Myths are impersonal. They are told by an anonymous, omniscient narrator from somewhere well outside the action and motivations of the characters involved. No judgments are made; the only lessons are those we choose to infer from the action of the story. Till We Have Faces doesn’t follow this traditional formula as it retells the story of Cupid and Psyche. With Orual as our first-person narrator, we see the story with less breadth but greater depth. Lewis puts us inside the struggle of one individual as she tries to understand her role in the world, her isolation, her failure to live up to her expectations and the expectations of the gods she’s not even sure she believes in. Ultimately she struggles to understand the difference between possession and love, and we travel this path alongside her.
I’ve felt possessive of the myth of Cupid and Psyche ever since I first heard it. It feels like my story, not in the sense of it being the story of me but in the sense of it belonging to me. In reality it’s neither, but for Orual, Psyche’s unattractive sister, the story is hers in both senses. Telling the story from Orual’s point of view allows Lewis to explore from the inside out the destructive nature of a love steeped in jealousy and possessiveness. “Some say the loving and the devouring are all the same,” says the Priest early in the book. We see this thread run throughout the story along with the related question, “Is it possible to love without devouring?”
What’s interesting—but not surprising given Lewis’s other writings about his own conversion experience—is that while the characters have doubts about the motives and very existence of the gods, Lewis doesn’t allow them to have the last word. Criticism of the gods is the result of misunderstanding their nature. It’s an argument that I usually find really annoying in its oversimplified version (“The Lord works in mysterious ways…”), but in Lewis’s telling, it feels more natural, more like the only reasonable explanation for why we very small mortal beings cannot comprehend the vastness of space and time. We can only see the daily toil in our little corner of things; the big picture is lost on us. If we are to see a significance in our lives and our suffering, it will be a matter of faith rather than a matter of proof.
Lewis suggests that this leap of faith is commonplace and something we do every time we choose to see one experience as “reality” and another as “dream.”
“Of the things that followed, I cannot at all say whether they were what men call real or what men call dream. And for all I can tell, the only difference is that what many see we call a real thing, and what only one sees we call a dream. But things that many see may have no taste or moment in them at all, and things that are shown only to one may be spears and water-spouts of truth from the very depth of truth.”
The suggestion seems to be that the distinction becomes difficult when we try to over-analyze it. This doesn’t mean that Lewis dismisses the value of intellect. Through the relationship between Bardia, who immerses himself in that feeling-for-the-truth faith, and the Fox, who relies primarily on intellect to reveal truth, Lewis demonstrates that one path by itself is incomplete. The two halves are always butting heads, but they are yet integral to attaining the complete picture.
There’s a lot packed into this relatively small book. It’s a pleasurable read and a compelling story that leaves the reader with a great deal to mull over. It’s something of a mystery to me why it’s in the YA section of my library, although I’m comforted to see something substantive in that area.