Till We Have Faces
by C. S. Lewis
How should a story start? “Once upon a time there was a king who had three beautiful daughters.” No, too ordinary. How about, “Once there was a king who had a daughter who was so-so pretty, another daughter so ugly she had to hide her face, and a third so beautiful people worshipped her as a goddess. And contrary to what everyone expected, the ugly sister loved the youngest and most beautiful one so much she would have died for her.”
That’s the story of C. S. Lewis’s last and perhaps greatest novel, Till We Have Faces. And despite the roots in classical mythology it shared with his popular Narnia series, Lewis’s public hardly knew what to make of it. “As Lewis himself ruefully remarked in 1959,” writes recent biographer Alister McGrath, “the work that he himself considered ‘far and away the best I have written‘ turned out to be ‘my one big failure both with the critics and with the public.’”
Lewis’s readers might have understood more if they’d known about Joy Davidman, the woman Lewis dedicated his ‘far and away best’ novel to. She was an American divorcee sixteen years younger than Lewis, and still married to another man at the beginning of their acquaintance. And even before 1956, the year Till We Have Faces was published and Lewis and Davidman were married, she had become what McGrath called the “midwife” of some of his finest books.
“Lewis had long been interested in the classical myth of Psyche,” McGrath writes in his 2013 biography, C. S. Lewis: A Life, “but could not work out how to develop the idea.“ Davidman, visiting in the house of Lewis and his brother Warren in 1955, a year before her marriage to Lewis, “began to deploy a collaborative strategy. She and Lewis ‘kicked a few ideas around till one came to life.’”
The seed of the idea was the second century A.D. Latin novel Metamorphoses, by Lucius Apuleius Platonicus, which contains the basic myth of the love god Cupid and Psyche, whose beauty was so great it incited the jealousy of Cupid’s mother Venus. Sent by Venus to punish Psyche for allowing people to worship her as a goddess, Cupid instead fell in love with Psyche and married her, but came to her only in darkness, forbidding her to see his true form.
In Apuleius’s version, Psyche’s sisters, jealous of the wonderful palace where she lives with Cupid, insist that she view Cupid while he sleeps, assuring her that he is really a monster who must be killed. When Psyche gives in to their urging, Cupid renounces her until, after completing a series of ordeals, the lovers are at last reconciled and reunited.
“The central alteration in my own version consists in making Psyche’s palace invisible to normal, mortal eyes,” Lewis wrote in his note following the text of his novel. “This change of course brings with it a more ambivalent motive and a different character for my heroine.”
That heroine in his version is the ugly sister, who he names Orual. Unable to see Psyche’s palace during her visit, Orual fears for her beloved sister’s sanity and her own loneliness at the loss of their companionship. Orual urges Psyche to repudiate whatever god or monster has swept her away, and the aftermath separates Psyche both from Cupid and Orual.
Lewis frames the story as Orual’s complaint against the gods for their cruelty, and spends grieving until in a vision of Psyche’s ordeals, she learns that her own anguish, unknown to both of them, has saved Psyche from further suffering.
Four years after the publication of Till We Have Faces, Lewis would return to this subject of vicarious suffering in what would be the last of his books inspired by Davidman. The book was A Grief Observed, written after Davidman’s death from bone cancer. Struggling with his own faith in the face of Davidman’s suffering, “If only I could bear it, or the worst of it, of any of it, instead of her,” Lewis wrote of the woman who had been his “intellectual soul mate, who helped him retain his passion and motivation for writing.”
“Her death unleashed a stream of thoughts which Lewis could not initially control,” McGrath writes. “In the end, he committed them to writing as a way of coping with them. . . A Grief Observed is a narrative of the testing and maturing of faith. . . .” as much as Orual’s narrative related her own testing.
In a year in which the world commemorated one very significant death, it’s interesting to note that McGrath’s biography was written for the fiftieth anniversary of Lewis’s death, which occurred on November 22, 1963, overshadowed by the assassination that same day of President John F. Kennedy.
(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics continues a December of spirited classics with Nobel Prize winner Shusaku Endo’s The Samurai.)