Love is the mightiest force in all this world. Bestowed with the first breath of God into our souls, it softly permeates every sphere of life, from the first moment of our conception to the slipping away of our last breath. But somehow we wrest it to our own ruin as we live out our lives, forcing it into an ugly and twisted manifesto for our darkest narrative of selfishness, wielding it as a grievous weapon against those close to us instead of raising it as a faithful standard over their hearts.
How can a quality so admirable, bequeathed to us by God himself, become such a destructive element in our life stories? And is there any hope of redemption from our treachery?
CS Lewis explores these questions in this masterful novel. He takes the Cupid/Psyche myth and recasts it in an unlikely setting, the barbaric city-state of Glome, set in a classical epoch. A girl named Orual is growing up in the palace, daughter of the king. Her simple world of childhood, experiencing everyday life and wondering at change, is about to change vastly. But hers is no fairy-tale story. She intuits from her youth that she is not beautiful, and she fears her father, whose cruel temper and overbearing competence threaten to crush her spirit.
Then wisdom enters her heart. Glome wins some obscure battle and her father brings home a bedraggled Greek prisoner, charging him with the education of his daughters. The Fox pours himself into Orual, teaching her the beauty of words, imparting his love of philosophy, guiding her in reason. She calls him Grandfather, and she loves him.
Next, impossibly, beauty enters her heart. Her father’s ill-fated bride dies soon after childbirth, but leaves a daughter. And not just any child. Her name is Istra, Psyche in the Greek; and she is the brightest and fairest light ever to shine on that muddy, despairing corner of the world. She personifies beauty, wonder, and selflessness. Orual knows delight now, and she loves her sister more deeply than she has never loved anyone in her life. It seems her joy is too full now to ever wane.
Life goes on for them, as life does, and with the passing of time comes trouble. Famine and plague strike Glome. The people begin to mutter, and then to shout, and then to rebel. And they demand sacrifice. In their religious culture the goddess Ungit reigns supreme. She is a shapeless, faceless, dread-instilling queen of nature represented by a stone over which the blood of only the most perfect in their society must be poured to forestall judgment. It is only a matter of time until Psyche’s name is mentioned.
Orual’s world is shattered around her. Psyche, though she feels the bitterness of the sentence, goes willingly to her death, yet curious whether the mythology of the Shadowbrute, Ungit’s son, the god of the Grey Mountain, is true.
It is here that courage enters Orual’s heart. She determines to rescue her sister from the jail cell where she awaits her doom, and she attacks Bardia the captain of the guard to rescue Psyche. Bardia thwarts her attempt but praises her for it. His simple words give her hope for life, and he is added to the tightly knit world of the people she loves.
From here the book is a carefully constructed swirl of the four hearts that are so closely knit together, progressing into the unpredictable yet eternally repetitive abyss that life must be for all of us. Orual loses Psyche, not just to the Shadowbrute, but to her own despairing attempt to pull her away from her new lover. She is consigned to a life that is bitterly futile but distractingly energetic and demanding, taking over the kingdom from the disintegrating grasp of her father, entering a new world of political intrigue and civic minefields, matching wits and steel with her adversaries, learning to “queen it” with her faithful friends by her side. But her face is veiled now.
For Orual has now seen what love is. She knows that it is not the dark insistence that rules in her heart, using the Fox’s wisdom to navigate her way around people and problems, sucking life out of the beauty of Psyche, leaning on Bardia’s strong arm until it fails her. She knows that love is what Psyche did when she paid the price for Orual’s life, jeopardizing the most precious thing she had ever found for someone she loved. And when you have seen the face of love, your vision of the world will never be the same again; you will have no peace until you have looked on the face of divine love, and reckoned with it.
Now Orual and Psyche are set upon their irresistible courses of fate, one on the high road and the other the low. Their tasks are superhuman, their hearts riven to the core by their bitter separation, their hopes set only on attaining an answer from the council of the gods that has sat silent over their unfolding tribunal. One of them has broken faith with God for love of her sister; the other has broken the heart of her sister because she had no faith in God. And both await redemption, one with unveiled broken beauty and the other with masked ugliness of heart and aspect. Both await the voice of the Lover of their Souls.
Although I am an inveterate lover of good literature, and find myself more and more susceptible to random emotional upsurges the older I get, this book is in a wholly different category with the breadth of feelings I experience when I read it. There are at least four or five places where I often lose it, and there is one in particular where I can never read it at all without outright weeping: the scene where Psyche is performing her final task, bringing beauty back from the Queen of the Deadlands to make Ungit beautiful. She makes it past all the others, but then she must walk past Orual, the one for whose love she gave up her innocence. And I cry like a baby everytime.
If you could not tell by now, this is my favorite book of all time, second only to Holy Writ. I have read it at least eight or 10 times. If you have not read it yet, you need to. More than most fictional novels it portrays the heart of Jesus for us – for me – in a way that transcends the boundaries we normally place on the lengths to which He is willing to go to entice us back into his arms. Read this story and believe, for we too are Psyche.
Artwork credit: Antonia Canova, “Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss”