Till We Have Faces

Till We Have FacesPardon the delay in posting. I’ve been happily distracted by a visit from my baby sister and her hubby, as well as a great weekend in DC—our annual October Smithsonian excursion—with Mike and Rachel (both Brandon and Rachel have posted on the trip).

But now, back to the books! Last week Book Club B discussed C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces. This volume has been on my reading list since college (that’s a long time, considering I just received an invitation to my 10th reunion—feeling old) but I never got to it until Em recommended it for book club.

Lewis retells the myth of Cupid and Psyche, from the point of view of Psyche’s older sister Orual, a princess of the barbarian land of Glome. When Psyche is sacrificed by her father the king to appease the gods, Orual decides that the gods are petty and cruel and takes up a complaint against them that shapes the course of her life and her kingdom.

This is one of those books you have to read a couple times to fully appreciate it, and our group agreed we could only scratch the surface. One of the major themes we discussed is our incompleteness in this age. Like the ancient near-eastern patriarch Job, Orual suffers and formally takes up her complaint against the gods, but soon realizes that as a mortal, she does not have enough information to justify her complaint: “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?” (This idea is symbolized throughout the story by Orual’s wearing of a veil to hide her ugliness.) Her response is also reminiscent of Paul’s words in his first letter to the Corinthians about seeing “through a glass darkly, but then we shall see face to face.”

Later, when Orual in turn faces the gods as her judges, the Fox tells her, “Be sure that, whatever else you get, you will not get justice.” Orual asks, “Are the gods not just?” The fox replies: “Oh, no, child. What would become of us if they were? But come and see.” Mercy is far better than justice.

A few questions we explored but didn’t necessarily answer to our satisfaction were:

Does Orual see Cupid’s castle in the valley and just refuse to acknowledge its reality? Or was it a figment of her imagination?

At the end, Orual declares that she is Ungit (the goddess). In what way is she Ungit?

Orual is physically and verbally abused by her father because of her unattractive looks, and on more than one occasion is told it’s a pity she wasn’t born a man. She ventures into a man’s world (and succeeds) when she becomes a warrior and a queen. Is Lewis aware of, and deliberately contributing to, discussions of gender roles, identity, and personhood?

Is the book typical Lewis (in terms of style and themes) or does it stand out as an unusual piece in his repertoire?

28. October 2006 by Mindy
Categories: Reviews | 2 comments

Comments (2)

  1. What an amazing, challenging read this is! Your book group raised some interesting questions. Wish that I could have been a fly on the wall or better yet a participant in a chair (on the floor?). I certainly agree with your assertion that one reading is not enough. Like all good literature, this one rewards rereading, but then Lewis never disappoints. Forgive me, I gush. Another area explored in this novel that I have encountered elsewhere in Lewis’ work is the question of the nature of love. He asks us to consider that what we want to call love is often actually a self-serving aberration that bears no resemblance to the biblical reality. This title is reportedly one of Lewis’ favorites, and while it hasn’t displaced The Great Divorce or Perelandra from the top of my list, it is growing on me! Perhaps like Orual, I just don’t like having to face myself.

  2. Perceptive comments, Terry. Your take on our marred understanding of love adds another layer of depth to the themes of identity and meaning we discussed. I do want to read more Lewis one of these days!