Till We Have Faces surprised me. If you know me at least a little bit, you’re probably aware of the fact that I’m a huge C.S. Lewis junkie. I’ve read and re-read Narnia, stalked his haunts at Wheaton College and Oxford and am still digesting his adult fiction and apologetics classics. He’s one of my favorite authors, and like most of my favorites, I can recognize his voice and style anywhere.
That is, until I read his final, and, according to him, best work of writing. With most things Lewis writes, Christian ideas are winsome and wrapped in metaphor but are also ultimately explicit and easy to identify and understand. The same cannot be said for TWHF. As a re-telling of the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche, this novel’s tone is pagan and mysterious. It’s set in a pre-Christian world, peopled with gods who are distant and vengeful and humans who are either fearful or bitter towards them. The narrator is a queen who puts pen to paper to prove that the gods are unjust and have ruined her life.
Don’t get me wrong—Lewis still explores biblical themes in TWHF. It’s just that these themes are subtly intertwined throughout the plot instead of elegantly dissected in a dense chapter on apologetics or easily spotted in a children’s classic. So if it’s an understated, relatively unknown and not a very easy to understand book, why spend time reading (and probably re-reading) TWHF? Though there are many more, for the sake of the length of a blog post, here are 4 reasons why it’s worth your time and a spot on your bookshelf:
4. The writing process parallels Lewis’ conversion.
Lewis had wanted to re-write the myth of Cupid and Psyche since his undergraduate years (wish I had such brilliant ideas for novels at the age of 20). He had always wanted to tell the story through the eyes of the older sister, Queen Orual, but it was only after his conversion that he changed his idea from Orual accusing the gods and being in the right to Orual accusing the gods and finding something bigger. This novel, along with God in the Dock, makes up some of Lewis’ best rebuttals to modern-day atheism.
3. It’s a great example of seeing Christ in secular culture.
Lewis’ careful rendering of this Greek myth is both sublime and redemptive. In terms of style and tone, Lewis mirrors the pre-Christian aesthetics that color the original story. However, as a man after God’s own heart, he redeems what is pagan beauty by pointing to the source of its attractiveness. Through Orual’s eyes, we see the pagan world being restored and brought into the light, as ours one day fully will: Each breath I drew let into me new terror, joy, overpowering sweetness. I was pierced through and through with the arrows of it. I was being unmade…the earth and stars and sun, all that was or will be, existed for his sake. And he was coming (TWHF 307). The entire novel is a beautiful picture of a fallen world, redeemed by Christ and waiting to be restored completely.
2. Orual’s exploration of the many forms of love.
Just as the beauty of the original myth and the beauty Orual sees before her realization are half-beauties, the love Orual expresses to every character are lesser forms of love. Whether it’s the jealous, protective love for her younger sister, Psyche, or the demanding, greedy love for her civil servants, Queen Orual never quite gets it right. Her love, just like the love of the pagan gods of her country, is destructive. It yearns not to sacrifice for another person, but to possess, control, and ultimately devour them. On first read, that kind of love may seem wild and ridiculous, but it bears many similarities to the forms of love we practice everyday. To be loved and accepted by others, we long to influence them and bring them into our own sphere of thinking. Human love is not geared towards others; it’s geared towards us. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “Human love makes an end in itself. It creates of itself an end, an idol which it worships” (Life Together, 22). Orual’s practice of false love and idol worship prompt soul-searching.
1. Psyche’s expression of human longing.
Psyche, Orual’s younger sister who marries Cupid, the mountain god, has been longing for something more fulfilling her whole life. Feeling she was made for another world, she pours out these gripping words:
It was when I was happiest that I longed most…do you remember? The color and the smell, and looking across at the Grey Mountain in the distance? And because it was so beautiful, it set me longing, always longing. Somewhere else there must be more of it. Everything seemed to be saying, Psyche come! But I couldn’t (not yet) come and I didn’t know where I was to come to. It almost hurt me. I felt like a bird in a cage when the other birds of its kind are flying home. (TWHF 74).
Her poignant longing captures, at least for me, exactly how it feels to be caught between two worlds. I am a sinner living in fallen creation, called to be in the world but not of it. I am commissioned here by Christ, but longing for the day when I can return home.
I encourage you, if you have time and are looking for an engrossing novel, to pick this up. Seize the chance to explore a different part of the C.S. Lewis canon, whether for a light read or study. You might find something convicting and enthralling between the pages.
When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. 1 Corinthians 13:11-12
For a deeper analysis of some of the major themes in this work, check out these resources:
Enlarging Augustinian systems: C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce and Till We Have Faces. By: Watson, Thomas Ramey, Renascence, 00344346, Spring94, Vol. 46, Issue 3 (via our awesome MU databases)