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Till We Have Faces is a retelling of the classical myth, Cupid and Psyche, in which Venus, jealous of Psyche’s beauty, instructs her son Cupid to make her fall in love with a hideous monster. Instead, Cupid falls in love with her himself and becomes her unseen husband, visiting her only at night. Psyche disobeys his orders not to look at him loses him, and must undertake a series of difficult tasks set by Venus to win him back.
C. S. Lewis chose to rewrite this myth not as a Christian story, but in light of the fact of the Resurrection, after which no real new mythology could be generated. His rendering of the pre-Christian pagan story as a proto-evangelion, or preparation for the Gospel, is a masterpiece. And it’s chock full of interesting themes to explore.
I have offered pre- and post-reading discussions for readers of this book, because it can be a hard one to dig into on your own. I’ve also spoken on its implications for our understanding of human personhood, sin, growth, and redemption (in a talk called The Veiled Self).
Every time I read this book, I get something new out of it!
Differences between the original myth of Cupid and Psyche, and C.S. Lewis’ retelling of the myth in Till We Have Faces have the effect of revealing new dimensionality in the Christian understanding of both myth and of the human person. The pre-Christian myth, like the pre-Christian person, is veiled in a darkness that constitutes a reduction from an ideal – a flattening of the fullness of story, or of person.
Lewis retells the myth in the inescapable light of the Incarnation, and in doing so, illuminates and revivifies the notion of personhood, as expressed through its characters. It’s fascinating to note that Lewis wrote this book at about the same time as his autobiographical Surprised by Joy. Peter Schakel, author of Reason and Imagination in C.S. Lewis, believed these two books actually tell one story:
Orual’s account of her life, like Lewis’ account of his own in Surprised by Joy, is retrospective, subjective, and selective. It is striking, then, that suddenly he is able to complete successfully two stories he had long sought to tell but had been unable to: his own story and that of Cupid and Psyche. …Each is a story of consciousness, and of the achievement of wholeness through sacrificial death; and each is the story of Lewis himself.
Add to all that a discussion of the imagery of the veil in the life of a woman – her need for modesty, for beauty, for privacy, for mystery, and for self-revelation to God, and you have one of my favorite talks to give!
Here’s my take on The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis.