Till We Have Faces: A Novel Of Cupid And Psyche, by C.S. Lewis
This is a complicated piece of late fiction by C.S. Lewis and reading it, it is not surprising that such a nuanced work would be his least popular, but that does not mean it is not a great book anyway. At its heart, this book is about the burdens of rulership, the struggles that happen between family members, and the estrangement between God and man and between people and others. With its inspiration a story from the early Roman tradition, this particular book offers a critique of heathen superstition and fashionable philosophical rationalism within a story that is strange and compelling and deeply dark set in the historical past in a small barbarian kingdom that is somewhere in the world of the Eastern Mediterranean, though it is not clear exactly where it is supposed to be. At any rate, in reading this story one is confronted by the immense harshness of life in this fictional but plausible world as well as by the layers of estrangement that exist with regards to self-knowledge, ability to relate to others, and the ability to live in harmony with the dictates of heaven.
The novel itself has two parts which are very unequal in terms of their length. The first half of the story consists of an account of the life of the unlovely Orual, a girl who grows up disfigured and hated on account of it, who closes her heart to love and who has a dark bitterness towards her beautiful younger sister Psyche, who is chosen to marry a secretive god known as the Brute. Orual’s attempt to rescue her goes awry and only leads to a sense of betrayal and estrangement between the two as well as between the rejected Orual and any sort of religious comfort. Meanwhile, Orual inherits the rule over the kingdom of Glome after the death of her cruel and unwise and abusive father, and rules ably but somewhat coldly, without experiencing love or peace of mind, veiling herself to distance herself from her people. It is at the end of her life, as she is reflecting upon aging and the way in which her demands led to the death of her ablest advisers and counselors, that she receives the answer she has long sought about the ways of heaven, and it is a shattering revelation that demonstrates the fact that she too, like her sister, has lived a life of deep sorrow ordained by heaven.
Obviously, this book is a fictional novel, but it is a complex one, involving the two main sisters and the people around them, which includes an enslaved Greek philosopher of the kind that inhabit many contemporary universities, a brave but not particularly deep commander of soldiers who trains Orual in warfare, and an older sister who marries the ruler of a neighboring kingdom and whose son inherits Glome after the childless and virginal Orual dies. The author uses the setting of the novel in the heathen pre-Christian past to deal with a few themes that his work bears weight on, such as the inscrutability of the ways of heaven to human beings, the way that the exercise of power makes it difficult to love and forces us to do violence not only to others but also to the better and more humane parts of ourselves, and the estrangement that results from sin between God and mankind and mankind within itself. The author also uses the setting to demonstrate the way that even heathen myths point to Christian truth, something of vital importance to the author in legitimizing to himself and to others his own particular brand of Hellenistic Christianity.