Join Kate’s VIP Club Now!

Follow Me

FacebookPinterestTwitter

Kate's Blog

Subscribe RSS

BOOK REVIEW: Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis

Friday, September 19, 2014



Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold by C.S. Lewis

When I was a little girl, I spent many a long summer holiday with my great-aunts in the seaside town of Merewether, about an hour's drive north of my home town of Sydney.

I remember one year, when I was about twelve, lying on the floor in their living-room and looking through the bookshelves in search of something to read. My eye fell upon a novel called Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold by C.S. Lewis, and I grabbed it eagerly. I loved the Narnia books - they were my all-time favourite books - and so I confidently expected I would love this book too.

The very first line both startled me and intrigued me:

I am old now and have not much to fear from the anger of gods.

It was clear at once this was not going to be a tale set in the magical, funny, wondrous world of Narnia, but something much darker and more grown-up. With a little shiver of anticipation, I lay down behind my great-aunt's green velvet wing-chair and gave myself over to the story, the first adult book I ever read.

Till We Have Faces was Lewis's last book, published in 1956, the year that he married Joy Davidman, the American poet and writer whose tragic death in 1960 was immortalized in the movie Shadowlands with Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger. It is believed that Joy inspired Orual, the central character in Till We Have Faces.

The book is a retelling of the ancient Greek myth of 'Cupid and Psyche'. I was not familiar with the myth when I read the book, but understood it easily, possibly because of the strong echoes the story has with that of the Beauty and the Beast fairytale.



In brief, the myth tells the story of Psyche, who wed Cupid, the God of Love; he gave her everything a woman could want except the sight of his own face. Her jealous elder sisters convinced her to take a candle and shine it upon her husband's face while he slept. Psyche did so, but a drop of hot wax fell on Cupid's face and woke him. Angry and disappointed, he cast her out and she had to undertake a set of seemingly impossible tasks before she could win him back.

Lewis said that the Cupid and Psyche myth had haunted him all his life. He tried to write it in poetic form, and as a play, before at last writing it from the point of view of the jealous older sister, Orual.

Originally the manuscript was titled Bareface, with an interplay of multiple meanings: Orual's facial deformity, which she hides with a mask; Psyche's mortal beauty; and the invisible gods Cupid and Aphrodite, who are supposedly the most beautiful of all. However, Lewis's editor rejected this title, thinking it sounded like a Western, and so Lewis re-named it after a line from the book in which Orual says, 'How can [the gods] meet us face to face till we have faces?'


When I first read this book, at the age of twelve, I don't think I understood what C.S. Lewis meant by this line. I do know that when I read it – and recognized it as the title and so having some kind of special significance – it stirred all sorts of new thoughts and feelings in me. I dimly realized that Orual could only grasp the truth about the gods – and so understand the meaning of the universe – once she had realized the truth about herself.

Here is the whole quote:


Lightly men talk of saying what they mean... When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the centre of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you'll not talk about joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak openly, nor let us answer. Till that need can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?


I was puzzled and moved and enthralled by this passage, and bookmarked it in my great-aunt's book with a frangipani flower that had fallen from the tree in their garden. That flower, now brown and withered and without fragrance, still marks the page.


With this book, C.S Lewis somehow taught me that stories can contain in them some kind of truth that cannot always be easily expressed, or understood with the intellect alone. He also gave me a deep and abiding love of stories that retell older stories, and find new truths hidden within the old.


BOOK LIST: My Favourite Fairy Tales Retellings

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

I love fairy tale retellings ... here are a few of my favourites! 



'The Glass Slipper' by Eleanor Farjeon
I read this retelling of the Cinderella fairytale while walking home from primary school one day and was so entranced I walked straight past the turnoff to my street. I might have kept walking for hours if a neighbour hadn’t driven past and honked me back to reality. 

I love this book so much that I named my daughter Eleanor after the writer, with her pet name being Ella after the heroine. The Glass Slipper is full of wit and charm and whimsy and word play, the prose dancing like poetry. After I left my primary school, my one regret was that I hadn’t smuggled the book out of the library in my school bag and kept it. 

Years later, I found it in a second-hand shop and fell upon it with squeals of excitement. This is very much a classic children’s book, published in 1955 – the Prince does no more than kiss Ella’s hand – but it is so full of joy and innocence, it will always be one of the most magical books of my life. 


For 8+

'The Stone Cage' by Nicholas Stuart Gray
A beautiful retelling of the Rapunzel fairytale, told from the point of view of the witch’s cat, this is an absolute classic fairytale retelling. Reading this as a child is what first made me think of writing my own Rapunzel tale – I wanted to make my heroine a little feistier than Nicholas Stuart Gray’s sweet and loving Rapunzel. 

What I love most about this book is the personalities of the witch’s cat and the witch’s raven – one is arrogant, selfish and smart-mouthed, the other serious-minded and scholarly. 

For 8+


Cold Iron by Sophie Masson

Published as Malkin in the US, this is a retelling of the English fairytale ‘Tattercoats’, interwoven with elements of Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream’.  ‘Tattercoats’ is a Cinderella type story, about a persecuted heroine, but in this book it is not the sweet and maltreated Tattercoats who is the heroine, but the brave and feisty serving-girl Malkin, and her friend, the goose-boy Pug. Cold Iron is a small book, but packed to the brim with personality. Sophie Masson writes with a light, deft touch, lavishing attention on her minor characters and on the scenery, so that the book gleams like a little jewel.

I also love Sophie's most recent fairy tale retellings - Moonlight & Ashes and Scarlet in the Snow - gorgeous and romantic and surprising. 



Wild Magic by Cat Weatherill 
This is a wonderful fresh take on the Pied Piper legend, which explores why the Piper may have lured away all the children of the town of Hameln and what may have happened to them afterwards. The primary protagonists are Mari and her little brother Jakob, and the land they have been taken to is a place of wild magic, fearsome beasts, and an ancient curse than must be broken if they are ever to escape. The writing is beautiful, and the story itself gripping and suspenseful.  I’m surprised this wonderful book is not better known. 


For 8+ 


Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George 
I thought, from the title, that this must be a Cinderella- retelling, but it is in fact ‘The Twelve Dancing Princesses’ which Jessica Day George has re-told in this sweet and atmospheric novel. Even though Jessica Day George has done a classic retelling here, in a fantasy otherworld very much like Europe, and with the plot line adhering closely to the original tale, she has done it with a light touch, a sense of humour, and just enough twists and turns to keep the reader turning the pages.  A captivating fairytale retelling. 

For 8+


Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
Since being made into a movie with the beautiful young Anne Hathaway, Ella Enchanted is possibly the best known retelling of Cinderella. As always, though, the book is much better than the movie, being filled with humour and surprise and intelligence.

At birth, Ella is given the gift of obedience by a well-meaning but air-brained fairy called Lucinda. The gift is more of a curse for poor Ella, and so she sets out to find Lucinda and undo the spell. She has all sorts of adventures along the way, some of which include a prince, a pumpkin coach and a glass slipper, but Gail Carson Levine takes great delight in twisting the known elements of this most popular of tales to give it new life.

12+


The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale
The Goose Girl was Shannon Hale’s first book, and launched her career.  It is a retelling of the Grimm Brothers story ‘The Goose Girl’, which is one of the lesser known tales but still filled with a few gruesome touches, like a dead horse’s head that talks. 

Ani, a crown princess, can talk with birds and animals, but her talents are not appreciated in the royal family. When Ani is sent off to marry the prince of a neighbouring kingdom, her treacherous maid-in-waiting schemes to take her place. Barely escaping with her life, Ani disguises herself as a goose girl while she tries to find a way to reclaim her rightful palace. With some surprising twists and a satisfying ending, this is a lovely romantic retelling, suitable for children or adults. 

For 12+


North Child by Edith Pattou 
Known as East in the US, this beguiling book is a retelling of a traditional Norwegian fairytale ‘East of the Sun, West of the Moon’, which is an Animal Bridegroom type story. 

Rose was born into the world facing north, and as a north child, superstition says that she will be a wanderer, travelling far from home. This prophecy is fulfilled when she rides away on the back of a white bear to a mysterious castle, where a silent stranger appears to her night after night. When her curiosity overcomes her, she loses her one true love, and must journey to a land east of the sun and west of the moon to save him.

For 12+

A Curse As Dark as Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce 
I love fairytale retellings that are set in the real world, at a real time in history – somehow they make the fairytale seem so much more possible. A Curse As Dark as Gold was one of my favourite reads last year – a beautiful, romantic retelling of the well-known Rumpelstiltskin fairytale, set in a British wool town during the Industrial Revolution. This story is really brought to life by the atmosphere of the mill, the heroine’s family home which is being threatened with closure. It also has a really charismatic and surprising villain, which helped add suspense and surprise to this well-known tale.


Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold by C.S. Lewis

I had adored C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series as a child and so one day, while staying with my great-aunts, I found this book on a bookshelf and sat down on the floor to look at it. The first line reads: ‘I am old now and have not much to fear from the anger of gods.’  

Entranced, I read on to the end, devouring the book in a single sitting. Till We Have Faces is a retelling of the Cupid and Psyche myth, which is not properly a fairytale, except in its obvious similarity to Animal Bridegroom tales such as ‘Beauty & the Beast’ and ‘East of the Sun, West of the Moon’. It is, however, still one of my all-time favourite retellings.

For 16+


Deerskin by Robin McKinley
This is a heart-rending retelling of ‘All-Kinds’-of-Fur’, the Grimm tale about a king who falls in love with her daughter and seeks to marry her. Known under different names in different cultures, it’s probably best known as Tattercoats, Catskin, or Donkeyskin. In some versions of the tale, the princess manages to outwit and escape her lustful father, before hiding herself in the skin of a wild beast and working in the kitchen of the king of a neighbouring country. In time, the second king comes to recognise the princess hidden beneath the filthy furs, and marries her. 

In Robin McKinley’s novel, the daughter does not escape until she has been raped by her father, making this one of the most powerful, and ultimately redemptive, novels ever written about incest. 

Robin McKinley has written many other beloved fairytale retellings, including Beauty and Rose Daughter (both retellings of ‘Beauty & the Beast’) and Spindle’s End (a retelling of Sleeping Beauty), which I adore as well. 




Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier
A retelling of the Six Swans fairytale, this was Australian author Juliet Marillier’s first published book.  Although she has written a number of gorgeous, spell-binding fairytale retellings since – including Heart’s Blood (‘Beauty & the Beast’) and Wildwood Dancing (Twelve Dancing Princesses), 

Daughter of the Forest is still my favourite. It is set long, long ago, in Ireland, and begins when Sorcha, the seventh child of the family and the only girl, is only a child. The whole atmosphere of the book is filled with romance, enchantment, beauty and danger, making it one of the best retellings ever written (in my humble opinion).



Other must-read fairy tale retellings by Juliet Marillier include Wildwood Dancing, Heart's Blood and Cybele's Secret - I love them all!


I also love Margo Lanagan's novels, especially Sea Hearts - a haunting tale of love, betrayal and selkies by one of Australia’s most extraordinary authors. 





Thornspell by Helen Lowe

New Zealand writer Helen Lowe reimagines the Sleeping Beauty story from the point of view of the prince in this beautiful, romantic fantasy for young adults. Prince Sigismund has grown up in a castle whose gardens and parklands are surrounded by a deep, tangled forest. He is kept locked away from the world, and so longs for adventures like the ones in the stories he loves so much – fantastical tales of knights-errant and heroic quests, faie enchantments and shape-shifting dragons. One day a beautiful and mysterious lady in a fine carriage speaks to him through the castle gates, and Sigismund's world begins to change. He dreams of a raggedy girl trapped in thorns, and a castle that lies sleeping … soon he is caught up in an adventure as perilous and strange as that of any story he had ever heard …


The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

What a wonderful, amazing, magical book! I just loved this and think it’s one of the best books I’ve read in a long while. I wish I’d written it. A retelling of the Russian fairytale, the Snow Child, set in Alaska at the turn of the 19th century, it seems far too accomplished to be by a debut novelist ... I can only look forward hopefully to many more books by Eowyn Ivey.


White As Snow by Tanith Lee

Tanith Lee has been called "the Angela Carter of the fantasy field" for her dark and sensuous prose. This is one of the strangest and yet most compelling fairytale retellings I’ve ever read. It is so filled with violence and despair, it is almost unreadable in parts. Yet somehow it haunts the imagination afterwards, giving new depths to the well-known story of Snow-White, and taking it very far away from Disney territory.


PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT, I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK


Subscribe RSS

Recent Posts


Tags


Archive


Blogs I Follow