Till We Have Faces, C S Lewis, Harcourt Brace & Company, 1956, 309 pp
It is possible that this book made me a feminist. I realize what a weird thing that is to say, considering that the author is male and a Christian writer; also considering that the story is a retelling of the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche. But it was a favorite book of mine as a teenager and I read it over and over during my high school years. It never failed to give me an emotional beating.
Orual, the heroine, is the ugly older sister of Psyche, whom she loves deeply. When bad things happen to Psyche, Orual tries to save her but only ends up destroying her instead. Orual is left with bitterness towards all of life but especially towards "the gods." Although she eventually becomes the Queen of her country and a wise woman, her own life is forever ruined.
It is one of the saddest books I have ever read. I too have a younger sister whom I have always loved, though nothing very bad has ever happened to her. I was fixated on how to be beautiful as a teen and though I was probably a decent looking young woman, I usually felt ugly. But reading the book now as a woman in her early 60s, I realized that it was Orual's intelligence and toughness that appealed to me the most, even as a teenager.
She took nothing lying down; she always fought back, against her father, against restrictions imposed on her as a female and against her fate. She rose to all occasions, learned to ride horses, to fight with swords, to lead an army, to make her country solvent and impregnable, etc, etc. From her beloved Greek teacher, she learned how to think and thereby to outwit any oppressors. But she lost her sister through her own refusal to take advice from anyone. The one man she loved, she could never have. After losing Psyche, her long life was arid and empty.
Tragedy was a Greek invention or possibly they merely recognized it as the underlying theme of life. Juxtaposed to tragedy in the human heart is hope and the pursuit of happiness. In Till We Have Faces, C S Lewis has brought this conundrum to life in what I consider his best book.
(This book is available in paperback by special order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)