So far, entries into the Wheelhouse Project have focused on Nancy Pearl’s Four Doorways to reading. But the actual “wheelhouse” refers to attributes of a book that make it highly likely I will pick it up. This week we focus on “retellings of myths and fairy tales, bonus points for feminism, anti-racism, and/or realistic depictions of trauma and darkness.” For this entry, I’m focusing specifically on re-tellings of Greek myths.
Doing the dishes, my hands plunging in and out of warm, soapy water and warm, running rinse-water. I follow my own system: plates and bowls, then silverware, and then serving utensils. I save the pots and pans for last because they make the biggest mess of the washwater, they require the most scrubbing. Doing dishes is among the most joylessly recurrent of household chores, a final “fuck you” from the human need to eat, underscoring how much time goes into the preparing and cleaning up of food, how little times goes into the actual eating. But I don’t mind. In my head, I’m a tragic princess—Cinderella or Sara Crewe—forced by cruel forces to scrub but certain that someday I will receive my reward for services rendered in good spirits and, if not of excellent quality, at least good enough.
“Dear Elizabeth,” I write in my diary. “Dear Joan.” “Dear Hannah.” I pour out my heart to these imaginary friends plucked from history, these women who sacrificed their own desires to duty or faith or ideals. Freedom fighter and poet Hannah Senesh set out to liberate her fellow Hungarian Jews during WWII. She was captured, tortured, and executed, but she never gave up her compatriots. Joan of Arc believed she heard angels. Under their orders, she led an army against the English to re-establish the rightful king of France. When she was captured, tried, and burned at the stake, her offenses including dressing like a man. Elizabeth I buried her own desires under duty to England and belief in her divine right to hold the throne. Those desires included abandoned lovers, having children, and preserving the life of a rebellious cousin. She ruled England in prosperity and stability (or what passed for it in 16th century Europe) for over 40 years.
Like the princesses of my stories and imagination, Joan of Arc and Hannah Senesh were quite young, ascending to martyrdom when barely adults. Elizabeth, on the other hand, became queen at age 25, but her story didn’t end there. Instead, she modeled sacrifice over the long haul. In this she also likely provided an archetypal model for Orual, the protagonist and narrator of C. S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces, the first novel I read that overtly re-cast a specific myth of fairy tale.
Till We Have Faces retells the myth of Cupid and Psyche, set now in a fictional, Greece-adjacent kingdom called Glome. The novel is structured as Orual’s complaint against the gods for stealing her beautiful, intelligent, kind, brave, and essentially princess-like sister from her. She recounts the tale of her childhood, of losing Psyche, and of her subsequent long reign as Queen, always seeking for her lost sister and nursing her anger at the gods.
I read this book over and over again as a young person, mesmerized by its rendering of an ancient kingdom similar-to-but-different-from ancient Greece or Rome. And like the historical women and fictional princesses I valorized, I connected with Orual, with her hardness and strength; devotion to duty and the Truth; rivalry with her other sister, Redival; and her care and protection of those she considers “hers.”
As the 20th century’s most noteworthy Christian apologist, Lewis intended the novel to be an exploration of God’s grace in the face of human fallibility. Because of its philosophical underpinnings, my youthful self also found a symbolic puzzle box as I struggled to understand what Lewis meant by declarations such as:
“When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center 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 to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word 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 stopped re-reading it about the time I stopped being a Christian, also about the time I surpassed Joan and Hannah and generic princesses in age. I came back to Till We Have Faces a few years ago, wondering if it held up, and discovered that not only does it hold up but it also exceeds a single (i.e., Christian) interpretation. For one, like Tolstoy before him, Lewis the author finds himself mesmerized by a female character who should be a villain but who is, instead, dynamic and interesting and complicated. He dedicates the novel to Joy Davidman, the divorced American poet who shattered and reformed the middle-aged Lewis’s brain-heart. No one would ever accuse Lewis of being a feminist but I can’t help wondering if their relationship is what gave him both the capacity and drive to write a more fully-realized female character than he’d ever done before.
I’m not sure it’s really a book one can “spoil” but I’m loathe to say more because I really want you to read it. Nobody reads Till We Have Faces. Lewis has been relegated to the dustbin of children’s literature or the shelves of those relatively few Christians who really want to wrestle with their faith deeply. But Till We Have Faces is a great novel, representing the best Lewis had to offer and—perhaps most importantly—avoiding the worst. In most of his works, Lewis includes some combination of simplistic allegory, misogyny, veiled colonialist racism, tweedy hand-wringing, and school-marmish prudery, and these attributes undermine his legitimately robust thinking. Till We Have Faces has none of these.
The novel’s last act also transcends Christian philosophy alone. This happens, in part, because the world of “gods” doesn’t map neatly onto God, a constraint of the form in which Lewis has chosen to tell his tale. But more than that, it presents a wisdom that maps onto psychology and Buddhist philosophy and the hard-earned insights that come from trying to be an adult person in this world. Every time I read it, I find more insight to consider and mine.
What Lewis does in Till We Have Faces, Madeline Miller takes to an even deeper level in Circe. Because while Lewis stumbled into a character and a narrative that could be characterized as feminist, no doubt accidentally and against his inclinations, Miller deliberately retells the myth of Circe as a feminist tale for the #metoo era. Circe is best known for being a witch who turns the men who land on her island into swine (#metaphors) but becomes a gooey, girly puddle when confronted with the charms of wily Odysseus. In Miller’s retelling, Circe does not fit in with her divine kindred, in part because she cares for the flawed, fragile humans she encounters. And whether facing gods or men, Circe is seen as prey, as less-than, because she is female.
But Circe is not merely a message book. If it was, it would be preachy and tiresome. Instead, by centering the witch-goddess who turns men into swine within the ruthlessly patriarchal world of ancient Greek myths and legends, we understand what makes this minor character tick.
Circe does what I love about this corner of my wheelhouse, as does Till We Have Faces: they take figures that function as archetypes or symbols and turn them into fully-realized characters (and we know I love a well-drawn character). In so doing, they build in layers of symbolism and metaphor and also map mythic-levels of meaning onto ordinary human experiences. This attribute attracted my younger self and it’s delightful to realize there remains much wisdom to mine here even into adulthood. These books combine the escapist wonder of fantasy with archetypes deepened through psychology.
Related text: The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker.