The BEST: Till We Have Faces

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The BEST: C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold (1956)
Mark Gottlieb

Summary: Till We Have Faces is based on the myth of Cupid and Psyche, which haunted C.S. Lewis since his undergraduate days in Oxford. The story is now set in the land of Glome, which, in Lewis’ own words, is “a little barbarous state on the borders of the Hellenistic world with Greek culture just beginning to affect it.” The exact timing is unclear, with the events taking place somewhere between the death of Socrates in 399 BCE and the beginning of the Common Era. Orual, the oldest of the king’s three daughters, narrates a bitter tale of jealousy, possession, and “accusation against the gods.” Her pain is chiefly the product of an overprotective love for her half-sister, the pure and beautiful Psyche, who is sacrificed to the tribal god Ungit, a “black stone without head or hands or face, and a very great goddess,” after the people of Glome attribute divine-like qualities to Psyche. The Greek tutor to the royal family, derisively nicknamed “the Fox” by King Trom, says Ungit is “the same whom the Greeks call Aphrodite,” and Lewis lets the reader see the virtues and vices of the pagan celebration of blood, “thick and dark,” over against the rationalism, “thin and clear,” of the Fox’s philosophy. When Orual travels to the Grey Mountain to properly bury Psyche after her sacrifice, she is startled to discover the chains in place but no sign of Psyche. Then, going past the sacred tree, down to a stream beyond which lies a beautiful valley, Orual spots Psyche, apparently alive, on the other side of the stream. Psyche claims to see a beautiful palace, Ungit’s home (or Ungit’s son, it is never made clear), something invisible to Orual. Eventually, Orual persuades Psyche to betray Ungit, even though Psyche has never looked better than when she had accepted her role as wife to the god. For her betrayal, Psyche—and, in her own way, Orual—are punished with exile and Ungit’s hiddenness. Orual returns to Glome, shamed and shorn of emotion, and soon inherits her father’s throne upon his death. Over the many decades of her rule, Glome prospers and Orual becomes known in the region as a wise and able sovereign to her people. She harbors a deep, unforgiving resentment to the gods that begins to abate when, in a dream sequence and “trial” of the gods, Orual says the following eponymous words, “I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?” The book ends with Orual writing her last words in the “book of accusations,” now beyond recrimination and rationalization, “I ended my first book with the words No answer. I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away…” 

Message: Lewis packs many complex themes into what would be his last work of fiction. In the first edition of the book, Lewis outlines his ambitious agenda in an autobiographical note: “This re-interpretation of an old story has lived in the author’s mind, thickening and hardening with the years… Recently, what seemed the right form presented itself and themes suddenly interlocked: the straight tale of barbarism, the mind of an ugly woman, dark idolatry and pale enlightenment at war with each other and with vision, and the havoc which a vocation, or even a faith, works on human life.” Lewis already notes in one of his letters that Till We Have Faces is the fictionalized expression of the ideas eventually found in his 1960 non-fiction study The Four Loves. Both the dedication of Till We Have Faces to Joy Davidman Gresham, Lewis’ admirer and then wife, and Lewis’ and others’ testimony that Joy played a significant role in the hashing out of the final version of the story, suggests that the various forms of love (affection, friendship, eros, and agape) Lewis would treat so incisively in The Four Loves all play out in Orual’s story. Above all, the ability of love to turn possessive and destructive without the chastening effects of charity is the central element of Lewis’ characterization of Orual. Of course, the themes of identity, authenticity, and self-deception play major roles in the story, as well. Orual’s inability to see herself truly and accurately, symbolized by the veil she wears for much of the story, is only rectified when she finally confronts the gods—and herself—in humility and recognition. When she finally gains a “face,” she can face the gods, herself, and others, without excuses, pretenses, or defenses. 

Cautionary Instructions: As the telegraphic summary suggests, Lewis’ story and its themes are complex and heavy. The very vehicle of Lewis’ “myth retold” requires some degree of comfort with this unusual genre. And while not as overtly Christological as the Narnia Chronicles, the deep structures of blood sacrifice play a major role in the story, something that Modern Orthodoxy’s Maimonidean sensibilities may bristle against. 

Listen to the Till We Have Faces audiobook.

Why this is the BEST: No less an authority than Lewis himself considered Till We Have Faces his best creative work. Many critics concurred; his devoted reading public decidedly did not. They considered the “myth retold” stylistically labored, too opaque for modern audiences, and, on the surface at least, too foreign from Lewis’ familiar Christian themes, certainly compared to the transparently allegorical Narnia Chronicles completed over a decade earlier. The book’s sales remain tepid some sixty-five years after its publication, yet the Lewis juggernaut ensures that even his lesser-read titles remain in print. Lewis scholars and aficionados today see the rich treatment of reason and imagination, the complex characterization of Orual (especially in contrast to some of Lewis’ earlier, more wooden and essentialist treatments of female characters), and the literary portrayal of the intertwined themes of desire, sacrifice, and love, as some of the strongest and most compelling material Lewis ever wrote. Lewis, a discerning judge of his and others’ work, apparently agreed. On that count alone, Till We Have Faces deserves our renewed attention.

Rabbi Mark Gottlieb, a member of the TRADITION editorial board, is Senior Director of the Tikvah Fund and Dean of the Tikvah Summer Institute at Yale University.

Click here to read about “The BEST” and to see the index of all columns in this series.

[Published February 20, 2020]


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