Review

Myth Retold, A Reader’s Response

There are few transformative books in a person’s life that rise out of the flotsam floating endlessly in the world’s literary sea.  I recently devoured one such book: C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold.  In Till We Have Faces, Lewis reworks the classical myth of Cupid and Psyche through the lens of Psyche’s sister, Orual.  The setting is both pagan and fictional; the story, as the jacket asserts, “illuminates the struggles between sacred and profane love.”  This is not what interested me, however.  This is not why I was emotionally moved and intellectually challenged.  The book is broken in two.  Book One mounts an argument against the gods.  In the end, it asks, “Why silence?  Amongst shattered loves, war, and suffering, why must the gods manipulate humankind without ever a glimpse of divine intent?”  Orual, writing Book One, struggles with the loss of Psyche, Queenly responsibilities, and the stark realities of pre-modern life.  She posits, “There must, whether the gods see it or not, be something great in the mortal soul.  For suffering, it seems, is infinite, and our capacity without limit.”  The depth to which Orual plunges reminds me of Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.  It is pure lament, true struggle, and wholly human.  It is both searching and longing in a defiant, fist-shaking way.  Orual concludes Book One by writing: “I say, therefore, that there is no creature (toad, scorpion, or serpent) so noxious to man as the gods.  Let them answer my charge if they can…and the gods will know…they have no answer[.]”  By itself, Book One is narrative philosophy at its best.  It provides glimpses of reality via Lewis’ imagination.  Till We Have Faces engages, questions, and illuminates (no matter how difficult its conclusions are to swallow).  It also captivates me personally.  Orual finds herself, midway, wrestling with war and the taking of human life.  “It was the strangest thing in the world to look upon him, a man like any other man, and think that one of us presently would kill the other.  Kill; it seemed like a word I’d never spoken before…What I shall remember forever is the change that presently came over his face.  It was to me an utter astonishment.  I did not understand it.  I should now.  I have since seen the faces of other men as they began to believe, ‘This is death.’  You will know it if you have seen it; life more alive than ever, a raging, tortured intensity of life…[after killing him] I felt myself changed too, as if something had been taken away from me.”  I can’t help but think that Lewis’ own experience of war and death spilled over into Orual.  No longer is this only Orual questioning the gods, but possibly Lewis, a veteran of World War I, making his case.  As I, too, have made mine.  It resonates to the extent that, even now, I’m brought to tears.  And I ask the most vulnerable of questions: “Why?  Why war?  Why death?”  And no one answers.  The gods are silent.  The difficulty is not only in the “why,” however.  The harder truth is in acknowledging ones limits.  As Orual writes, “I was never yet at any battle but that, when the lines were drawn up and the first enemy arrows came flashing in among us, and the grass and trees about me suddenly became a place, a Field, a thing to be put in chronicles, I wished very heartily that I had stayed at home.”  And now, as a reader, I am wholly engrossed due to  my personal experiences.  The days of my youthful imagining are over.  Through war, I realized the truth of self.  I am no hero, no knight.  Rather, I am but a scared boy forever marching.  I am a coward forged in war.  And after that, what is left?  The self is shattered.  And no one answers.  The gods are silent.  Till We Have Faces has not concluded, however.  Reading Book One towards the end of her life, Orual realizes that edits are necessary.  Through aged eyes, she claims to have written Book One as a frustrated youth understanding little.  In Book Two, she is able, through a series of visions, to bring forth her case, to demand an answer.  She receives one.  In the long-dark hall of the gods, silence is her answer, for her case will not be answered by reason but rather by the nature of God.  She writes: “I ended my first book with the words no answer.  I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer.  You are yourself the answer.  Before your face questions die away.  What other answer would suffice.  Only words, words; to be led out to battle against other words.”  Ah, yes.  The answer is God.  What other answer could there be?  “Before your face questions die away.”  Till We Have Faces is a marvelous and probing book that requires hard work of its reader.  It demands a searching, a questioning, and a response.  But—and perhaps it is only my youth—but, “you are yourself the answer” is not good enough.  I want more.  I want to know “why.”  Silent gods are no response to mortal questions—no matter their nature.  And so, in my journey, I find myself midway, caught somewhere between Book One and Book Two.  May my doubt be ever met with mercy, for, perhaps, “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.”       

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