Monday, February 9, 2009

Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold by C. S. Lewis

I'd never heard of Till We Have Faces -- A Myth Retold before it was presented as a possible read for February by a member of my book club.

Truth is, I have read only a few of C. S.Lewis' works even though they are quite extensive (both in quantity and subject). My introduction to Lewis was when my mother read The Chronicles of Narnia to my siblings and I when we were young. I didn't pick up another Lewis book until last spring when I noticed my brother-in-law reading Mere Christianity. Curious I added it to my list of books to read and finished it over the summer (sorry, no review). And that brings us to my most recent Lewis read: Till We Have Faces.

I was a little intimidated by this book, mostly because of its subtitle, "A Myth Retold"... a myth... as in ancient Greek and Latin mythology.... Not my cup of tea. While I have found the occasional story to be entertaining, mostly I find them boring. I was very much afraid I would find this book to be the same. But I was wrong.

I started Till We Have Faces by listening to the audio book. Unfortunately, as much as I enjoyed the beautiful English accent of the reader, I realized at the rate she read it would take me several weeks to finish the book and I didn't have the patience for that, so I picked up my own copy and began to read it myself. It only took a few pages before I was immersed in the story and soon I had trouble setting the book down. I didn't want to stop reading, I wanted to know what was going to happen next!

For those unfamiliar with the story here is a summary (no spoilers included): Till We Have Faces is the retelling of a Greek myth; the love story between Cupid, the son of Venus and thus a god, and Psyche, a very beautiful woman yet a mortal.

In his retelling C. S. Lewis turned the story on it's side, this time it isn't so much a tale of love between a god and a mortal, but the story of everything that happened before and after this love affair. Till We Have Faces is told in the form of narration and from the point of view of Psyche's older and very ugly sister, Princess Orual.

The story is set in the fictional kingdom of Glome around the last centuries of B.C. (approx. 100-200 years before Christ's birth). As the story is narrated by Princess Orual it characteristically follows her life, from a young girl to an old woman, with everyone else taking the role of supporting characters. Thus along the way the reader learns of Psyche and her story and what part Orual plays in it. Although a story of Orual, Psyche is very much at the heart of it, it is because of Psyche that Orual is even telling her story -- a story that she believes to be an accurate and truthful account of her life and which she will use to plead her case before the gods, whom she believes have treated her unfairly.

As I said, I'm not a fan of mythological literature, but I found Lewis' retelling well-written and thought provoking. The story is rich in so many elements. Throughout the tale romance, tragedy, adventure, and drama are skillfully woven. At times Till We Have Faces reminded me of a few Shakespeare plays I've read (only without the 16th century English to trip me up). There are also deep undercurrents in the story -- analogies can be found in conversations, settings, characters, and events. I'd be very curious to pick Lewis' brain and see what he was thinking as he wrote the story.

Till We Have Faces very different from Lewis' other works, but that should not discount it as a novel. In fact, it deserves a certain level of importance amongst Lewis' works for a few reasons. First, the concept for the book was one that is said to have plagued him for over 30 years before he actually sat down to write it. Second, it is the last work of fiction by Lewis, and third and last, it is the one book he considered his best.

Overall I have to say I liked Till We Have Faces. It is a very different type of book than I normally read, but I am glad to have been stretched as a reader and to have read it. On a scale of 1-5, 1 being horrible and 5 being excellent I would rate Till We Have Faces a 4. I liked it, it was well-written, it is thought provoking. Readers should take time to include it in their literary education, though I would advise readers borrow instead of buy -- at least initially until you are certain of your opinion.

For those curious additional information about this book can be found on several websites including Literary Encylopedia, Book Rags and Wikipeida. Please bewarned some of these sites do contain spoilers.

Note: it appears there might be a movie coming. Someone mentioned seeing a movie titled Till We Have Faces with a release date of 2010. Not sure if it'll be the same story or if it will even be made... guess we'll have to wait and see. This story would make a fantastic movie... if handled properly.


Sherry said...

My favorite Lewis fiction. I need to re-read it.

Nathan & Alison said...

Interesting review. I have never read anything by Lewis, other than the Narnia books. This one might be a one of his to try.

Angel said...

I love Lewis' fiction. You might want to check out his Space Trilogy: Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength. Technically I guess you'd call them fantasy or sci-fi, which I have never been a fan of, but to my surprise I thoroughly enjoyed them. They contain a great deal of allegory, perhaps especially Perelandra, which I think was my favorite. I think you'd enjoy them too. :)

Rebecca Reid said...

I liked reading this. I didn't think the "myth" side of it was overdone. Thanks for the nice review.

brilynne said...

Faces was one of the most devastating books I have ever read. Orual's narrative exposed a lot of ugliness in my own soul and in my motives that I would have preferred to not have seen. Needless to say, reading Faces was not "fun," but it was productive.

I believe Lewis wrote Faces as an allegory of what happens to family when one member becomes a Christian, but it can be read on several different levels.

Noel De Vries said...

A film? Oh, that makes me really, really nervous.

It could be brilliant.

And it could bomb.

Laura said...

I didn't find this book by Lewis until I was an adult, but both my husband and I read it several times.

Then when I had children I introduced it to each of them when they were about 12 or 13 - thus far, all that have read have loved it.

But all of us are big fans of myths, legends, and fairy tales. Maybe that influenced our reaction to the story?

Jena said...

I read this one years ago, and I remember that I really enjoyed it, but also that I read it during a very hectic time, so it makes sense that I don't remember much detail-wise. It's on my list of books to re-read. (Good thing I bookcrossed it to the man I would marry--when I sent it to him, we had no idea we'd even meet face-to-face, let alone get married!)

B said...

Thanks for the review. Lewis is my favorite author and I read Till We Have Faces probably nine years ago and absolutely hated it! So many have told me they loved this book, including my teenage daughter, that I have to give it another try. I have loved everything else he wrote, though, especially his Space Trilogy. I'm going to give this one another try. Maybe I just wasn't in the right frame of mind before. Blessings - B. PS. LOVE the name of your blog.