Last week on Myth Monday: Sea of Monsters, monster recap
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Today I have two recommendations for myth-lovers. They’re both retellings of very old stories, from the perspectives of characters who are overlooked and mostly voiceless in the original. Both are beautifully written, and both made me cry.
Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis (1956)
This book is a retelling of the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche. Quick premise of the myth, if you’re unfamiliar with it: Pysche is a beautiful princess who people start comparing to Venus, the goddess of love. Venus gets upset (as she tends to do) and tells her son Cupid to curse Pysche to fall in love with something horrible. Instead, Cupid falls in love with Pysche and through a complicated form of kidnapping, arranges for Pysche to wind up in his palace. Pysche visits him at night but never sees his face. Eventually, her sisters visit her and, jealous of her new life and status, make Psyche question why she never sees her husband. Is he a monster? Typical hijinks ensue.
Till We Have Faces tells the story from the perspective of Orual, one of Psyche’s sisters. In this version, Orual is possessive of her sister Psyche and loves her obsessively. She is both jealous of Psyche’s possible good fortune, but doesn’t believe that it could happen, and regardless she wants Psyche all to herself. We barely see anything of Psyche’s part of the story, so we, like Orual, have to decide if Psyche is brainwashed or making it all up.
Orual herself is a very tragic character. She isn’t valued by her father or other men because she’s a woman and not very attractive. She sets herself to learn everything she needs to in order to rule a kingdom, and also becomes a warrior. She becomes an excellent leader in her own right, but she remains cynical, and obsessed with bringing Pysche back to her. In spite of the fact that she loves Psyche, all of her actions toward her sister damage Psyche’s happiness, rather than support it. Orual’s journey to self-awareness lasts her whole life, and showcases the different forms of love, both healthy and sick, that people develop for each other.
Despite this, Orual is an extremely sympathetic character. She has to struggle against so many things during her life, and she is determined to be a good ruler, better than the ones before her. She wants love and friendship, and gains tremendous loyalty from those who know her. There’s a cast of supporting characters that help reflect Orual’s character and the core relationship between Orual and Psyche, including Fox, their Greek tutor, Redival, their other sister, and Lord Bardia, Orual’s friend and ally.
Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin (2008)
This book is a retelling of part of the Aeneid by Vergil. The Aeneid is focused on Aeneas, a prince who has escaped the fall of Troy and is searching for a land for himself and his people to settle. Aeneas discovers the land that will become Rome (according to the myth), and sets himself to marry Lavinia, the daughter of the local chief. Lavinia never speaks in the epic poem, but a war is fought over her between Turnus, her previous fiancé, and Aeneas. Spoilers: Aeneas wins.
Lavinia is Le Guin’s attempt to give this character a voice of her own. The story is unchanged from the six latter books of the Aeneid, but from the perspective of Lavinia, who wants to live her own life, and failing that, to save her people from war. When she is unable to stop the war (which is prophesied and therefore unchangeable), she sets herself to doing what she can to stop the infighting, even after Aeneas has won and married her.
Plot is a lot less important to this book than simple character exploration. Who is Lavinia? What did she want? What she did know, and feel, and discover, through the action of the poem? Lavinia explores all of those questions, almost as a loose, prose translation of Vergil’s poem. It adds a lot of complexity and depth to Vergil’s poem, and interacts with it as well on certain levels that I don’t want to spoil.
Aside from all other reasons to read it, Lavinia is beautifully written and a joy to read.
Coming up on Myth Mondays: more Percy Jackson, more book reviews, and some exploration of one of my favorite Greek gods!