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Monday, September 8, 2014

The Great Wedding

Mythology and fantasy together -- but, on the other hand, mythology was Greek and Latin fantasy, and fantasy was Nordic mythology -- in a novel that is the epitome of CS Lewis' narrative, as well as one of his masterpieces, according to himself and many fans. (Incidentally, no Italian version of the book exists.)

In Till We Have Faces many themes re-emerge from his previous works, both the heroic deeds from Narnia and the cosmic powers from the Space Trilogy, but the most significant parallel might be made with the supernatural voyage in The Great Divorce, now however telling the story from the opposite viewpoint: that of a “wrong,” though not strictly evil, personage. And precisely she, Orual aka Maia,(*) is probably the most interesting female character ever invented by Lewis -- his wife Joy being usually considered the basic source of inspiration for this important development. It is from behind her eyes, and her mask, that we see the myth of Eros and Psyche “retold,” and enjoy the adventures of her herself as an unusual warrior Queen; and we cannot but side with her in spite of her mistakes, however bad.

Simplifying things to the utmost, the story tells the progress of Queen Orual from "being" the dark goddess Ungit (her "natural," fallen self; or, Death) to "being" Psyche (her true Self; or, Life) thanks to the mysterious "surgery" of the god(s). The tragedy of Genesis 3 provides an important key to the novel, but another unique feature of Till We Have Faces is that the Christian theological background is left mostly implied,(**) and more than that, a sense of Greek fatality seems to permeate everything, like in the novels by the writer's dear friend JRR Tolkien. And it is very meaningful to note that the words with which Orual expresses her griefs and doubts will be echoed by Lewis himself in A Grief Observed after Joy's death.

For a learned, witty, post-modern operation of myth-retelling like this, Italian readers can also enjoy Giovanni Pascoli's Poemi Conviviali (Convivial Poems, of 1905), among which a Psyche is included, in a version very different from Lewis', though equally based on Apuleius' Metamorphoses.


(*) More in the Sanskrit sense of māyā than as the Greek mythological personage.
(**) Except, basically, for some quick hints at verses from the Book of Job and the New Testament, as well as at John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, especially the untrod path leading to a river, with a wonderful palace beyond it. Anyway, the theme of sacrifice, ransom, bearing for one another, is much better developed in TWHF than in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, imho.