I don't remember which came first, the play Shadowlands, which is one of the first plays I saw at A Contemporary Theater (at once one of the funniest and saddest plays I have ever seen), or the Chronicle of Narnia books which even now, years later, I find myself reading again and again. But what I remember is the story of C. S. Lewis, who found love late, and then lost it, and who found that his faith could not conquer death. I thought of that when I came across Till We Have Faces, his reimagining of an ancient myth. It is dedicated to Joy Davidman, the wife of C. S. Lewis.
The myth of Eros and Psyche is probably my favorite of all the ancient myths. A daughter is born to a king and his queen, the youngest of three sisters. Her beauty is so great that all those around her praise her as being even more beautiful than the goddess Aphrodite, the goddess of love. To hear a mere mortal praised in such a way angers the goddess, who brings despair upon the kingdom. (I am not sure I have gotten the story straight). The elders (or perhaps it is the two elder sisters, jealous of their younger sister's beauty) convince the king that it is his youngest daughter who is the cause of their trouble, because she has angered the goddess, and therefore she must be sacrificed.
But in her anger the goddess has sent her son, Eros, or Cupid, who shoots us humans with poisoned arrows of Love, to pierce the heart of this mortal who dares to compare herself to Aphrodite. He, in turn, is so overcome by her beauty that he pierces his own hand with his own weapon, and falls in love. When Psyche is abandoned by her family, she is spirited away by Eros to his home, where she is cautioned to never lay eyes on him. Time passes, and Psyche longs for her family. She visits her sisters, who are again jealous of her life, and incite her to look upon her husband while he sleeps. But alas! He is awakened (I forget how), and flies away from his beloved, heartbroken by her betrayal.
In despair Psyche turns to the goddess whom she had so angered with her beauty, who in turn sets forth several impossible tasks - I cannot remember what they are - all of which she manages to accomplish (with help from sympthatic creatures). Until, at last, she is sent down into the Underworld to retrieve a golden box from Persephone (but that is another story). With coins for the ferryman who will take her across the river into Hell, and biscuits for the dog that guards the gates, she makes her way safely to the goddess of the Underworld, who gives her the box which she is seeking, with the caution that she is not to open it, which, of course, she does, and then falls into a deathlike sleep. At last, Zeus takes pity on her and she is reunited with Eros, and becomes immortal, one of the gods...
Till We Have Faces tells the story from the eyes of the eldest sister, a tale of love and jealousy and longing. The myth comes alive, it has humanity in it. It sends a chill up my spine.
Love is too young to know what conscience is.