Spoiler-Free Book Review:
Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold by C. S. Lewis
Rating: 10 out of 10 stars
In my book reviews, I consider the literary merit of the book by examining aspects such as character development, world-building, illustrations, and storytelling.
Just as a precaution before you delve in–my opinion and preferences have an impact on the rating. When it comes to judging literature, it is impossible not to let personal biases interfere.
I will, however, honestly evaluate the aspects of the book to the best of my ability so my review can help you determine if it sounds like it’s the book for you.
If you disagree with my evaluation for any reason, feel free to leave a comment.
C. S. Lewis is a Christian writer and theologian. He has been extremely influential to Christians of all denominations and has written over 30 books.
Till We Have Faces was written in 1956 and was the last of Lewis’ fiction. Although it was unpopular at first, Lewis said it was his favorite of his fictional works. Lewis felt that all myth had some rudimentary truth to it, a certain value that people could receive from it. His book, Till We Have Faces, is a retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche.
- Creative and unique character name choice
- Tough and relatable protagonist with a strong voice
- Benefits from the structure of the Psyche and Cupid myth with an unexpected point of view
- Engaging storytelling style
- Clever descriptive language
- Tone like all those fairy tales and myths I used to be so pumped up about
- Yet defies common fairy tale expectation
- Setting has own culture and mythology
- Demonstrates how even positively-viewed emotions such as love can be twisted and abusive
- Considers our relationship with fiction and why stories are important
- The name of the book holds powerful meaning
- I cannot think of any cons. Obviously this book isn’t for everyone–but really, what book is?
The names of the characters are creative and unique, such as Orual, Redival, Barda, Undit, and Batta.
The point of view character is Orual, the sister of Psyche. While in the myth of Cupid and Psyche the sister has a very minimal and cruel part, in this story she is humanized.
Orual has a strong voice with daring opinions. She rails against the gods themselves and is the sort of person to take her life in her own hands. She claims to be objective, but it is clear she is swayed by her emotions at times.
The story starts with her as an old woman looking back on her life. These are her first few lines:
–I am old now and have not much to fear from the anger of the gods. I have no husband nor child, nor hardly a friend, through whom they can hurt me. My body, this lean carrion that still has to be washed and fed and have clothes hung about it daily with so many changes, they may kill as soon as they please.”Orual
The way that C. S. Lewis tells the story makes it hard to put it down. It has the tone of a fairy tale or myth, with the qualities of an epic story.
For example, Orual describes Psyche like this:
–When she trod on the mud, the mud was beautiful; when she ran in the rain, the rain was silver.”
Orual sometimes speaks directly to the reader, giving it more of that oral storyteller vibe.
–You know how it is when you shed a few tears or none, but there is a weight and pressure of weeping through your whole head.”
The seeming indifference or hatred of the gods is a source of conflict and struggle for many of the characters. This reminds me a lot of epics like that of Odysseus.
–We are their bubbles; they blow us big before they prick us.”Orual
–I wonder do the gods know what it feels like to be a man.”Barda
The way Lewis uses descriptive language is also unusual and interesting, such as when he says something is as “quick as thought.”
With its fairy tale tone and its status as a retelling of a myth, there are certain expectations readers may have. Many of these expectations are subverted. One of the more minor instances of this happens in the first chapter when a stepmother comes into the picture. Anyone who has read fairy tales can’t help but think stepmother = trouble, but this stepmother is young, frail, and terrified.
The way Orual describes the kingdom of Glome (where she lives) makes it seem like a real place. She speaks of it in the way someone might if they were describing it to a traveler.
–The city of Glome stands on the left hand of the river Shennit to a traveler who is coming up from the south-east, not more than a day’s journey above Ringal, which is the last town southward that belongs to the land of Glome. The city is built about as far back from the river as a woman can walk in the third of an hour, for the Shennit overflows her banks in the spring.”
The people of Glome worship an assortment of gods, but especially the goddess Undit, who can be equated with the Greek goddess Aphrodite. They also acknowledge the power of Undit’s son, the god of the Grey Mountain.
There are little aspects of culture of Glome that come out over time, such as the fact that grieving women cut their hair. There is a special oath taken with a sword blade, called an “oath on edge,” that it is sacrilegious to break. There are many other interesting things about Glome that you will figure out if you read the book.
Treatment of Love
Love is rarely acknowledged to be capable of causing great harm in the same way that other emotions like anger are. C. S. Lewis, much like he does in his other book The Great Divorce, demonstrates how love can be corrupted and abusive even when it claims to be for the loved one’s good. I think this is an important message that adds depth to the book.
The Value of Fiction
There is a character named the Fox who has a great love of poetry and yet is ashamed of it when he teaches it to Orual. He frequently brushes off comments about fictional works, saying:
–It’s only the lies of poets.”
It is clearly his background in reading myths, poetry, and other works of fiction that contributes to his wisdom, however. This part of the story is relevant to readers because at some point any reader of fiction will wonder–what’s the point?
The point is that it helps one to grow and mature as a person who is able to understand others, to value different points of view, and to think creatively. There are many lessons that I have learned from reading fiction that would have been much hard to learn otherwise–such as the fact that even love can be corrupted and evil, as I mentioned above.
Without spoiling anything, all I can say about the meaning of the title is that it has partially to do with knowing oneself and not masking one’s intentions. Other than that, it suffices to say that it was a profound and well-chosen title–to see why, you should read the book.
I read this book this semester and it has become my favorite book.
It has so much to offer–teaching lessons without beating you over the head with them.
Its powerful storytelling swept me along until I had finished the book. This is a book I would say is far better even than Lewis’ acclaimed Chronicles of Narnia series.
While this book would be more appealing to a Christian audience, I see no reason why people who follow other religions or no religion would not be able to read and appreciate it.
It is the only book thus far I have rated 10 out of 10 stars, and I did it for a reason.
If you have any questions or comments about the book, feel free to leave a comment.
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