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Till We Have Faces (thoughts)

June 4, 2010

I scheduled my post on Josephine Tey’s The Man in the Queue to publish yesterday morning, but WordPress in its infinite wisdom decided to make it disappear instead. Probably a good thing in the end, since it had a bit of a Negative Nelly feel to it. But I do apologise to any Classics Circuit readers who made their way over yesterday and were disappointed!

Narrowly beating out Talking About Detective Fiction and Dracula, C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces stirred up the most interest amongst all of you readers…and I must say, when I finished the book, the first thing I thought was “I shall definitely be rereading this someday soon.” It’s that type of book. :)

I’ve been meaning to read this book for years, after adoring The Chronicles of Narnia in my youth (except for The Last Battle, if I’m being perfectly honest I only read it once versus who knows how many rereadings of the rest of the series!) and reading The Screwtape Letters several times at the request of various Christian friends in high school and college. Then, when I was putting together my selections for the Once Upon a Time Challenge, I realised it would be perfect for the mythology category!

Why have I wanted to read this book for so long? Well, the story of Psyche and Cupid is one of my very favourite myths, and as someone who seriously considered majoring in religious studies, I’ve read my fair share of myths. I’m not sure I could put my finger on precisely why I love the story so much, other than how deeply it resonates with me. :) In fact, when I had to write a rondel for my Beginning Poetry Writing college class (which I only took because I needed an art credit and my drawing skills are worse than my poetry ones), I turned to it and was quite pleased with the results (no, you may not see them, because I lost this poem and the only other one from the class I was proud of in the Great Computer Crash of ’06). I believe I’m rambling. Anyway, so while I was predisposed to Lewis’ imagination and writing style, I was also a bit concerned since his Christian viewpoints are the polar opposite of my own. Would he take my beloved myth and flatten it out to some kind of Christ metaphor? Or just spend the book railing against pagans worshipping untrue gods?

Fortunately, Lewis didn’t fall into those traps, and Till We Have Faces was a delicious treat of a read. We hear the story through Orual’s voice, Psyche’s ugly elder sister. The novel is divided into two distinct books. The first, and longer one, is written by Orual as a complaint against the gods for their trickery in bringing Psyche to grief. Since Orual adores Pysche, this in turn has brought her to grief and regardless of her other successes in life (she becomes a well-respected queen), Orual can find no joy while knowing that Psyche’s life was ruined by her own hand. From the opening passage, I was drawn into the story:

I am old now and have not much to fear from the anger of gods. I have no husband nor child, nor hardly a friend, through whom they can hurt me. My body, lean carrion that still has to be washed and fed and have clothes hung about it daily with so many changes, they may kill as soon as they please. The succession is provided for. My crown passes to my nephew.

Lewis did a marvelous job of fleshing out the myth, with human-feeling characters and the occasional appearance of a god appropriately mysterious and humbling. He also moved the setting from Greece to an unnamed more ‘barbaric’ land, but kept the Hellenic influence through the character of the Fox. He was my favourite minor character in the book; the girls’ tutor (remember, they’re princesses) and slave to their father. He was probably partly my favourite because I saw him through Orual’s eyes, and she adored him. But I always enjoy a good Socratic-style character in a book, as long as he’s not too obviously the author’s mouthpiece, and Fox never feels like Lewis’ tool but a full-blown character. Also, while I obviously knew what would happen before reading the book, I loved the clever twists Lewis adds, especially his explanation of why Orual told Psyche to raise the lamp to look upon her husband. Bravo Lewis! The second, shorter book is an addendum added by an even older Orual after she’s had a series of mystic dreams and experiences that make her see the whole story in a different light. I thought this was weaker…Lewis succumbs more to his desire to lecture, although he still gets away with it in Orual’s ‘older, wiser woman’ voice. Still, there are some marvelous scenes, particularly the one towards the end that blurs the line between gods and humans (I’m trying to be ambiguous for those who haven’t read it). And the book on the whole gave me so much food for thought on the nature of love, deity, stories, etc.

I’m already nearing a thousand words, and I’ve barely scratched the surface! While Mr. Lewis and I disagree on many things (the best way to approach Christianity, the role women ought to play in society, etc.), I loved the way I was both swept up in the story of and caught up in intellectual tussles all at once. That’s a rare thing in a book, and it makes me want to acquire my own copy of Till We Have Faces for my permanent collection. At then end of the day, Lewis did the myth justice, and I highly encourage anyone who has the slightest glimmer of interest in religion to pick this one up.

41 Comments leave one →
  1. June 4, 2010 3:01 am

    I am a passionate Lewis fan, and I read Til We Have Faces two years ago for Carl’s OUAT Challenge…sadly, I didn’t glean as much from it as you did. Apparently, I needed to be more familiar with Cupid and Psyche, or have more background knowledge in something besides Christianity, for this one.

    I love Lewis’ insights on faith, but after I finished this novel of his I was left wondering how much I grasped of his story. Clearly, not as much as you!

    • June 4, 2010 11:48 pm

      That’s interesting…perhaps my extensive comparative mythology reading helped me enjoy the book more than I realised! Which Lewis is your favourite?

  2. June 4, 2010 4:34 am

    I’ll have to read Til We Have Faces, but I’m not sure it will work for me. I keep meeting young women that are passionate about this book, but will it mean anything to an old guy nearing sixty who is not a Christian? But since you are already promising to reread this book and add it to your permanent collection, it’s hard not to want to try it.

    • June 4, 2010 11:49 pm

      Well, I’m not Christian, if that helps. :) I don’t know how much relevence gender or age would have towards the novel, but I think you could appreciate it!

  3. June 4, 2010 7:48 am

    Somehow I never read any of the Narnia books when I was a child. A few years ago I bought the whole series, but am yet to read it. Too many books, too long a TBR-list, you know! :) Till We Have Faces sounds very interesting. I will lengthen my TBR-list a bit further with it.


    • June 4, 2010 11:49 pm

      I bet they won’t be quite as magical for you since you’re reading them as an adult. :) I received the series for Christmas when I was 9 and read all of the books in 2 non-stop days. I just devoured them! :D

  4. June 4, 2010 7:57 am

    I never delved any deeper into Lewis’ corpus than the Narnia books, but this a strong inducement to do so.

    • June 4, 2010 11:50 pm

      I find his grown-up stuff quite interesting. :)

  5. June 4, 2010 8:41 am

    Ohhhh, I love this one. Everyone says Lewis can’t be subtle because The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is so literal, but I feel like Faces is less of a blunt stick.

  6. June 4, 2010 9:34 am

    I highly recommend Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book. It is a mix of autobiography, biography of C.S. Lewis and literary criticism. Like you, she loved the Narnia Chronicles as a child, but she began to quarrel with them when she learned about the Christian subtext.

    My discussion of Miller’s book is here:

    there is also a great radio interview with her here:

  7. June 4, 2010 10:30 am

    I just read Jenny & Teresa’s super thoughtful review of this book over at Shelf Love! It sounds fascinating, but I have to admit that I’m a little bit gunshy about Lewis, as a non-Christian who strongly dislikes being evangelized to. I felt so betrayed by Narnia as a kid! That said, it sounds like there’s a lot to love here. Will add it to my list of tentative future reads. :-)

    • June 4, 2010 11:51 pm

      I know; Jenny & Teresa put me to shame. I’m a non-Christian who’s not a huge fan of being lectured either, and this DEFINITELY doesn’t have the same tone as Screwtape Letters. It’s obviously a book about faith, but I don’t think Christianity is front and center in it.

  8. June 4, 2010 12:05 pm

    YAY! So few people I run into online or in “real life” have read this, and I love it. I scarfed it down in my early 20s and am anxious to re-read it again and see what I take from it this time. Cupid and Psyche is one of my favorite myths as well, and Lewis did a great job with it.

  9. June 4, 2010 12:14 pm

    Thanks for the great review. I’ve been wanting to read this one for years. I love most of Lewis’ work but have somehow never gotten around to this one. I’ll have to bump it up the TBR.

    • June 4, 2010 11:51 pm

      Thanks Melissa! This makes curious to read more of Lewis’ works, even though I’m not a Christian. :)

  10. June 4, 2010 12:49 pm

    Oh, how I loved this book! Your review made me want to pull it out again and enjoy its richness.

    • June 4, 2010 11:52 pm

      Isn’t it one of those you can just dive into?!

  11. June 4, 2010 1:50 pm

    I read this when I was younger. It didn’t work for me though I knew the myth. I think I need to revisit this story!

    • June 4, 2010 11:53 pm

      That’s too bad! I hope if you reread it you enjoy it more. :)

  12. June 4, 2010 2:42 pm

    So happy that you enjoyed my favorite of Lewis’s books. I’ve read it three or four times and discover new depths every time. I totally agree with you about the multi-dimensional characterization of the Fox. The well-drawn characters are among my favorite things about the books.

    His Space Trilogy is also quite good, although I find it slightly more didactic (somewhere between this and the Narnia books, I’d say).

    • June 4, 2010 11:55 pm

      I haven’t even heard of the Space Trilogy books before! Off to find out what they’re about. :) And I’m happy I enjoyed it so much too!

  13. June 4, 2010 4:18 pm

    I’ve had several people recommend this book to me. Your review has in fact convinced me that I will read it in the future.

  14. June 4, 2010 5:36 pm

    I always felt bad for the girls in those stories where they aren’t supposed to look at their husbands. I mean, who could help it? I am glad Lewis renders the story well, though – I love retellings of myths and fairy tales, but sometimes the authors provide rather thin explanations to cover fairy tale logic.

    • June 5, 2010 12:02 am

      It’s true! Irresistable temptation is just not fair! ;)

  15. June 4, 2010 8:04 pm

    I looked at Lewis’ book while at the library. I will have to read it now. Thanks

  16. June 5, 2010 6:19 am

    Fabulous writeup. I read this one years ago and I realized while reading your thoughts that I don’t really remember it very well. This would make for a good reread.

    • June 6, 2010 1:35 am

      Thanks! I hope if you reread it, you do a post on it. :) I think it would be a great book club read too; so much to talk about!

  17. June 5, 2010 9:53 am

    Thanks Eva for this beautiful review! I have ‘Till we have faces’ on my ‘TBR’ list. I have to go the bookstore now and get it and read it soon. I am glad that C.S.Lewis didn’t try to use the narrator to talk about his own religious beliefs but sticks to the original story fleshed out in his inimitable way. Looking forward to read it.

    • June 6, 2010 1:35 am

      Awww; thanks Vishy. :) I’m glad Lewis didn’t get too caught up in proselytising too!

  18. June 5, 2010 7:43 pm

    I’m definitely a Lewis fan. Thanks for the review; I’m looking forward to picking this one up!

    • June 6, 2010 1:36 am

      I hope you enjoy it! Apparently, it’s got a different feel than most of his fiction. :)

  19. June 6, 2010 7:00 pm

    I read this just before I started blogging and I’m sorry to say I don’t recall much; it didn’t do much for me. I remember liking it but I don’t even recall the myth it’s based on.

    I started reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to my son this week, though! That makes me happy!

    • June 8, 2010 8:20 am

      That’s too bad, but if you weren’t acquinated with the myth ahead of time it might not have been as meaningful. I hope your son loves Narnia! :D

  20. June 8, 2010 5:17 pm

    Another amazing sounding book! I’m adding so many things to my TBR list from your recommendations today! I’ve never read the Narnia series, I was never really introduced to them as a child and as an adult I just haven’t really been too interested. This one sounds great though, I’m glad Lewis didn’t fall into any of the traps you were talking about.

  21. Michelle permalink
    May 31, 2011 3:09 pm

    I read this book for the first time about 5 or 6 years ago. I could not put it down. Honestly I was disappointed after getting to the end. However, after reading it a second time I fell in love with the book. I now consider it my favorite. Since then I have read it several more times. It just gets better the more you read it.


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  2. Book Review No.18 – Till We Have Faces by C.S.Lewis « Vishy’s Blog

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