“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?”
~ C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, (294)
Two days ago, I decided to start re-reading Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis for the second time. I had not read it since high school. Now, two days later, I have finished my re-read, and I can definitively say that this story means far more to me now then it did the first time (though I loved it even then).
Till We Have Faces is a very different story from some of Lewis’s other writings, such as The Chronicles of Narnia. While in
Narnia, it is easy to spot analogy and truth with Aslan and the vivid fight against darkness, in Faces, the meaning is perhaps more veiled. However, once unmasked and understood, I believe the truth within this story is just as great – and potentially, even greater.
I should also say, before looking in more detail at Till We Have Faces, that Lewis is my favorite writer, and if I had to choose one author who has solely impacted my life more than any other, it would certainly be him. It is, then, quite the compliment for me to say that this may be my favorite out of all his writings (and I have read them all, at least once). So, In this post, I will endeavor to explain why Till We Have Faces means so much to me – though of course, I highly recommend you also read it for yourself.
Introduction and History:
“Although the plot races through a powerful drama based on the pagan myth of Cupid and Psyche, readers must keep pace with difficult spiritual questions as the narrator navigates painful memories and grave soul-searching. Lewis thus takes a bold and unfiltered look at some of humanity’s darkest struggles: pride; doubt; anger against God; the problem of suffering; and the mysterious battle between love and selfishness in the human heart.” (Mann, 1)
To begin, I will provide a brief introduction to Till We Have Faces, as well as some of the history of its origins. This is Lewis’s final novel, published in 1956 – and it is a retelling of the story of Cupid and Pysche – from Apuleius’ Metamorphoses (or The Golden Ass), which was written in the 2nd century AD. This was a story that Lewis wanted to write ever since he was an undergraduate and studied the original myth.
Lewis said that Till We Have Faces was his favorite novel he wrote, and what he considered to be his best – and many critics agree. Not only did Lewis write an unforgettable adaptation of the tale of Cupid and Pysche, he incorporated deep philosophical and theological truths, as well as reflections from his own life. In many ways, the struggles of the character Orual reflect the struggles of Lewis himself as described in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy.
Myth to Fairy-tale
Something remarkable to me, is Lewis’s ability to transform this classical Greek myth into a story abounding with such wonder and truth. Lewis’s story, while based on the original myth and still consistent with that tone and style, becomes what I would consider more of a fairy-tale. Part of this is due to Lewis’s decision to tell the story from the perspective of Orual – Psyche’s sister, and a much more “ordinary” protagonist. As readers, we can understand Orual’s dilemmas and struggles, as she is tempted by doubt and pride, has questions about dreams and love, and hides herself under lies and veils. Lewis’s choice to use such a narrator enables us to see the story through her misconceptions and self-deceptions – what she believes to be an accurate account of her life.
Some would call the original story of Cupid and Pysche a fairy-tale as well, and it may be. I am basing my classification simply on my own definition of fairy-tale, which is informed by the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, G.K. Chesterton, George MacDonald, and C.S. Lewis himself. For more on my classification of “fairy-tale” read my post What Makes a Fairy Tale a Fairy Tale, which I wrote for the One Year Adventure Novel blog (http://oneyearnovel.com/blog/what-makes-a-fairy-tale-a-fairy-tale/). Alternatively, feel free to email me and I will send you a related excerpt from my undergraduate honors thesis, which I wrote on what I call “modern fairy-tales”.
Now that I’ve given you a bit of an introduction, I will get into the important part – here are some of the reason why I love Till We Have Faces as much as I do, expressed in what I consider to be three of the primary themes of the story:
Dreams, Reason, and Reality:
“Of the things that followed I cannot at all say whether they were what men call real or what men call dream. And for all I can tell, the only difference is that what many see we call a real thing, and what only one sees we call a dream. But things that many see may have no taste or moment in them at all, and things that are shown only to one may be spears and water-spouts of truth from the very depth of truth.” ~ C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces (277)
Till We Have Faces is full of dreams and visions, and they are used to illustrate specific points. Throughout the novel, Orual demonstrates her lack of belief in the reality of Psyche’s situation. Orual attempts to use reason to explain everything away, and she is unwilling to believe or accept her dreams or the dreams of others as true – even though in the end, her visions and dreams are shown to be more real than her previous reality and reasonable perceptions. It is Orual’s view of her life that is the “frigid personification” and “flat outline” of the truth – and the gods’ view that is true and infinite (The Problem of Pain, 45).
Reason versus imagination is a theme that permeates Till We Have Faces. The character of Fox is a representation of reason, reminiscent of the Greek philosophers, like Plato, who believed that dreams were not revealing and simply dependent on the psyche. However, Lewis depicts dreams as bearers of truth, and he shows that faith trumps reason.
Self-Knowledge, Self Deception, and Self Sacrifice
“The lesson is whether we can discern life and the divine when our hearts are impure, when our faces are blurred with our own desires. Orual discovers that until we find sincerity and clarity—until we have faces—we will never know the truth.” (Straza, 1)
From the beginning, Orual constantly deceives herself – for instance, when she uses reason to determine that Psyche must either be insane or a liar, even though she knows inwardly that she is neither of those things. Orual’s self deception continues, as she loses her true self and instead becomes the Queen. Orual’s knowledge of herself is distorted – just as her love for Psyche is distorted – by her own self deception.
Lewis uses the rest of the story to show Orual’s transformation as she discovers her true self. In the end, Oural is not only shown who she truly is, but she is shown that she can only become her true self by giving herself up. It is in the self-giving and renouncing of herself, now recognized, that she becomes herself and finds true joy. It is only when Orual confronts her true self – by removing her veil – that she is able to encounter God face to face. And it is only at this point, that Orual is able to form a true relationship with God, herself, and others.
“I become my own only when I give myself to Another” ~ C.S. Lewis, Letters Vol III (348)
Transformation of Love
Finally, one of the primary themes of Till We Have Faces is the transformation of love – from a false, possessive love to a true, selfless love. The story contrasts a love which takes with one that gives – one which is only seeking personal happiness versus one which is desiring the other person’s happiness.
Orual’s love throughout the story – to Psyche, to the Fox, to Bardia – is a possessive and a selfish love. Orual speaks many times of how Psyche was hers, and of what she wants from her and others – it is never about Psyche’s own happiness. Psyche even remarks to Orual:
“You are indeed teaching me about kinds of love I did not know. It is like looking into a deep pit. I am not sure whether I like your kind of love better than hatred. Oh, Orual – to take my love for you… and
then to make of it a tool, a weapon, a thing of policy and mastery, an
instrument of torture – I begin to think I never knew you” (165).
Originally, before his salvation, Lewis planned to write this story with Orual in the right and the gods in the wrong. Even in this finished story, it is easy to see how justified false love can seem – even to the point where it feels noble and right. It is only when Orual finally experiences true love that she realizes how utterly short her own attempts at love – her selfish love – actually were.
Finally, at the end of the story and after she experiences selfless love, Orual bows down at Psyche’s feet and says, “never again will I call you mine, but all there is of me shall be yours (305).” And thus, Orual is transformed.
In the end, Orual sees her life from the perspective of the gods – and she realizes how wrong she was in her limited vision and perspective. She realizes that her misfortunes were not the fault of the gods, but of her own fault.
Until we accept the face God has made for us all along, we do not have one. When we try to make a face for ourselves, it will only result in torment, self-deception, and false love. The only way to become who we are meant to be is to first see ourselves clearly, in all of our inadequacy, imperfections, and ugliness. It is only then that God gives us a new face – our true face – and thus we become what we were always meant to be: Truly beautiful, fully loved, and wholly His.
“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. What other answer would suffice? Only words, words; to be led out to battle against other words” (308).
Finally, here is a link to a PDF of Tell We Have Faces, for anyone who wants to read it but might not have a copy or a library handy. This link also includes an additional note by Lewis which gives more detail on the original story of Cupid and Psyche:
If you do choose to read it, I hope you enjoy, and I’d love to hear your thoughts! Few things make me happier than discussing my favorite stories – especially stories of this depth – with friends.
- Enright, Nancy, (2011). C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faves and the Transformation of Love, Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought &Culture, 14(4), 92-115.
- Jebb, Sharon, (2011). I Lived and Knew Myself: Self-Knowledge in Till We Have Faces, Renascence, 63.2, 111-129.
- Lewis, C. S. (1960). The Four Loves. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Co.
- Lewis, C. S. (2001). The Problem of Pain. New York, NY: HarperOne.
- Lewis, C.S., (1956). Till We Have Faces. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Co.
- Lucchi, Addison, (2015). What Makes a Fairy-Tale a Fairy-Tale?, One Year Adventure Novel Blog. Retrieved from: http://oneyearnovel.com/blog/what-makes-a-fairy-tale-a-fairy-tale/
- Mann, Lauren Enk, (2015). Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis. Retrieved from: http://www.crisismagazine.com/2015/till-we-have-faces-by-c-s-lewis
- Schakel, Peter, (2003). Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold, The Literary Encyclopedia, 1-3.
- Smith, Constance Babington (1964), Letters to a Sister from Rose Macaulay, 261.
- Straza, Erin, (2013). Celebrating C.S. Lewis: ‘Till We Have Faces’, Christ and Popculture. Accessed from: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/christandpopculture/2013/11/celebrating-c-s-lewis-till-we-have-faces
- Wagner, Erin K (2014). Divine Surgeons at Work: the Presence and Purpose of the Dream Vision in Till We Have Faces, Mythlore, 32(2), 15-31.