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Abstract

This book review examines the British author and Christian philosopher C.S. Lewis's masterpiece Till We Have Faces in light of the classical myth, Cupid and Psyche, from which it was originally adapted. The article is written primarily from a Christian perspective but is welcoming to readers of all backgrounds.

Comparative Book Review of ''Till We Have Faces'' and ''Cupid and Psyche''

Introduction

C.S. Lewis bridges a literary gap of nearly two millennia in his book Till We Have Faces. His retelling of the ancient myth of Cupid and Psyche draws out the truths of the myth as only a writer like Lewis can. Comparison of “Cupid and Psyche” by Apuleius and Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis reveals the power of myth to define reality. Superficially and intrinsically, the two works share many similarities, yet these similarities often reveal differences as well. The two literary themes of beauty and sacrificial love shine forth in the myths, though each myth adds its own unique hue to each theme. Thanks to the respectful enhancements which modern literary talent can add to ancient art, Till We Have Faces tells a richer and more theological story than the ancient myth, as evidenced not only by the mythological qualities of the works but also by the authors’ treatment of the additional theme of appearances versus reality. Finally, Till We Have Faces resonates with two of Lewis’s other notable works, The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce, completing a triumvirate of applicability for both Christian and non-Christian audiences.

Similarities Between the Works

The similarities between Till We Have Faces and the “Cupid and Psyche” myth herald praise for Lewis in his adherence and deference to the original work. Noticeably, the two myths parallel in characters, plot, imagery, and theology. Since “Cupid and Psyche” builds off of a foundation of Greek mythology, both myths include the beautiful mortal princess Psyche; Cupid, the young god of love (called the Shadowbrute in Till We Have Faces); Venus, the goddess of love (known as Ungit in Till We Have Faces); and Psyche’s two elder sisters, whom Lewis names in his work. The plot of both myths approximately follows a quest motif, briefly summarized thus: Psyche serves as a sacrifice to appease Venus, but Cupid saves the princess and marries her. Following the advice of her elder sisters and disobeying Cupid, Psyche loses her conjugal status and must embark upon a quest of hardship to appease Venus. Finally, with the help of her immortal husband and other notable gods, Psyche is reunited in marriage. Lewis also borrows many images from “Cupid and Psyche,” such as the ants, the heap of grain, and the field of golden rams, all of which surface in Orual’s visions. But theology offers the deepest level of similarity between the two stories. The concept of mortals needing to trust the gods and relinquish sovereignty of their own lives before they can experience a wholesome relationship with the gods resonates powerfully in both myths. These similarities give Lewis a stable platform from which to develop his own version of the myth.

Differences Between the Works

Differences between Till We Have Faces and “Cupid and Psyche” surprisingly parallel the similarities, as the areas in which the two myths most agree are also the areas in which they most differ. Immediately the reader notices that Till We Have Faces introduces and focuses upon a different main character than does “Cupid and Psyche.” Orual, the unattractive and embittered older sister of Psyche, narrates the whole myth as a legal brief in her case of complaint against the gods. The Psyche of Till We Have Faces, while she closely resembles the Psyche of Apuleius’s myth, plays a less important role and almost disappears from view in the latter half of the book. Lewis also introduces or develops other notable characters, such as Bardia the soldier and his wife Ansit; Psyche’s other older sister, Redival; Orual’s father, King Trom; the Priest of Ungit; and Orual’s mentor, the Fox.

Closely tied to the differences in characters are the differences in plot. While the more linear and simplistic plot of “Cupid and Psyche” centers upon Psyche and her personal quest for reunion with her husband, the plot of Till We Have Faces splits into two plots, one following Orual and one following Psyche. Psyche’s plot does not change much from the original myth, but Orual’s plot takes a different course entirely, as she progresses from jealous elder sister to destroyer of Psyche’s world to hardened Queen of Glome and finally to repentant and humbled worshipper of the gods. These differences between the two myths form the foundation of their comparison.

Theme: Beauty

In his treatment of the theme of beauty, Lewis commendably builds upon the shaky foundation offered by Apuleius. Regrettably, the “Cupid and Psyche” myth seems only to value external beauty, for it gives no indication otherwise. Cupid loves Psyche because of her external beauty, and Apuleius never develops Psyche’s character enough for the reader to discern any particular internal beauty in Psyche or any of the other characters, for that matter. On the contrary, Lewis pays painstaking attention to his character development, which allows him to nourish the theme of beauty not only in the external appearance of his characters but also in their personalities and souls. While Psyche’s physical beauty and Orual’s physical ugliness play a part in each woman’s respective lives, the ultimate source of beauty, for Lewis, lay in the soul—in a person’s reaction to and relationship with the gods. Beauty travels from the inside to the outside, as Psyche’s relationship to the world around her demonstrates. Orual explains of her younger sister that “when she trod on mud, the mud was beautiful…when she picked up a toad…the toad became beautiful” (Till We Have Faces, 22). This ability to beautify her environment did not come from Psyche’s external appearance, but rather from a beauty of soul which came from her obedient response to the gods.

Orual, on the other hand, destroys and devours everything around her, a result of her ugliness of soul and not her ugliness of face. Not until the end of the book does Orual realize that her ugliness comes from her rebellion against the gods, as she fatally admits, “It was I who was Ungit” (TWHF, 276). Through this theme Lewis demonstrates that mortals change their values and attributes based upon their relationships with the supernatural world, a concept which he weaves throughout Till We Have Faces.

Theme: Sacrificial Love

As with their similarities and differences, the two myths both resemble each other and differ from each other in their treatment of the theme of sacrificial love. “Cupid and Psyche” touches on sacrificial love in the person of Psyche, who seeks to redeem herself in the eyes of her husband and the gods by submitting to mistreatment at the hands of Venus. Psyche displays a willingness to sacrifice humbly—not possessively—for Cupid, an attitude which is thus rewarded by Cupid and the rest of the gods. In Till We Have Faces Lewis echoes the theme of sacrificial love but also adds to it; in his myth, sacrificial love has two sides, one good and one evil. Psyche’s sacrificial love is humble and selfless, never expecting anything in return from Orual or others around her. She goes willingly to make the ultimate sacrifice for the welfare of her people. Orual, on the other hand, makes sacrifices in her love for Psyche, but she makes them greedily in the hope of tying Psyche more closely to herself. Thus Lewis explains that sacrificial love in and of itself functions simply as material—the ends towards which sacrificial love is directed determine its moral value.

So Which Myth is Better?

Although both myths have intrinsic value as works of literature, Till We Have Faces tells the better story hands down. Lewis believed that reality often fulfills or at least echoes myth, and in the same way, Till We Have Faces fulfills and matures the original myth of “Cupid and Psyche.” Likewise, Lewis believed that myth depends more upon the interactions of its characters than upon its plot to illustrate its truths. Thus, in Lewis’s work the nascent truths in “Cupid and Psyche” fully flourish, thanks largely to Lewis’s deeper character development and larger cast of characters. The brilliance of Lewis’s introduction of the character Orual to the myth cannot be overstated, for Lewis uses Orual as the main vehicle through which he draws out the truths of the original myth. Only through the contrasting characters of Orual and Psyche can Lewis develop the themes of beauty and sacrificial love, and only through Orual’s turbulent relationship with the gods can Lewis exemplify the proper response of the mortal to the immortal.

In a sense, Lewis places Orual and her story in the foreground against the shadowy backdrop of Psyche’s myth, forcing us to identify with Orual and accept her viewpoint before lifting the curtain from our eyes at the very end of the book, when we realize that the whole time Orual simply stole the limelight from Psyche like a noisy self-centered child before eventually hushing up and taking her place on the celestial stage. This brilliant character and plot interplay gives Till We Have Faces a respected place of its own among mythical literature.

Mythological Qualities

Both “Cupid and Psyche” and Till We Have Faces display mythological qualities in their usage of particular gods and their abundance of superstition. Since Till We Have Faces builds upon the mythology and characters of “Cupid and Psyche,” it uses the same gods, simply calling them different names. The god Cupid of “Cupid and Psyche” takes the name of “the Shadowbrute” in Till We Have Faces, while Lewis christens the goddess Venus with the name “Ungit.” Although Lewis’s myth makes no specific reference to any gods except Ungit and the Shadowbrute, other gods do peek out from the shadowy background of Orual’s dying visions. Additionally, “Cupid and Psyche” does not view the gods as negatively as does most of Till We Have Faces — for most of Lewis’s work the gods function as antagonists, and not until the end of the book do we realize that this characterization simply results from Orual’s skewed view. Superstition also appears in the myths, manifesting most noticeably in the reactions of the common people to the supposed sacrifice of Psyche. All the people — except the Priest in Lewis’s story — fear that a terrible monster, “a worm, a giant eft, or a specter,” will devour Psyche (TWHF, 72). Most of the common people do not rebel against the gods as Orual does, so their fear of the Shadowbrute does not have the same basis as hers. Rather, Lewis and Apuleius both use the fear of the common people to illustrate the truth that ignorance breeds superstition.

Theme: Appearance versus Reality

Although he borrows it from Apuleius, Lewis skillfully adapts the theme of appearances versus reality to his own myth. Originally, Apuleius uses the theme to illustrate Psyche’s trust in the gods: though at first she appears to have sealed her doom, Psyche willingly submits to her martyrdom, confident in the sovereignty of the gods. Later, as the reality unfolds, she wins an immortal lover and eventually immorality for herself. Apuleius also offers a glimpse of this theme in Psyche’s opening of the box of beauty: although the box appears the same to both Psyche and Venus, the reality inside the box affects each of them differently, enhancing Venus’s beauty but putting Psyche into “an infernal and truly Stygian sleep” (“Cupid and Psyche,” 6).

Likewise, in examples too numerous to list, Lewis demonstrates the theme for the main purpose of illustrating how a mortal’s reaction to the supernatural will influence his or her understanding of reality. In dealing with the supernatural world, appearances and reality form a queer mesh, sometimes contradicting, sometimes belying, and sometimes defining each other. This mesh is most clearly apparent in the contrasting reactions of Orual and Psyche to the gods, reactions which determine how each of them sees the physical world around herself. Mortals who approach the spiritual world expecting appearances to guide them will only find disappointment, confusion, and frustration, as did Orual. But those who approach the supernatural world assuming its reality will find that appearances only confirm their assumptions, as did Psyche.

Lewis's Other Works

Fortunately, Lewis does not limit his fictional prowess to Till We Have Faces: the same key themes and truths he develops in the myth also resonate in two of his other great works, The Great Divorce and The Screwtape Letters. The process of conversion of the ghosts in The Great Divorce and Orual in Till We Have Faces parallel remarkably — like most of the ghosts, Orual had to give up something she held as an absolute before she could experience the joy of a right relationship with the gods. In this regard, Till We Have Faces also resembles The Screwtape Letters, in which Screwtape explains that anything held up by a human as an absolute, except for God Himself, becomes a sinful vice which must be relinquished before a human can restore his or her relationship with God.

But ultimately, Lewis uses all three works to nail the root cause of the corruption of mortal relationship with the immortal. Though originally designed for channeling the relationship between God and man, the intrinsic and fundamental desire of human beings to have an Absolute often if not always refocuses itself upon the humans themselves, a condition which Lewis calls spiritual pride. Orual’s strained relationship with the gods originated not from actual injustice on the part of the gods but from her inherent desire to be her own god, to have full possession of her own life and of Psyche’s life as well. Thus she viewed the gods as selfish intruders upon the sovereignty of her own universe. The common thread throughout these works reveals Lewis’s most central and foundational truth.

Conclusion

Supported by its fellow works The Great Divorce and The Screwtape Letters, Lewis’s masterful myth Till We Have Faces gives the Christian reader a convicting yet encouraging call to personal spiritual examination. Orual’s bumpy spiritual journey warns us to avoid her same fate by submitting the sovereignty of our lives to God. Furthermore, Lewis’s powerful probing of spiritual pride in Orual’s life calls upon us to examine ourselves to see if we have allowed other things, including ourselves, to replace God as the absolute of our lives. But Orual’s eventual spiritual triumph also encourages us, in that no matter how often we stumble on our own spiritual journeys, God will always stoop down and help us back up.

For the non-Christian reader, Till We Have Faces is still a powerful and engaging read. Truly, comparison of Till We Have Faces and “Cupid and Psyche” yields incredible insight into the power of myth to define reality. Cultures and societies across the world and throughout history have lived out over and over the themes which Lewis illumines in his myth. Some of the most well-known examples are American legends such as George Washington and the cherry tree and Davy Crockett and the Alamo. From the most primitive societies to the most complex industrial nations like the United States, people groups universally seem to derive identity and meaning from the myths which surround their national character. Perhaps the secular reader would wish to read Till We Have Faces to better aid his or her investigations of sociology.

Literature Religion Sociology


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