“The best story was that I had no face at all; if you stripped off my veil you´d find emptiness.” (p. 228)
Clive Staples Lewis´ novel Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold is just that – a story of facelessness, an account of the life of Orual, Queen of Glome and how she became faceless, first as a refuge, then as a means of power. But it is also surprisingly modern.
In his retelling of the story of Cupid and Psyche first published in 1956, Lewis follows the path of the ugly oldest daughter of the king of the city of Glome, a story that fascinated him from his childhood til old age.
Because of her ugliness Orual is treated as a beast by everyone and behaves accordingly, until she finds out that beauty is not the only thing that provides power, but that wisdom and physical strength can also lead to respect. This she is taught by the Fox, a slave and her grandfather-figure-to-be.
Orual has two sisters – both a lot prettier than herself. Redival, her younger sister, is pretty but also vile and – and as she is, in complete contrast to Orual, not smart, she soon falls into the background, fishing for attention in the desire of men for her instead. The third sister, Psyche, is of extraordinary beauty, immense kindness and grace and soon becomes Orual´s favourite and personal protégée.
Fed up with being treated according to her outer looks rather than her inner values, Orual decides to wear a veil which she keeps on no matter what. As the story goes on the people forget what she looked like and why she wears a veil altogether which only adds to the power she gains by practising swordplay and doing maths better than anyone at court.
The two sisters revel in adventures with the Fox and their sisterly affection for each other, until religion destroys their paradise and the king decides to sacrifice his youngest daughter to save the city and its inhabitants.
The story is told through Orual´s eyes and thus provides the reader with a subjective narrative which results in a one-sided but very insightful experience.
At the beginning of the book, Orual is old, writing this very book to explain herself, for she knows death is near, telling her story from her childhood up to the moment the book begins.
Those who know Lewis know that religion is never far away in his works –be it The Chronicles Of Narnia, Out Of The Silent Planet or something else entirely. But in addition to the accusation of the gods being unjust or the focus on religiousness in general, Lewis examines many other themes as well, such as jealousy, patriarchy and love.
Though Orual is jealous of her sister´s beauty and the admiration everybody has for her, her love for her sister and her wish to protect her rule her behaviour up to a certain point where she herself is not sure anymore whether she is jealous of her sister for wedding a god or just too rational to believe in such a thing, which then results in the parting of the two.
And still Orual becomes queen and is respected by men as an equal – not only because of her capabilities but mostly because of her facelessness.
Till We Have Faces is Lewis´ last novel and he himself considered it his most mature; J. R. R. Tolkien even went so far as to consider it Lewis´ very best novel ever. I can only jump on the bandwagon. Though the story is not wholly of his own imagination, the realisation clearly originates from his hand. Each word is created with so much love and care that it feels like a hug, the sentences spun so gracefully that I want to weave a sweater of them and never take it off.