This week I’m recommending a little known novel by a very well known author – `Till We Have Faces’ by C.S.Lewis. Everyone is  familiar with Lewis’s much-loved Narnia stories, either through the books themselves or the recent films.  His `Screwtape Letters’ and the Science Fiction trilogy which begins with `Out of the Silent Planet’ also have many fans but I rarely meet anyone who has read  `Till We Have Faces’. This historical Fantasy which retells the myth of  `Cupid and Psyche’ was first published in 1956. Curiously, it is easier to find paperback copies in America than it is in the UK. So far this extraordinary novel doesn’t seem to be available as an ebook. Even if you don’t normally like Lewis’s work, you might find `Till We Have Faces’  worth searching out.

The story is set in Glome – a small `barbarian’ kingdom to the north of Ancient Greece. In old age, the formidable Queen Orual looks back on her unhappy childhood as the ugly and unloved eldest daughter of King Trom. She describes how her only friend was a Greek slave known as the Fox, who taught her to be rational and despise the local religion as mere superstition. After Trom’s second wife dies in childbirth, he is angry that the baby is another girl but Princess Psyche is  lovingly  reared by Orual and the Fox. Psyche grows up to be a girl of exceptional beauty  and grace but when the kingdom suffers from drought and plague, the  Priest of the goddess Ungit (Aphrodite/Venus) claims that Psyche is the cause. She is condemned to be taken to the Holy Mountain and sacrificed to a god known as The Shadow Brute who is said to devour his brides. Psyche goes bravely to her death. Orual hates her abusive father for not even trying to save Psyche. She begins to take sword-fighting lessons from Bardia, the chief of the King’s Guard, who recognises Orual’s courage and intelligence and sees her as a future ruler.

When Bardia escorts Orual to the Holy Mountain to recover Psyche’s body, they are amazed to find the princess still alive. Stranger still, Psyche refuses to leave the apparently empty valley she shows to Orual. Psyche claims to be living in bliss with a husband she has never seen, as he only comes to her under cover of darkness.  Is Psyche’s mysterious  husband a man, a god or a monster?  Orual must guess if Psyche has been driven mad by her ordeal or whether she has genuinely entered a divine realm. Orual’s decision will have terrible consequences for both the sisters.

The original story of  Psyche is found in `The Golden Ass’, a novel of the 2nd century CE by the Greek writer Apuleius. This ancient novel is a surprisingly enjoyable read but only if you are over  18 because some of the sex scenes are definitely for adults only. In Apuleius’ version, Psyche is banished by the god of love after she disobeys him. His mother, Venus, then sets Psyche a series of almost impossible tasks, culminating in a grim journey through the Underworld.  Lewis was apparently fascinated by this story for most of his life but he struggled to find the right way to retell it. Most authors would have used the Cinderella-like Psyche as their viewpoint character. Lewis eventually did something  more unusual. He picked a minor figure – one of the ugly sisters who betray Psyche because they are jealous of her beauty and happiness – and made her the focus of the novel.

Lewis is famous for his pro-Christian writings but Part One of `Till We Have Faces’  is Orual’s angry `Book against the Gods’.  She relates how the gods `gave me nothing to love but Psyche and then took her from me’ and how she was unfairly expected to take a leap of faith with no signs or miracles to guide her. Orual asks, `Why must holy places be dark places?’ and concludes that `there is no creature…so noxious to man as the gods.’ It’s almost as if Lewis took all his own internal fears and doubts about religion and put them into Orual.  In Part Two of the book, a series of  encounters and visions make Queen Orual question the nature of her possessive love for Psyche and rethink her beliefs. Orual comes to understand that we cannot see the gods as they truly are until we see ourselves as we truly are – however painful that knowledge might be.

Some readers complain that Lewis’s stories have too simplistic a view of good and evil. There is nothing simplistic about `Till We Have Faces’. This is a book about different kinds of love.  None of the people in it are completely good or completely bad and no-one is shown as always right or always wrong.  King Trom is weak rather than evil and even the priest of the dark cult of Ungit is sincere in his beliefs and understands more about suffering than the Fox does. As this well-educated Greek represents an atheist viewpoint, you might expect Lewis to have made the Fox an unattractive  character. Instead he is noble and kind. His philosophy may not have all the answers but the Fox is a loving father-figure to Orual and Psyche. Even unsympathetic minor characters, such as Trom’s middle daughter or the princesses’ greedy  nurse, are suddenly revealed to have burdens and grievances of their own which make their faults understandable.

Above all there is the far from wicked sister, passionate tormented Orual, who suppresses her sensitive side as she veils her face and becomes a great ruler. In Part One, Orual presents herself  as a victim and I can’t read her account without wincing at all the slights and disappointments she suffers. Her father doesn’t value her as he should and Orual is mocked or pitied for her looks.  She’s secretly in love with Bardia but this happily-married soldier treats her as an honorary man. Unlike a traditional `ugly sister’ Orual doesn’t resent  Psyche’s beauty but she finds it unbearable when Psyche no longer seems to need her.  In Part Two, Orual is made to see that she has exploited the people who have loved her and refused to give them their freedom. She gets a lesson from Bardia’s wife, a woman she has always despised, in what it means to love unselfishly.  Queen Orual is almost a monster but she has a soul capable of  a beauty to equal Psyche’s.  I find Orual’s story compelling because there is more depth of feeling in `Till We Have Faces’ than in all of the rest of Lewis’s fiction put together. Until next week….