Fairy Tales · Review: Mythology

Book Review: Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis

If you read my introductory post, then you’ll know that it was inevitable that I would review this book. Like nearly every other child who grew up in the developed world, I read the Narnia books when I was a child. Rather less typically, I was a bookworm with an unhealthy love of fairy tales with a special preference for Beauty and the Beast and all tales related to it, so it was natural that I should get my hands on Till We Have Faces and devour it. But in talking about the influence that this book had on my life, I need to venture further back, before I encountered this book.

In my introduction, I bemoaned the loss of strong, passionate women that are seriously and desperately trying to make their way in fairy tales since the age of Disney. But the fact is, I wasn’t untouched by Disney’s beautiful portrayal of princesses and fairy tales. I was probably the most stereotypical girl imaginable as a child, with absolutely no interest in mechanics or gadgets despite my parents’ best efforts to get me interested (that part’s still quite true, actually), and an absurd fascination with fairies and princesses. But not the Nordic Fey, or Perrault’s poetic princesses, but Disney’s beautiful, kind, perfect princesses and fairies. I dreamed of my wedding and my prince charming.

And so Till We Have Faces holds a special place in my heart as the book that snapped me out of my all stereotypical, unrealistic dreams and gave me a gentle push over the edge into the world that is darker, realer, older fairy tales.

In the interest of honesty, I have to mention that this book didn’t actually start that hurdle. The book that started it was very large Japanese volume that I came across during one of my weekly bookstore runs when I was 10. Being a stupidly ingenuous child, I believed that “adult” meant “no children allowed,” and so always kept to the children and comics section. Except on this particular day, there were a gaggle of children in the little children’s section, so I had to go around the other way and therefore through the adult book section. And as I was walking by, a book caught my eye with a title that roughly translated to “The True Face of Fairy Tales and Why We Don’t Want to Share Them With Our Children.”

Now, when I say that I was infatuated with Disney, I don’t mean to say that I was entirely unaware that there were older, grimmer versions of most (no pun intended). I had been reading Aesop, Hans Christian Anderson, the Brothers Grimm, Greek and Roman mythology and the like for years, and was well aware that Disney took ample liberties with some stories. But I preferred those happy, sparkly endings to death, cannibalism and talking blood. So, figuring I’d never find anything new anyway, I beelined for this book and read the first story. It was a version of Rapunzel in which she was a seductress, deliberately luring men into her tower and letting them sleep with her once only to never allow them in again. Their addiction to her would lead to despair and some would commit suicide, which was the evil witch’s intent from the beginning, as her whole purpose was revenge on menfolk.

Oddly enough, I haven’t been able to find this story anywhere else, and not even being able to remember the exact title, I haven’t been able to find that same book again. But I didn’t go looking for it for years afterward. I mulled the story over in my mind quite often, wanting to prefer the nice, happier version that I knew; but now that I had read that “original” version in the book, the story that I loved felt like a lie, and to love the latter but not the original felt to me to be wrong. I must have unconsciously resolved to go hunting for a fairy tale that I could love in all its forms, from its original to its retellings to its Disney incarnation, because the story of my emotional growth in regards to fairy tales then proceeds to halt until I drew connections in my mind between Cupid and Psyche, East of the Sun and West of the Moon and Beauty and the Beast (nearly a decade later I would learn that this was actually an established school of thought, but that’s neither here nor there). And as I prattled on about my love of Cupid and Psyche, I learned of Till We Have Faces.

The first time that I read it, it all but made my mind grind to a halt. The fact that the version of Rapunzel I read only inspired reflection should help to put this reaction in perspective. Because Till We Have Faces is about as far from bright, sparkly and pretty as anything. Romance is a non-issue, because the story isn’t even really about Psyche, let alone Cupid.

But it’s brilliant nonetheless, and when I re-read the book again a few years later, it was only more poignant than it had been the first time. It’s told by Orual, you see, one of Psyche’s jealous sisters. And the beauty of this book is that Orual is the character that grows and develops through Psyche’s story. Psyche’s story is as ever Psyche’s story, and all Lewis does is add to it. No alterations, except to add details that could very well remain as part of the original by Apuleius.

It is not a happy story. It is dark and sorrowful, and drove me to tears more than once. Orual is no Disney character, nor even a typical C.S. Lewis character. She’s not a shallow, ugly stepsister; she’s not a perfect, prim lady; she’s not as pure as Lucy, nor following a clear path from error to righteousness like Edmund, nor truly beyond salvation as Screwtape, nor a shallow character developing into a thoughtful, righteous character like Eustace. Certainly, she grows and develops over the course of the story, but she is never shallow. She is flawed and selfish, passionate and righteous but not always right. She loves Psyche, and because this is not a fairy tale, not all love is an ingredient for happiness, because it is her love for Psyche that makes her jealous, not her greed. And through this jealousy she destroys her dear sister’s most precious happiness and comes to bitterly regret her own doubt and her own actions.

The story is told entirely from Orual’s perspective, and as such it is easy to fall into the error of seeing Orual only as she sees herself. But as you begin to read between the lines, she becomes a complete person. A woman with faults, who is blind to some and over-worried about others. She is good and loving, and flawed and wrong. And I learned to love her for all that she is, and love this story about a flawed, sisterly love.

My score for this book is a full 10/10.

Buy the book at: http://www.amazon.com/Till-We-Have-Faces-Retold/dp/0156904365

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