I love this book.
As I mentioned last week, I’ve read this book before. I loved it then, but I was reading it for such a specific purpose that I missed some of the best and most beautiful moments. I also mentioned that I suspected that C.S. Lewis was the “beast” in the story, but wasn’t sure.
I am now positive he is not, though I am similarly positive he is Orual, the jealous sister. While the jealous sisters in the original version of “Cupid and Psyche” can be considered one of the many beasts (Venus and Cupid themselves playing the role of the beast at different times as well) the true beast in this version is love. It took me almost the entire book to realize it, but I’m sure I’m right. Though it follows that the book’s Venus/Aphrodite (Ungit) and Cupid (the Brute) would then be the beast, as these two are godly incarnations of love, they are not. If anything, they are the true beauties, and Istra (also known as Psyche) is only reflecting their pure, healthy love.
Perhaps I should amend my earlier statement: the true beast is human love, love that does not seek the divine. And, while I balk at the concept (I’m human and I love people!), I have to agree. The divine love he speaks of is not unattainable by the humans of the story. Psyche is living proof of this. It is just rarely attained, because of petty jealousies, predilection to ownership, anger at split affection, and a dangerous, self-serving tendency to wish to control all those we love so that they never leave us. All of this I have observed and sometimes felt myself, so I cannot deny that it exists in humanity. Lewis pokes and prods with careful, but hardly gentle, fingers at these sores in our humanity (and, I think (as I have mentioned), in himself).
Here is a synopsis from the back of the book: In this timeless tale of two mortal princesses–one beautiful and one unattractive–C. S. Lewis reworks the classical myth of Cupid and Psyche into an enduring piece of contemporary fiction. This is the story of Orual, Psyche’s embittered and ugly older sister, who possessively and harmfully loves Psyche. Much to Orual’s frustration, Psyche is loved by Cupid, the god of love himself, setting the troubled Orual on a path of moral development.
Set against the backdrop of Glome, a barbaric, pre-Christian world, the struggles between sacred and profane love are illuminated as Orual learns that we cannot understand the intent of the gods “till we have faces” and sincerity in our souls and selves.
I’m not sure I like this description. It’s not very good, and misrepresents a lot of the book. But it gets the idea across.
There are many revealing moments within the novel. I wish I could type them all for proofs of what a disease love can be. However, here are a few of my favorites.
1) The possessive love of Orual:
“I wanted to be a wife so I could have been [Psyche’s] real mother. I wanted to be a boy so that she could be in love with me. I wanted her to be my full sister instead of my half sister. I wanted her to be a slave so that I could set her free and make her rich.”
2) The manipulative love (born of jealousy) of Orual:
“I flung back my cloak further, trust out my bare left arm, and struck the dagger into it till the point pricked out on the other side. Pulling the iron back through the wound was the worse pain; but I can hardly believe now how little I felt it…
‘Maia,’ said Psyche, ‘what did you do that for?’
‘To show you I’m in earnest, girl. Listen. You have driven me to desperate courses. I give you your choice. Swear on this edge, with my blood still wet on it, that you will this very night do as I have commanded you; or else I’ll first kill you and then myself.’
‘Orual,’ said she, very queenlike, raising her head, ‘you might have spared that threat of killing me. All your power over me lies in the other.’
‘Then swear, girl. You never knew me break my word.’
The look in her face now was on I did not understand. I thin a lover–I mean, a man who loved–might look so on a woman who had been false to him. And at last she said,
‘You are indeed teaching me about kinds of love I did not know. It is like looking into a deep pit. I am not sure whether I like your kind better than hatred. Oh, Orual–to take my love for you, because you know it does down to my very roots and cannot be diminished by any other newer love, and then to make of it a tool, a weapon, a thing of policy and mastery, an instrument of torture–I begin to think I never knew you. Whatever comes after, something that was between us dies here.’
‘Enough of your subtleties,’ said I. ‘Both of us die here, in plainest truth and blood, unless you swear.'”
3) The cruel love of Orual:
“I had rejoiced when there was a press of work, had heaped up needless work to keep [Bardia, my captain of the guard] late at the palace, plied him with questions for the mere pleasure of hearing his voice. Anything to put off the moment when he would go and leave me to my emptiness. And I had hated him for going. Punished him too. Men have a hundred ways of mocking a man who’s thought to love his wife too well, and Bardia was defenceless; everyone knew he’d married an undowered girl, and Ansit boasted that she’d no need (like most) to seek out the ugliest girls in the slave-market for her household. I never mocked him myself; but I had endless sleights and contrivances (behind my veil) for pushing the talk in such directions as, I knew, would make the others mock him. I hated them for doing it, but I had a bittersweet pleasure at his clouded face. Did I hate him, then? Indeed, I believe so. A love like that can grow to be nine-tenths hatred and still call itself love. One thing’s certain; in my mad midnight fantasies (Ansit dead, or, better still, proved whore, witch, or traitress) when he was at last to be seeking my love, I always had him begin by imploring my forgiveness. Sometimes he had hard work to get it. I would bring him within an ace of killing himself first.”
These are the fruits of human love in the book. Pain, bitterness, hatred of others and self, but–above all–emptiness. I gasped when I read that first quote this second time around. How had I missed all the disease that was already rotting her love? The manipulation Orual accomplishes so that she will not be alone (which, of course, backfires horribly on both parties concerned) is unfathomable. And, of course, in her old age she not only recognizes the emptiness, but uses a horrid love that is “nine-tenths hatred” to fill it. It is amazing to see what we humans can do in the name of “love.” And, as if we are not quite satisfied with the extent of the pain we cause, after opening these deep cavities in others, we then salt the wounds, to ensure that they hurt exquisitely enough. I say that we do this, and not the characters, because I am not blind enough to pretend that this book is a caricature. Poisonous love exists and it is not those who understand divine/pure/healthy love that perpetrate it. It is the worst of what it is human.
Thankfully, Lewis also covers the best of what is human as well. The title of the book reflects it: Till We Have Faces. At the moment we are able to acknowledge was is real and true about others, we cannot hate them. Orual writes her book as a charge, a hateful diatribe, against the gods who have wronged her by removing the one thing in her life she loved: her sister, Psyche. The way she puts it, when she sees Cupid/the Brute’s face, “I now know, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice? Only words, words; to be led out to battle against other words…”
I love this truth: before the true face of a person, all questions die away. If we are willing to look beyond the surface of what we expect to see, of what people project themselves, we will find the beginnings of that love. Words will battle no more. This is a much simpler concept for me to express, but a harder one to practice, I think.
Till We Have Faces is a brilliant book. I am sure that the next time I read it, many new things will occur to me. Opinions will change. All these things I am sure of this time will likely be the things I am least sure of next time. But I will always recommend it. Orual’s journey to find her own face within herself and find divine love is a quest that resonates within the human experience.
This book also poses a question that I was unable to answer, but I wish to open to anyone who would like to consider it themselves: As we destroy ourselves with fantasy, do we also destroy reality?
Just a thought.
P.S. Incidentally, this book also carries one of my favorite quotes as a writer: “I was with book, as a woman is with child.” How awesome is that?!