Thursday, June 26, 2014

Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis

Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis is a retelling of the Cupid and Psyche myth from the perspective of Psyche's oldest sister.

Istra is the most beautiful child you can possibly imagine -- sweet and wholesome as a summer's day. You would think that her older half-sister Orual would hate her, but quite the opposite is true. Since Istra's mother died in childbirth and their father the king cares little for his female offspring, Orual is free to mother and care for Istra. Along with their tutor, a Greek slave known as the Fox, they wander the hillsides surrounding the city, happy and free. But all is not well in the kingdom: there are rumors of war with surrounding nations, wild animals ravaging the countryside, and now a plague in the city. The priest of the goddess Ungit casts the lots, and they fall to the king's household. Istra must be sacrificed, left on the holy mountain for the Shadowbeast. Orual is devastated to the point of sickness herself. When she is able to leave her bed, she resolves to go to the mountain and care for her sister's remains. What she finds there, however, is Istra alive and healthy. Istra has been living in a small valley high in the hills, but she claims that it is a castle, though Orual sees only rocks and bushes. Istra claims that she dwells in her husband's house -- the house of the god of the mountain. He comes to her at night, and she is forbidden to see his face. Orual tries to persuade Istra to come home, or to go into hiding with her, but Istra will not leave her mysterious lover. Orual eventually convinces Istra to at least light a lamp and see what sort of creature she has married -- surely, Orual thinks, either some monstrous beast or else a vagabond living wild in the hills, who has preyed on Istra's mind, weakened from the trauma of being sacrificed. Orual is sure that, once Istra sees her bridegroom, she will return to her sister's care. She waits at a distance, watching in the night for Istra's light to appear . . .

This is the book I like to recommend to people who think they know C.S. Lewis. It's much more nuanced and subtle than the Narnia stories (though, don't get me wrong, I am an avid fan of those as well), and I would contest that this book is his strongest literary work, and Orual his best female character by far. She's both a nurturer and a warrior, both strong and flawed. She's clever and bitter and not afraid to speak her mind. If you haven't read this book, either because you haven't heard of it, or because you wrote off C.S. Lewis for one reason or another, I urge you to go find this book and read it. Highly recommended.

(Reviewed from my personally purchased copy.)

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