C.S. Lewis Till We Have Faces: A Review

I am a great fan of C.S. Lewis’ writings, especially his fiction. He is always a humorous, perceptive and quirky writer; but, I like best the multiple layers of meaning in the Narnia series and in The Great Divorce: I can read those works again and again and always discover new theological perspectives wrapped in the gauze of metaphor. Till We Have Faces is billed by some Lewis fans as the deepest and most mature of his novels; indeed, Tolkein and Lewis himself both though this to be his best work. Therefore, I have wanted to read it for some time. I finally got a copy for Christmas this year, and have just managed to take a little break from phd work and do some non-work related reading.

Till We Have Faces is Lewis’ retelling of the Classical myth of Psyche and Cupid. In the Classical myth, the Greek god Cupid falls in love with a mortal girl of captivating beauty, called Psyche; but, her lover will not allow her to see his face. Her envious sisters persuade her to defy Cupid and look at his face, with terrible results. Lewis writes the tale rather differently. Psyche’s sister Orual’s motives and character are presented as far more complex. In Lewis’ novel, also, the focal point of the story is Orual not Psyche: it is much more a story about Orual and the gods than about Cupid and Psyche. In the myth, Psyche’s sisters are beautiful, but jealous of their more beautiful sister; their ultimate fate for their envious meddling is death. In contrast, Lewis portrays Orual as hideously ugly, and captivated by (rather than jealous of) Psyche’s beauty. Orual’s fate, in Lewis’ novel, is not death, but rather years of sufferings that partially mirrors Psyche’s sufferings.

Honestly, I can’t yet say this ranks among my favourite C.S. Lewis books. I think perhaps, though, it is the kind of book that works best on re-reading. The last few chapters turn the novel upside down, as they re-interpret the preceding events. In a nutshell, the narrator has previously not seen things correctly. Now, I’m not convinced by the great reveal. It’s a clever twist, which I didn’t quite see coming (though I should have, considering Lewis’ layers of meaning, and his theological perspectives, in his other works), but I’m not quite convinced that the narrator’s sudden ‘illumination’ fits well onto her previous perception of the events around her. It seems to me that, judging by her previous narration, her cynicism was not unjustified, and that her motives were in fact, overall, good (and what more can be expected of one than good motives?). Of course, it could be said that her narration is untruthful and that she misunderstood herself, and I think this is the point Lewis is making, but somehow I don’t quite like that. It’s like watching a Poirot case without getting any clues – just being told at the end who the murderer is. I think the idea of an untrustworthy narrator is a fascinating one, and much more interesting than the usual infallible narrator; but, I think the reader needs to be given evidence throughout that the narrator’s perception is flawed, so that the reader can form their own impression of the ‘reality’. Otherwise, there’s not enough intellectual engagement permitted for the twist to be satisfying, at least for me. In my view, C.S. Lewis does not quite pull this off here. In contrast, he does use a fallible narrator to great effect in The Great Divorce, where gradually the narrator’s misconceptions are peeled away to reveal a different reality. Perhaps, it is partly the gradual shift in perspective, as opposed to the sudden reveal in Till We Have Faces, that makes The Great Divorce a more convincing and satisfying read for me.

That said, I think a chief strand of the cleverness of this work is lost on modern audiences, including me. Lewis, Tolkein, and much of Lewis’ original audience would be familiar with Classical literature. They had studied Classical Greek and Latin at school, and would know the myth of Psyche and Cupid. I suspect that part of the appeal of this work is supposed to be Lewis’ rewriting (in two different ways, considering the book’s twist at the end) of the myth. Sadly, Classical literature is scarcely taught in modern schools, and so the contemporary reader misses Lewis’ play on what is supposed to be a familiar tale.

My overall perspective is one of uncertainty: I’m just not sure yet how much I like this book. I want to read the work again, from the angle Lewis presents at the end, and see if suddenly I can find deeper layers of theological reflection throughout that I had not quite seen the first time. (Not that I am claiming that there is no theology that is immediately apparent.) And I suppose, perhaps, that is a plus point for the book: surely any work that makes you want to read it again has, in some sense, succeeded?