Most famous authors have a book or series that they are particularly well known for. Sometimes their famous works overshadow their other work and even their fans aren’t aware of their less well known books. But often times there’s hidden treasure to be found in those under appreciated works.
I learned that first hand a few days back when I picked up C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, a retelling of The Greek myth of Psyche and Cupid. This was the last book that C.S. Lewis wrote and I have to say I was really impressed.
The basic story of the myth is this. Psyche is so beautiful that the people of her land begin to worship her as a goddess. This draws the wrath of Venus. Seeking revenge Venus commands Cupid to cause Psyche to fall in love with an ugly man. But Cupid instead falls in love with her himself. Her family becomes worried that they will never find a man willing to marry her and so her father calls on the god Apollo for help. He advises her father to send Psyche to the top of a hill where she will marry a serpent. And for some reason they agree to this and she goes.
But instead of finding a serpent she finds a beautiful house and falls in love with a man (Cupid) who will not allow her to see his face.
Psyche has two sisters. And one day Psyche begs to be allowed to see them. Cupid says that it is not wise, but finally relents. The sisters visit her, but become jealous of Psyche’s good fortune and begin to imagine reasons she has never seen her husbands face and pressure her that she must sneak a look.
Psyche is finally pressured into doing this, and I can’t say I can blame her. She lights a lamp at night in their bedchamber and sees Cupid’s beautiful face. She is relieved and ashamed for her lack of faith. But Cupid awakes and becomes angry and leaves her for her betrayal.
Psyche wanders the land in search of Cupid and finally comes to Venus looking for help. Venus sets a series of impossible tasks before Psyche, but Psyche succeeds and in the end is reunited with Cupid.
This is the basic idea of the myth. Now. C.S. Lewis’s tale is much different. It is told from the prospective of the eldest sisters. Apparently Lewis was not satisfied with the sister’s motivation. So he made the mansion invisible so that it was a question of belief for the eldest sister and also made it a matter of love which caused the betrayal rather than jealousy.
The character of the eldest sister is fascinating. She is loving and caring and yet jealous and possessive. She loves and yet that love is imperfect and consumes what she loves. Later on she becomes queen of her land and she is a good, strong, queen. She even rides into battle and champions her people. And yet she is deeply flawed and broken. Sometimes her thoughts and actions are deplorable and yet she is very sympathetic.
It has been said that this book is C.S. Lewis’s most mature work and I have to agree, at least in fiction. There is a level of character development which is not found in any of the other books of his that I have read. I was impressed, and I was also impressed with how well he wrote a strong and well rounded female character.
I believe I read the entire book in two or three days. As usual, there is an allegorical nature to this retelling of the myth. He deals with themes of doubt about the gods, how can they truly be just and loving, and why won’t they answer plainly. All intriguing questions.
It was a beautiful book, sad, yet hopeful. I would highly recommend it.