So, I’m halfway through my Till We Have Faces re-read, and I want to talk about how the book handles the supernatural, because it’s a tactic I implemented in my book almost without realizing it.
In most fantasy books magic either exists or it doesn’t. Gods either exist or they don’t. Same for elves, or curses, or angels or whatever. Supernatural things either happen or they don’t happen. Of course there may be a skeptic, or one culture that believes in a thing and another that doesn’t, but usually the narrative itself offers a clear answer to whether or not a certain supernatural thing exists…even if the characters are only discovering it’s existence for the first time.
In Harry Potter magic explicitly exists. In the Rick Riordan books, the various ancient mythologies are objectively real (I have not read these latter books, but my nieces and nephews are super into them right now). In Lord of the Rings, Sauron–for all his lack of presence on the page–is a real force of evil, just as Gandalf is a real force of wizardly good. Even in books of magical realism, wherein the dividing lines between natural and supernatural can be a bit more hazy, the supernatural elements are shown true. In Like Water For Chocolate, Tita’s cooking has blatantly supernatural effects, despite it being a more subtle “magic.”
But, for the greater portion of the book, Till We Have Faces does something else altogether. It doesn’t tell you what’s real and what isn’t. Most of the characters believe in the gods, and believe in curses, and believe in a great Shadowbrute to whom the beautiful Psyche was sacrificed. They believe in Holy places and and Holy ground, and the Priest of Ungit (who is also Aphrodite).
However there is a clever Greek philosopher who scorns assigning weather or famine or blessing to the gods. Between he and the others, they ground the book in what feels like our own reality: the reality where some people believe in miracles and curses, and some don’t. Some people worship deities, some don’t.
Our heroine, Orual, is torn between the level-headed philosophies of her Greek mentor, and the rich, dark, and unshakeable beliefs of her people, the people of Glome.
And at every turn, she is offered evidence to support either, yet she must make the choice of what she believes. She is one moment convinced of the acts of the gods, and at the next, thinking it all a mirage. She generally believes the gods exist regardless, but it is down to a matter of whether she thinks they actually do or signify anything real.
The author leaves the reader to feel Orual’s confusion, frustration, and uncertainty, just as one might feel in the real world when deciding if something we never wanted to believe is actually true, or something we did believe is not true.
I love this approach because, the truth is, “magic” or the supernatural usually only interests me insofar as it is difficult to prove. That isn’t to say that I don’t like classically magical books like Lord of the Rings and what-not, but that I love subtlety, and I love the power of decision it lends to the reader. Is Orual right? Is the Greek right? Are the gods just or unjust, or do they exist at all? Is Psyche deceived or is she wed to a God?
Who is telling the truth, what do these signs and symbols signify, and what is really bedrock reality and truth? It is a questions many of us ask in our own lives, and it is a question I kneaded gently throughout my own story, the strength and importance of it growing as the story progresses.