When I was in school I learned that great authors will put more in their stories than you read at first. C.S. Lewis is a not only a great storyteller but a great author. And I've only had a first reading of this story. But the very few extras that I have glimpsed are only a beginning to the layers and meanings and truths forged into this incredible tale.
A hint and a warning: Lewis has added a bare two pages to tell us that the ancient Greek myth of Psyche was his inspiration - and he even gives us that story in a small nutshell. But it is for good reason that it is at the end. Don't read it before you take in the real text. He has altered it and added to it - for the better! Don't misalign your expectations for this book which stands on its own very well.
There are two daughters of a mean old king in a barely civilized fictitious land. Their mother has died. The older daughter, Orual, is but a child observing. The king marries another wife for another political link but more so for a son. But this young mother, dying at delivery, produces only another baby girl. Orual takes it upon herself to become the baby's new mother. And baby Istra is a remarkable beauty. Orual has learned from their Greek slave/tutor that Istra means Psyche in Greek. As she grows she only becomes more beautiful - for she is bright and meek and kind as well.
But the king gives no heed, much less love, to his daughters. He can be brutal. Moreover, this barely civilized country has a temple to the goddess Ungit. Her statue is a relatively formless rock. It smells of the blood of the sacrifices. The priest of Ungit's temple does not exude a brighter picture.
And the daughters grow up as best they can with the greek slave as their tutor, no mother and a king who is mostly absent from their lives but for the rare times that he frightens them.
Then troubles come from the most unexpected quarters. And Orual leads us through her trials and attempts to cope. She tells the story to us because she wants to show how bad the gods are to mortals. They are unloving, unjust and unkind and yet still meddling and mischievous. The book is intensely psychological amidst the modest amount of action and adventure. It can be dark in how the reader is drawn through her justifications and feelings of twisted love and of hate. And yet it is still a pleasure to read.
I am at a bit of a loss reviewing this since I have only read through it once. It seems that Orual begins telling the story as one with a long harbored and even infantile grudge - rooted, as it is, in her childhood. And as she tells it, not only does the story unfold, but her own character begins to change. It is masterful how Lewis has written this to REALLY look like a book that was written by Orual - especially how the writing itself changes as the writing of an autobiography must change the writer herself.
And again, I believe that C.S. Lewis, with the help and constructive criticism of the Inklings, has written much more into this than I have yet read. They would have already known the tale of Psyche. They would have reviewed his material for inconsistencies, opportunities and those little literary blasphemies to the original story that would otherwise offend. I can't wait to read it through a few more times.
It is not a 'read aloud' book. In fact it should be read by the parent as well as the high-school aged child so that meaningful discussions can take place. An impressionable youngster does not always have the circumspection to keep him from empathizing so much... from becoming an Orual. And yet this is a must read. It may be a good gateway book to the darker Russian novels. One reason for this is that Lewis himself makes it very clear in the end that the one true God (not the Ungits of the 'world') really does care. How He so loves and respects us that He preserves our free will even at the cost of mystery, frustration and evil in the world. Which leads to another warning: Finish this book! Don't put it down in the middle or you will entirely miss the great changes which reveal so much about Orual's growth and destiny.
Here's a little 'taste' of the story...
If anyone could have seen us at that moment I believe he would have thought we were two enemies met for a battle to the death. I know we stood like that, a few feet apart, every nerve taut, each with eyes fixed on the other in a terrible watchfulness.
And now we are coming to that part of my history on which my charge against the gods chiefly rests; and therefore I must try at any cost to write what is wholly true. Yet it is hard to know perfectly what I was thinking while those huge, silent moments went past. By remembering it to often I have blurred the memory itself.
I suppose my first thought must have been, "She's mad." Anyway, my whole heart leaped to shut the door against something monstrously amiss - not to be endured. And to keep it shut. Perhaps I was fighting not to be mad myself.
But what I said when I got my breath (and I know my voice came out in a whisper) was simply, "We must go away at once. This is a terrible place."
Was I believing in her invisible palace? A Greek will laugh at the thought. But it's different in Glome. There the gods are too close to us. Up in the Mountain, in the very heart of the Mountain, where Bardia had been afraid and even the priests don't go, anything was possible. No door could be kept shut. Yes, that was it; not plain belief, but infinite misgiving - the whole world (Psyche with it) slipping out of my hands.
Whatever I meant, she misunderstood me horribly. (Till We Have Faces, from Chapter 11)