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Till We Have Faces
Friday Book Pick: Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold by C.S. Lewis
Seeing faces masked more often than not over these past two years has caused me to think about Orual, the veiled protagonist of the most fascinating and complex of C.S. Lewis’ novels, Till We Have Faces, today’s Book Pick and perhaps my favorite of all of C.S. Lewis’ books.
In this last of Lewis’ works of fiction (published in 1956), he retells the ancient myth of Cupid and Psyche. Lewis develops the tale into a full-length novel that he considered his finest work, describing it as “far and away my best book.”
Among other themes such as religion and reason, self-knowledge and perspective, Till We Have Faces is largely about love. C.S. Lewis develops here in story form what he will later articulate in polished prose in The Four Loves (published four years later in 1960). Lewis’ main thesis in The Four Loves is that as noble, powerful and even divine as love is, when it is made an end in itself, it becomes the opposite: good becomes bad, natural becomes unnatural, beautiful becomes hideous. This reality is depicted vividly in the relationships that comprise Orual’s life.
The relationships among the characters in this myth retold reveal both the need for love—given and received—and also the propensity we human beings have to corrupt and distort what we love the most, which is often further complicated by our inability to recognize that we are doing it!
Set in a pre-Christian period in the fictional kingdom of Glome, our protagonist Orual, is a princess of Glome who eventually becomes Queen. Orual has one sister, Redival, but no brother—to the King’s great frustration. When the Queen dies, the King soon remarries and his young new wife bears the King a child, but not the son he hoped for. To his profound disappointment a third daughter is born of the royal couple, and like pure salt in an open wound, the young Queen dies in childbirth. The newborn princess is named Istra (translated Psyche in Greek) and she is captivatingly beautiful and Orual loves her and takes the task of rearing her into her own hands. Another significant character in the story is a slave from “the Greeklands” bought by the King, whom the King calls “the Fox”, and who is charged with educating the princesses. Bardia, a solider in the King’s guard, the Priest and his successor, Arnom, constitute the most significant characters.
Part One consists of 21 chapters in the voice of Orual who narrates what seems to be an autobiography but is in fact her case against the gods. Putting her life story into words (having been taught to read and write by her tutor the Fox), Orual uses her skills to tell her tale with a primary motivation of building a case against the gods whom she blames for all the sorrow and suffering of her life—of which there is plenty. If we read the story through the lens of human love, we see her life unfold, and in it the various forms of love bud, grow, and develop for better or for worse over the course of her many years. In the first part of the book Orual is limited by seeing every relationship exclusively from her own perspective.
An important detail in the sequence of events is when Orual, still at a young age, discovers that she is physically unattractive—and significantly so. Her father, the King, decides that the princesses should be veiled for his wedding to the new Queen, and Orual knows that the ugliness of her face is the reason for the King’s decision. After this, Orual decides to make a custom of wearing a veil over her face. After a number of years go by, none are left in the kingdom or in the surrounding lands who remember what the veil hides. Many a tale is told fabricating reasons for the Queen’s veiled face; it is even rumored that she is dazzlingly beautiful beneath her mask. After the death of the King, the veil becomes a symbol of Orual’s transition into the Queen and ruler of Glome. Her true identity becomes more and more buried and hidden from even her own sight.
The second part of the book is far shorter than the first, only four chapters. Orual now begins to have her eyes open—in large part by the actual writing of the autobiographical account against the gods. The climax comes in a profound scene where Orual has her long awaited opportunity to read her complaint to the gods. Her big, important book is finally going to be read, but before Orual’s complaint against the gods can be leveled, the judge orders that she be uncovered. Her veil and her other garments are removed, and she stands barefaced and naked to read her accusations against the gods, at last. As she looks down to her long worked-on script it looks nothing like the fine book she thought she had been carrying; rather it was a “little, shabby, crumpled thing, nothing like my great book I had worked on all day, day after day…” Orual losses her nerve and her long nursed desire to read this “vile scribble—each word mean and savage,” yet she finds herself doing so nonetheless. She proceeds to read out her rambling speech retelling the grievances of her life again and again until the voice of the judge breaks through with one word: “Enough.” In the silence that follows Orual realizes what she had been doing. “Now I knew that I had been reading it over and over—perhaps a dozen times. I would have read it forever, quick as I could, starting the first word over again almost before the last was out of my mouth, if the judge had not stopped me. And the voice I read it in was strange to my ears. There was given to me a certainty that this, at last was my real voice.”
The passage continues and could be used for a fruitful meditation on our human propensity to hide our true selves even though we desperately want to be known. This scene also provides a useful image of the particular judgment that awaits us all at the end of our lives: “There was silence in the dark assembly long enough for me to have read my book out yet again. At last the judge spoke. ‘Are you answered?’ he said. ‘Yes,’ said I.”
This moment of enlightenment comes to Orual through her own words. Lewis articulates in this scene an idea dear to him as a word-smith and as a scholar, an idea he learned first as a student under the teacher he called “The Great Knock,” William Thompson Kirkpatrick who tutored Lewis between 1914-1917. Lewis uses this his last work of fiction and Orual’s lips as she quotes her beloved tutor, the Fox, to summarize the life-forming lesson he learned from his own tutor: “Lightly men talk of saying what they mean. Often when he was teaching me to write in Greek the Fox would say. ‘Child say the very thing you really mean, the whole of it, nothing more or less or other than what you really mean; that is the whole art and joy of words.’
The rest of the passage reveals, I think, something of Lewis’ life long quest to do just that: to say and write exactly what he means and within the struggle to say what one means is the struggle to be what one is, and this quest to be real is the central point of the book. “A glib saying. When the time comes 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 of 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 until we have faces?”
And so Orual’s eyes are—by the end—opened to the role she herself played in her own misery. The lordly Queen who long played victim, at least in the privacy of her own thoughts, began to see herself as she truly was and thus the real Orual could begin to immerge. The last chapters reveal an Orual being schooled in a love no longer marred by the grasping need to possess, but instead, a love that leaves the beloved free.
This is the sixth “Book Pick” in a series on the great Irish-born author C.S. Lewis.