With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Till We Have Faces

Despite being his most neglected novel, C.S. Lewis's Till We Have Faces could be seen as his greatest theological work. It gathers together the diversity of his theological contributions into one highly enjoyable story. Unlike The Chronicles of Narnia, one does not feel as if C.S. Lewis were telling the Christian message in a thinly-veiled allegory. This is not to say that Lewis in this work does not provide for us a Christian message; he most certainly does. By the time he wrote Till We Have Faces, he came to understand that the best way to reach modern humanity was not to bludgeon them with Christian symbolism, but to reach them from the common moral and religious heritage that Christians inherited from the pagans. Thus, Lewis gives us in Till We Have Faces his theological ideals reworked so as to be placed under a completely pagan veil.

Indeed, while this methodological point is one which many do not realize that Lewis held, it is central to Lewis’ own re-conversion to Christianity and the common belief Lewis shared with his friend and co-mythopoet, Tolkien. Lewis realized that what lay behind pagan mythology was one grand story being told and proclaimed by them all, and that story had been realized as historical fact in the life and work of Jesus Christ. “Now as myth transcends thought, Incarnation transcends myth. The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens -- at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences.” C.S. Lewis, “Myth Became Fact” in Undeceptions. (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1971), 42.

The pagan traditions, being pre-Christian, contained the mystery and wonder and excitement that preceded the Incarnation. In our modern age, post-Christian humanity has lost this sense of wonder; the world has become a dark, bleak place. In a letter to Blessed Don Giovanni Calabria, written in Latin, Lewis shows us this view with the following observation:

What you say about the present state of mankind is true: indeed, it is even worse than you say.

For they neglect not only the law of Christ but even the Law of Nature as known by the Pagans. For now they do not blush at adultery, treachery, perjury, theft and the other crimes which I will not say Christian Doctors, but the Pagans and the Barbarians have themselves denounced.

They err who say ‘the world is turning pagan again.’ Would that it were! The truth is that we are falling into a much worse state.

'Post-Christian man’ is not the same as ‘pre-Christian man.’ He is as far removed as virgin is from widow: there is nothing in common except want of a spouse; but there is a great difference between a spouse-to-come and a spouse lost.

---C.S. Lewis, The Latin Letters of C.S. Lewis. Trans. Martin Moynihan. (South Bend, Indiana: St. Augustine’s Press, 1998), 83-85.

Lewis significantly considered the possibility that the only way the world can be Christianized again is that we would first have to reconvert humanity back to the pagan traditions. “If they were Stoics, Orphics, Mithraists, or (better still) peasants worshipping the Earth, our task might be easier. This is why I do not regard contemporary Paganisms (Theosophy, Anthroposophy, etc.) as a wholly bad symptom.” C.S. Lewis, “Modern Man and his Categories of Thought” in Present Concerns . Ed. Walter Hooper (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers: 1986), 66.

Till We Have Faces is a re-telling of the Psyche myth under the hand of Psyche’s sister, Orual. In the myth, Psyche weds Cupid, the God of Love, and her sisters are jealous and try to end Psyche’s happiness by any means necessary. However, we find in Till We Have Faces Orual, the Queen of Glome, a woman who so loves her sister that she is incapable of believing her sister can be well without her. Her jealousy holds no evil intentions for Psyche, they are all good intentions; yet, as with all jealousy, they lead to an ill outcome ever the same.

The book is written in two parts, the first as a complaint to the gods, the second as her response and answer. In the first part we learn of Orual’s bitterness. Her beloved sister had been taken from her – she was led to believe Psyche had been sacrificed to the gods, only to find her alive and seemingly insane. Psyche claimed to be the wife of a god, living in a great mansion; when Psyche took her sister to her home, Orual could not see it; it looked to Orual as if her sister were living out in the open, and Psyche was seeing things which were not there. She struggled with her sister, tried to get her sister to see she was just living in the open wilderness, but nothing she did could convince Psyche, just as Psyche could not convince Orual about the nature of her new home.

Orual would learn, however bitterly, that her sister was correct, but only after she had caused such pain and sorrow to Psyche, effectively turning Psyche not only completely away from her, but from the God who really was her husband: Psyche became a wandering vagabond. In response to her bitterness, she blamed the gods for not letting her see what Psyche had seen – if she only had been given that same vision, saw things for what they really were, things would be different. However, she was to learn, her complaint not only was unjust, but was selfish; in her jealous love for her sister, she would have wished anything – even her sister’s death – to have been true more than what had really happened. Only by coming face to face to who she was in reality could she ever understand and experience the Gods, and when that happens, all answers come:

The complaint was the answer. To have heard myself making it was to be answered. Lightly men talk of saying what they mean […] When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak openly, nor let us answer. Till that need 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?

----C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985), 294.

C.S. Lewis had a profound insight to the nature of our relationship with what we call the “supernatural.” It is all around us and pervades our very life, but we are not open to it because we are not open to being truly who we are meant to be. We have not discovered who we are in ourselves.

We are like a block of marble, unformed, and our life becomes the means by which the marble takes form, slowly, chip after painful chip. God works in us and through us by his love, wanting to turn us into those people we are meant to be: to grow up, to love and be loved. Until we are, our experience of the world is imperfect and we go stumbling about life as if we were blind. We cannot truly see until we have faces – until our eyes are fully formed, capable of seeing things beyond the cataracts of our daily existence.

This belief, found throughout many of Lewis’ writings, finds itself in its best form here. We are shown through Orual’s story both sides of the equation. We first learn to experience and appreciate her sorrow and bitterness, to appreciate her complaint by experiencing her life through her eyes. We become Orual, and her complaint is the complaint of humanity against God: how detestable God must be; if only he would reveal himself to us, everything would be better. In showing us the inner psychology behind Orual’s complaints, and the consequences of her actions, we are shown the reasoning behind humanity’s complaint against God is at its core a shallow selfishness that closes us not only from God, but ultimately, from ourselves as well. At heart, it shows us the meaning behind Jesus’ words when he said, “He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12:25 RSV).

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  • At 4/09/2008 7:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    One of my favorite books. A most excellently written review, I must say. (And the quote you used was, incidentally, my favorite from the book.) Good work!

  • At 10/30/2009 1:32 PM, Anonymous Amber said…

    I realize this post is quite old, but I googled the name of the book, which I just finished, and your blog came up. Excellent review and helpful in processing my recent reading. Thank you!

  • At 11/11/2009 5:05 PM, Anonymous julie Sanders said…

    I love how Lewis captures the Grand Story behind the myth and points us all the love we long for. I think the tragedy in "Till We Have Faces" is that Orual never found the "love of the Gods". Thank you for your review and your skillful blending of Lewis quotes. He is still a master.

  • At 5/28/2010 10:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I too googled the book immediately after reading it to gain more insight into the layers, and to compare my interpretations. Thank you for this review.

  • At 7/22/2010 12:16 AM, Blogger mamagotcha said…

    Yet another "just finished it, Googled for more info" reader here... thank you for this thoughtful review.

  • At 11/11/2010 6:11 PM, Anonymous smallwanderings said…

    My favorite work of fiction - just because, as you have written, it tells the truth so clearly.

  • At 8/09/2011 11:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Thanks so much for this. I read it my senior year of high school while doing a review of Till We Have Faces and I'm reading it again as a senior in college, preparing to revisit the topic for my senior thesis.

  • At 8/09/2011 8:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Unable to stop myself from returning to it, I have read this book at least 15 times. Each time it opens new insight into--myself. I first read it in my late 20s. I finished it again this evening. I just turned 58. Lewis does superb theology when he's not trying to do theology as in his shallow, limited works such as Mere Christianity which, faithful to the fad among its 20th Century apologists, attempt to "prove" Christianity.

    This work and That Hideous Strength are much more successful arguments for religious truth.

  • At 8/29/2011 4:23 AM, Blogger Absurd Project 0 said…

    Great post on a great book! There is so much in there. I think there is a Freud thing going on, with Ungit as the Id and her son as king Ego. Both are also the Brute - more real than what we call real.

  • At 8/24/2012 11:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Mere Christianity does not try to prove Christianity...

    Neither does this book, although well-written and thought provoking, provide a successful argument for religious truth anymore than Atlas Shrugged might.

    Good book and great review. As far as the Gospel is concerned Till We Have Faces most definitely does not stand on its own, and I don't think Lewis intended it to.
    - Chris

  • At 5/16/2014 9:24 PM, Blogger Mike Brummond said…

    A big help in me understanding the ending!


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