Till We Have Faces is by no means C. S. Lewis’s most popular work. The recent movies based on two of the Narnia books have probably given them a secure place as Lewis’s best known. Yet beyond the widely read Chronicles of Narnia, it’s still a better wager that any given person has read Mere Christianity, or The Screwtape Letters, or The Great Divorce, and probably even Lewis’s space trilogy, rather than Till We Have Faces. It is not the C. S. Lewis book that people know about. It is, however, the one Lewis called his favorite.
Lewis said he considered Till We Have Faces his best-written book. For me, that bodes good things. I compare it to the way I’ve been excited every time when, on the first day of a college class, a professor lets slip that this class — the one that I’m in right now — is his or her favorite of the quarter. If the professor is enthusiastic about teaching the class, there’s a very good chance it will be particularly enjoyable and worthwhile for the students. An author’s lasting enthusiasm about a work can, I think, indicate similar quality.
Till We Have Faces may be more obscure than some of Lewis’s other works, but its complexity and depth make it a challenging read for all the right reasons. The subtitle of the book is A Myth Retold, referring to the myth of Cupid and Psyche. Lewis provides a synopsis of the myth in an appended note.
Referring to the earliest extant version of the myth in Lucius Apuleius’s Metamorphoses, Lewis tells that Psyche is the youngest of three princesses and so captivatingly beautiful that people neglect to worship Venus and worship her instead. Because no men feel worthy to marry her, her father the king consults an oracle who tells him to leave Psyche on a mountain since she is not meant for any mortal man. Venus, jealous of Psyche’s beauty, sends her son Cupid to the mountaintop to make Psyche fall in love with the worst of all men. Instead, Cupid falls in love with her himself and has her whisked away to his golden palace as his wife. He comes to her every night in the darkness, but he forbids her from ever seeing his face.
Psyche convinces Cupid to reluctantly bring her sisters to his palace to visit, and they become fiercely jealous of their sister’s golden palace, supernaturally delicious food, and divine husband. They convince the gullible Psyche that her husband is a terrible beast and tell her to light a lamp in the night as he sleeps so that she can see him. When she does, Cupid awakens, rebukes her, and flies away. Mournful Psyche is left with the tasks of overcoming jealous Venus, avenging herself on her sisters, and regaining Cupid’s love.
Lewis sets his retelling of this myth in the fictional kingdom of Glome, contemporary with Hellenistic Greece, and he tells his version from the perspective of one of Psyche’s sisters, whom he names Orual. Till We Have Faces begins as Orual’s accusation against the gods, who she says have stolen Psyche from her and wronged her with their deviousness. The older sisters in the original myth are unequivocal villains, but Lewis makes a fundamental change to the story that makes Orual’s claim admissible, one which he says “forced itself upon me, almost at my first reading of the story, as the way the thing must have been.” To Orual, the palace Psyche shares with Cupid is invisible.
By adding this complexity to the story, Lewis makes his wonderfully unreliable narrator into a round, thoroughly engaging character. Orual, rationalizing that she is acting out of love and in Psyche’s best interests, manipulates Psyche’s true and self-sacrificing love for her, coercing Psyche (who is, in Lewis’s version, not gullible at all) to knowingly betray her husband. Instead of focusing on Psyche’s tasks following her betrayal, Lewis leads readers along Orual’s journey as she denies and then slowly comes to realize the true nature of what she’s done. As she becomes queen of Glome and rebuilds her land following her father’s ineffectual reign, she has other cares in which to hide from her reflections. But these and the veil she begins to wear cannot fully protect her from increasingly painful revelations about herself.
As she struggles with her own motives and self-deceit, at the same time she struggles to understand the gods she is accusing. “Why must holy places be dark places?” she asks, contending that if the gods revealed themselves openly and did not rule from invisible palaces, she would have believed Psyche.
These gods of Glome, like the gods of Greece, are jealous, capricious, and sometimes bloodthirsty, but a Greek slave who is advisor to Psyche’s father dissents from this view. Called The Fox by Psyche’s father because of his cleverness, he is the voice of materialistic rationalism in the book, urging Psyche that personal gods are “the lies of poets.” Orual must reconcile this view of the gods as a dispassionate “divine nature” with her experiences with the cruel, fickle gods against whom she rails.
Till We Have Faces explores love and its subtle counterfeits and presents the tension between mystery and reason in conceptions of God. Lewis engages these themes directly in essays and longer theological writings, and he explores them in the garb of overtly Christian fiction in works like The Great Divorce and The Screwtape Letters. His penetrating insight and powerful style are a joy to read in both sorts of writing. Till We Have Faces is equally good, but it represents, more than any of Lewis's other works, a third sort of approach.
Lewis’s approach here calls to mind his statement that while he was still an atheist, Christianity wafted about him again and again in his reading, permeating his English studies and breathing from the most unexpected pages like an “all too familiar smell.” It is this familiar smell of Christianity with which Lewis scents the pages of Till We Have Faces. It is more subtle than in many of Lewis’s works, but the smell is there.
Till We Have Faces leads me to consider the complex motives that underlie my actions — even the ones that seem most altruistic; it raises the possibility that there are precious few who yet have faces. I ask myself whether my holy places are dark like Orual’s or whether I am quick, like The Fox, to explain with glib reason just what the “divine nature” is or is not like.
Till We Have Faces is a thought-provoking book that is read too little. C. S. Lewis and I recommend it.
Caleb Rasmussen is a graduate student at Pacific Union College who plans to teach high school English. He lives in Angwin with his wife, Launa, and enjoys juggling and photography.
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