This is one of my vintage-all-time-favourites. I read it every couple of years, and always see some new facet in the story that I didn’t see before.
It's a retelling of the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche, retold from the point of view of Psyche’s sister, Orual. It’s not a fairy-tale, but it does have gods, unseen monsters, an invisible palace and other fantasy tropes; and Cupid and Psyche prefigures many later fairy tales, including East Of the Sun and West Of the Moon, and Beauty and the Beast.
It is a tale of the lives and loves of three princesses, living in the ancient kingdom of Glome.
Redival, the eldest sister, is pretty, but selfish. Her only desire is to find a man and escape from their tyrannical father, the king. The middle sister, Orual, is uncannily ugly, and has no romantic expectations; she adores her youngest half-sister Psyche, and grows to be a wise and brave, though unhappy, queen.
The youngest princess, Psyche, is so beautiful that the people of the kingdom worship her; but this arouses the jealousy of the goddess Ungit. The wrath of Ungit can only be satiated by the sacrifice of Psyche, and so Psyche is bound and abandoned on a sacred mountain – left to be consumed by a hideous beast.
Orual is devastated by the loss of Psyche, and she sets out for the mountain that she might bury her sister’s body. But she does not find a body. Instead she finds Psyche, who claims to be living in a beautiful, but invisible, palace, blissfully married to a husband who comes to her at night, but forbids her to ever see his face...
It is through Orual’s life-story that the mystery of Psyche is unravelled. But it is also Orual who unwittingly casts her beloved sister, and herself, into tragedy.
The story does not end with tragedy however – I mention that in case – like me – you can’t bear an unhappy ending!
In Lewis’s genius fashion, he has written what seems on the surface to be a simple tale, but which explores deep and profound themes: faith, reason, love, jealousy, beauty. It is also a skilful psychological exploration of Orual, showing how love can be twisted into a destructive force if it is not selfless.