are all deaths” (p73).
“I said not long before that work and weakness are comforters. But sweat is the kindest creature of the three…” (p91).
“I perceived now that there is a love deeper than theirs who seek only the happiness of their beloved. Would a father see his daughter happy as a whore? Would a woman see her lover happy as a coward? My hand went back to the sword. ‘She shall not,’ I thought. Come what might, she should not. However things might go, whatever the price, by her death or mine or a thousand deaths…” (p138).
“Oh, Orual—to take my love for you, because you know it goes down to my very roots and cannot be diminished by any other newer love, and then to make of it a tool, a weapon, and thing of policy and mastery, an instrument of torture—I begin to think I never knew you. Whatever comes after, something that was between us dies here” (p165).
“I was with book, as a woman is with child” (p247).
“I thought I had before me a huge, hopeless pile of seeds, wheat, barley, poppy, rye, millet, what not? And I must sort them out and make separate piles, each all of one kind. Why I must do it, I did not know, but infinite punishment would fall upon me if I rested a moment from my labour or if, when all was done, a single seed were in the wrong pile” (p256).
“We bring our ugliness, in both kinds, with us into the world, with it our destiny” (p282).
“Till the word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?” (p294).