C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series, about four siblings who find themselves in a magical realm, is beloved by children and adults worldwide, myself included. But of all of his novels, my favorite doesn’t take place beyond the wardrobe. My favorite (and I argue, his best) novel is Till We Have Faces.
Till We Have Faces is a retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, told from the point of view of Psyche’s half-sister, Orual, the daughter of the king of Glome. Psyche is so lovely that even as a child, she is all-but worshipped by the villagers of their tiny kingdom. Orual, considered ugly by everyone, loves Psyche completely. When famine, drought, and pestilence come to Glome, Psyche is sacrificed to the gods. But she doesn’t stay sacrificed for long.
Till We Have Faces is a story about faith—Lewis really loved his Christian parallels—and this tale is in the telling. Orual, always observant and cynical, becomes embittered when Psyche returns with tales of her god husband and a palace that Orual can’t see. Lewis’ prose is as fluid and graceful as Psyche herself.
[T]he horror was the same: a sickening discord, a rasping together of two worlds, like the two bits of a broken bone.
...[W]ith the horror came inconsolable grief. For the world had broken in pieces and Psyche and I were not on the same piece.
Orual is a skilled narrator of her own failings who grows more ferocious with each turn of the page. ("We’ll have him impaled if ever we catch him. He’ll die for days.”) She’s also brave and strong. Because of this, Orual manages to remain completely sympathetic, even as she hangs her nursemaid.
Till We Have Faces is Lewis' urge to have faith. But with every reading, I've always seen Orual as a woman of faith—but perhaps not in the way Lewis had intended. I see Orual’s faith in herself. In the teachings of her sympathetic Greek tutor, the Fox. In what is real. She feels joy with a vision of Psyche, because Psyche appeared to her in a way that Orual believed.
This book may not have led me to have faith in the gods. But it did lead me to have faith in Lewis’ strength as a storyteller. I can't recommend it enough.
Note: My all-time favorite book by C.S. Lewis isn’t a novel but a work of non-fiction, A Grief Observed. Written after the death of his wife, it surprised me with its raw emotions at war with his logic and faith as he tries to make sense of her loss. Of all the books on death I had read, it was the only one that I connected with. It made me feel less alone.