A least a dozen people in the last year or so have told me that I HAVE to read Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis. So I finally bought a copy, and a couple of weeks ago, I sat down to read it. Thankfully, I read the inside cover first, which informed me that this was a retelling of Cupid and Psyche. And I know, the front cover of Lewis’s book literally says a myth retold, but I hadn’t really thought about it much. But when I saw that note, I decided that I should read the original first, and I’m glad I did. Both stories are great in their own right, but they also complement each other in ways you will miss if you don’t read the original before the retelling.
While these two stories complement each other, they are also different. Cupid and Psyche is a tale warning of curiosity, the rights of men and gods, spousal relationships, and justification. This story also reminded me of two things: how much I hate Venus/Aphrodite and how hopeless pagan religion is. Psyche is a much more formless character in this tale, yet she still recognizes her sin and strives to pay penance for it. She truly wants to love and be loved in return. Till We Have Faces is similar but with slightly different emphases. This story speaks about self-righteousness, truth, justice, and the heart of love. Where Cupid and Psyche is written with a heavy emphasis on pagan myth, Lewis’s retelling asks the questions about life and God that we are often afraid to ask within a mythological setting. In the end, I felt comfort in God’s mercy and that even if we cannot see the full picture in our sufferings and blessings, God does.
About grappling with these deep questions about life and God, I think this is one of the things I love about good Christian fiction and fantasy. In these, we allow ourselves the freedom to be bold with ourselves and God about the tough questions of life that we face. We Christians are bolder here than with nonfiction, unless you get deep into philosophy. And we should ask these questions. After all, the prophets, psalmists, and great men of old asked them of God. Thankfully, we have a God who answers, a God who loves us. I found this message more in Till We Have Faces than in the original. Where fates and cruel machinations of the gods served as a justification for the events in Psyche’s life, the retelling paints a realistic story among the fantastic, prying away our misconceptions, our self-righteousness, our veils that hide our ugly natures so that we might see truth as it really is, and see ourselves the same. In the end, I walked away with two messages from both stories: do not offer to men what is meant for God, and recognize that there is something (rather, Someone) beyond us who gives us much more mercy than we justly deserve.
But besides the philosophic nature of these tales, both reminded me of other stories and accounts. Cupid and Psyche reminded me of both Pandora’s Box and, oddly enough, Snow White. There were also some elements of the fall of man woven throughout and the universal hope of redemption. Till We Have Faces, while keeping some elements from the original, reminds me of the book of Ecclesiastes and the events during the later days of King Nebuchadnezzar. Lewis, though, weaves in pieces of pagan or natural human thought into the story. Venus, the goodness of love and beauty, has a most ugly spirit. It is this spirit that the main character of Lewis’s retelling embraces subconsciously. Professing herself to be wise, loving, and justified, she finds herself uncovered in the end as foolish, hateful, and resting on mercy.
As with most classics, and especially with the works of Lewis, I struggle to “review” them. And yet, some are more approachable than others. This tale was one of the more engaging myths that I have read. I found a copy in verse that reminded me of versions of The Iliad and The Oddessey that I have read, so I enjoyed it. Additionally, I appreciate most of Lewis’s writing, especially his fiction. While his nonfiction is intriguing, I find his nonfiction more accessible. I don’t feel like I’m reading a treatise on philosophy when I read his fiction, although I am still digging into the subject. This book was no different. The story was engaging, and the parts that make you think are skillfully woven in so that you don’t always realize you are asking those questions until afterward. I appreciate such writing from Lewis. But as with all retellings, either visual or written, read the original first. Besides the fact that it came first, it will fill in gaps and help you catch onto elements in Lewis’s story that you will otherwise have missed. Also, it will help contextualize Lewis’s argument and conclusion. These are both great works of literature, and I highly recommend you read them.
Blessings to you and yours,
~Madelyn Rose Craig