I knew Till We Have Faces would be good. After all, everything CS Lewis writes is pure prosaic and philosophical genius. But I didn’t anticipate the affects of its goodness.
This one was one of those books where, after I finished, I sat in awe, not capable of anything more. Even two weeks after picking up another book I still find myself pondering certain passages while driving, at the grocery store, or when bored in class.
So what about it made it such a deeply thought provoking, heart stirring book?
CS Lewis was a story teller. His great love for myths and the questions they attempt to answer gleams through Till We Have Faces. Unlike Lewis’s other works of fiction (Narnia, The Space Trilogy), this book is based on a Greek (or rather Roman, but we won’t get into technicalities) myth. Here Lewis rewrites the rather lusterless, simplistic myth of Cupid and Psyche and infuses it with vibrant meaning.
Rather than telling the fable through its original heroine, Psyche, Lewis narrates through her older, more cynical, and far less beautiful sister Orual.
As I was reading some others’ observations on the allegory, I realized how deliberate Lewis’s choice of narrating the novel in first person truly was. Orual, unlike the wise, all knowing, third person narrator of The Chronicles of Narnia, is unreliable. Her opinions and observations are subject to scrutiny and it is up to the reader to decide whether her conclusions are correct.
That choice alone makes the allegory a brilliant feat.
(Honestly how was Lewis such a genius? I wish I had half his mind. Or even a quarter.)
Oral, as she tells her reader at the beginning of the story, is writing her accusation against the gods, whom she charges as illusive, destructive, unfeeling beings. They do not leave man alone, she argues, and yet they will not reveal themselves as they truly are.
This charge she bases on the experiences which shaped her life – her love for her ethereally beautiful younger sister Psyche, the ugliness which characterizes her face, her tutor’s atheistic interpretations of the stories of the gods, her father’s cruelty, the dark, mysterious worship of the goddess Ungit that the people of Glome practice, and (perhaps most important as it acts as the catalyst to the stories themes) the sacrifice that the gods demand of Psyche.
In this retelling of a myth where the gods ask much of man but do not reveal their faces (or do they?), Lewis develops themes of love, the tension between what can be reasoned and what cannot, sacrifice, truly knowing oneself, the relationship between man and the divine, and truth.
The book opens with the saying “Love is too young to know what conscience is,” thus setting the stage for one of the book’s greatest themes. Oral herself does not understand love, and as she does not understand the gods how can she comprehend genuine love?
She prides herself on her ability to reason and protect her stunning but “uncomprehending” little sister. However, she does not realize that there are things that she herself cannot reason through. It is only when she comes face to face with that which she cannot make sense of with mortal logic that her confidence (or is it confidence?) is shaken.
Till We Have Faces examines the relationship between love that transcends and love that devours (as personified in the symbol of Ungit, who also represents Aphrodite), knowing oneself, knowing the true faces of the gods, justice, and beauty and ugliness.
Woven into those themes is the greatest theme of the book – the exploration of the lies we tell ourselves in order to make sense out of that which does not make sense.
“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 the joy of 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?”
Ultimately, this book really encouraged me to examine myself and what I believed true, not only of me, but of God also. What falsehoods do I tell myself? Is the love I have for those around me and for God, as selfish sort of love, or genuine love? Do I truly know who I am?
(I hate boxing books into questions to ask yourself. Yes, this book caused me to ask myself these questions. But it’s more than a series of things to ask yourself. Search through the book yourself, because it was the themes that brought me to those questions. If the they bring you to the same questions, great, but a book is more than my objective opinion on it. Remember, first person narrators are often unreliable, if you catch my drift.)
All that being said, I barely scraped the surface of the depth and breadth of Till We Have Faces. I’ll make no false pretenses by calling it a light or easy read, but this is a book that transcends the intellectual stigma people lay on it. It is challenging, both intellectually, spiritually, and personally (perhaps especially personally) but the impact it leaves on you is absolutely worth it.