T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock speaks heavily into our contemporary souls of “time to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.”
Who are we, really, aside from our curated Instagram personas, our virtue signals and our self-justifications? What is the truth we hide even from ourselves?
In Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold C.S. Lewis offers a tale that slips by stealth beneath those masks and releases us into the slow liberation of becoming our true selves.
Lewis takes an imaginative risk in his masterful retelling of the classic Cupid and Psyche myth. His narrator is not the innocent Psyche, the beloved of Eros himself, but a character of Lewis’ own creation: Psyche’s older sister Orual, who addresses us by announcing that she’s come to lay out her case against the gods.
Orual is a compelling narrator: a strong female utterly convinced of the injustice done to her. She will have us hear her story: a story of her love for Psyche and the trickery of the god who wished to have her youngest sister as his bride.
If you’ve ever felt disappointed in a love of any kind, betrayed in your expectations about what should have been or doubted God’s goodness in the hardships of it all, you’ll understand Orual as she tells us her story.
Like each of us, Orual is wounded.
Her case against the gods begins with the fact that she was born ugly, a wound which aids her in despising Redival, her beautiful second sister.
Orual is wounded, too, by her abusive father, Glome’s king, who forces Orual before a mirror to confront her ugliness as evidence that the gods would never choose her as they have chosen Psyche, the youngest and purest of the three sisters, for sacrifice.
And now Psyche, her dearest love, has been sacrificed to restore Glome’s prosperity, withered by famine.
So yes, we agree, Orual does have a case against the gods.
“Why must holy places be dark places?” Orual complains. Why don’t the gods make themselves more obvious and explainable?
Substitute “God” for “the gods” and we see that these questions plague us now as they did in the times of the ancients, whom Lewis the scholar knew well. In this his final book, he’s at the height of his imaginative and intellectual powers. Yet everything he wants to say is delivered through a myth rather than a polemic.
Till We Have Faces seamlessly unfolds in ancient Greece. Lewis isn’t writing allegory (as in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) and we may ponder this story’s multi-layered world through many readings (this conversation with Andrew Lazo shows why).
We won’t be overtly directed to a point, but if we’re attentive, we just might see.
The force of Orual’s personality holds us so spellbound that we are well into her narrative before we even notice clues suggesting all may not be quite as she is telling it.
Perhaps the the gods held an invitation for Orual, too, that she has refused, causing tortuous sorrow both to Psyche and to herself.
Perhaps, through all the darkness we endure in this “valley of tears,” God is giving us glimpses of glory.
But to see them, we must face the truth about ourselves.
When Orual climbs the Grey Mountain to gather Psyche’s remains, the plot takes an unexpected turn. She hears a sweet invitation as its natural beauties surround her:
Why should your heart not dance?
When she reaches her destination, it turns out that Psyche has not been sacrificed after all, but has been married to the god! The innocent youngest sister comes to meet Orual, more lovely than ever, and giddy to invite Orual to her palace.
Orual doesn’t see it.
The god won’t let her see his face?
He must either be wicked or Psyche is imagining things.
Orual begs Psyche to leave the love who now delights her and return home to their old way of life in Glome.
But Psyche pleads with her sister to listen.
She’s in love with her husband and wants to share her new life with Orual, whom she also loves. Orual is included if she will come.
Orual cannot see the delights that are obvious to the new bride.
Or can she? Leaving the mountain without Psyche, Orual does glimpse the palace.
This she keeps to herself, hoping the Fox, the Greek tutor who denies the supernatural, can offer reasons to maintain her insistence that all cannot be as Psyche claims it is.
Orual’s demands remind us of our own denials and grievances. When confronted with evidence of things we can’t (won’t?) accept, we feign blindness; we throw out objections until something seems to stick. Every honest soul must admit to having done it.
.Psyche’s refusal to return to Glome when Orual comes to her a second time leads to such an unfortunate act that I must not spoil it for you.
Till We Have Faces is gradually revealed to be a soul story; one which holds layers of truth about ourselves.
After reading this book twice (my first time was some 20 years ago), I can feel Lewis’ invitation to let this book unveil my face through multiple readings in the years to come as I learn to tell myself the truth rather than insist that my masks are my real self and my polished version of my life is the whole truth.
“Ours is an age of deteriorating faces, largely because we have lost sight of the face of God disclosed in Jesus Christ,” Ralph Wood writes in Literature and Theology.
In Till We Have Faces, C.S. Lewis has given splendid fictional embodiment to this most astonishing answer to the problem of evil and doubt. It is we ourselves who, in our evil acts, should be doubted as having any right to be called human. Yet God will not countenance our disfigured countenances, even though we flee into the hellish depths of our own ugliness. God is determined to make us beautiful, in order that we might behold him face to face, but also that we might behold all the other saints who have thus acquired their transfigured faces, so that together we might share the blessed and eternal life.
God’s love for us is shown to be nothing less than an invitation to share his divine life.
In this the finest of Lewis’ fiction, we recognize themes in our other Lewis favorites, especially The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Last Battle and The Great Divorce.
We feel the compassionate call Lewis offered in his letters to the young Sheldon Vanauken, preserved in A Severe Mercy, the book that launched my Lewis-love and is still one of my favorite books after a lifetime of reading.
And we hear echoes of truths Lewis explicated in his nonfiction, especially in the final chapters of Mere Christianity and in The Weight of Glory.
“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses,” Lewis writes in that wonderful sermon, “to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.”
Till We Have Faces is an invitation to a glorious destiny, offered in a promise given in the first letter of John:
We shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.
This book is a slow examination of conscience and an opportunity to recognize the truth it reveals.
“How can [the gods] meet us face to face till we have faces?” Orual asks.
Seeing ourselves beneath Orual’s veiled face, we can begin becoming who we were always meant to be.
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You might also enjoy Screwtape’s Diabolical Tips for Advancing in Pride: Be Smug, Superior and Politically Divisive.
How did I not know about this podcast?? Pints with Jack, already in its fourth season, is a feast for Lewis lovers, and its third season was devoted to Till We Have Faces! These conversations are the perfect companion to the book, with quick summaries of each section and interviews with experts along the way. I could binge on this podcast forever and not catch up but I’m trying. This season they discussed The Screwtape Letters and every year they discuss one of the Chronicles of Narnia and interview experts on other members of the Inklings as well. Cheers!
I had a delightful time reading Till We Have Faces along with fellow Word on Fire Institute book club members, led by Haley Stewart, whose work I’ve been following for years, and to whom I owe the discovery of Ralph Woods’ Literature and Theology, among many other gems.
Photo by Ria Alfana on Unsplash.