I have a confession.
I avoided this book. I have a bad habit of doing this with books I’m not sure about. I stick them on my shelf, and I—wait. Sometimes for months. Like I said, it’s a bad habit.
And in this case, it very nearly deprived me of one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.
Till We Have Faces may just be my favorite of C.S. Lewis’s books. Narnia and the Space Trilogy are both brilliant stories and very high on my list, but this surpassed them, maybe because Greek myth fascinates me so much. C.S. Lewis took a myth and reimagined it in such a way that it belongs on the same shelf with Antigone, Homer, and the Odyssey. (All great favorites of mine.)
The story is told by the princess Orual, the ugly daughter of failing king. Orual is desperate for love, a girl without a mother and with an absent, uncaring father. Her two chief joys in life are her younger half-sister Istra (or Psyche, as they all called her), and the Fox, a Greek slave who tutors and loves her in place of her father.
But then beautiful, sweet little Psyche is accused of bringing a curse on the kingdom. The god worshiped by these people is called Ungit, another version of the Greek goddess Aphrodite, a jealous, vindictive deity. Her priests claim that Psyche’s beauty—and the way the common people worship her for it—mocks Ungit, and she is sentenced to death. Or, rather, to be ‘given to the gods’. Orual is desperate and does everything she can to stop the horrifying sentence, but it is carried out, and her little sister is left, bound in chains, on the mountainside as a gift for Ungit’s son. His bride-to-be, the priests insist.
Orual’s pain, her search for her sister, her awareness of her own failings as an ‘ugly’ princess and the steps she takes to seek out Psyche come together in a haunting, heart-wrenching story that made it nearly impossible for me to set this book down. I loved every page, from her beginnings as the abused, hated daughter to her rise as a warrior queen who took a failing kingdom and made it great again. The book is written seemingly in her own hand, an accusation against the gods, she says, because they stole Psyche away from her and treated her so poorly.
The book travels through many years, and through it Orual begins to understand more about herself and the harm her own possessive, selfish love has done to her sister. My heart ached for her, even when she was wrong, even when she hurt the people around her so badly because of her mistakes, because it was so easy to understand and feel the pain behind her actions. This book was the last of C.S. Lewis’s works, and he died before completing it fully, leaving some people dissatisfied with its ending. I thought the abrupt cut off fit well with the writing style and liked the way it panned out, feeling it was as finished as it needed to be. All in all, this book was one I will be reading again and again and would highly recommend to anyone interested in Mr. Lewis’s work.
“As 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.”