Till We Have Faces in a Nutshell

C.S. Lewis called Till We Have Faces “my best book” and “far and away the best I have written.” He said it was the “favourite of all my books.”

Some of the works selected for this series might appear somewhat idiosyncratic or even quixotic. Little-known works have rarely but occasionally been included, and better-known works have been excluded. Whenever a relatively obscure title has been selected, a rational justification has been offered for its inclusion. As for the exclusion of better-known books, this is simply unavoidable. This series would need to include hundreds of these “nutshell” nuggets for sins of omission to be avoided. 

The preceding preamble serves as a preliminary defense of the inclusion of a work by C.S. Lewis that is neither the best known or most read of his multifarious works. Its inclusion is the consequence of a process of elimination. As this is a series on literature, Lewis’ many works of nonfiction do not really qualify. 

Any of the books in the Narnia series warrant inclusion but none to the exclusion of the others. Since it would be disproportionate to have seven separate “nutshells” on each of the books, and since children’s books, with the exception of The Hobbit, have not been included, it seemed best to consider other titles instead. The same logic applies to the Space Trilogy. Any and all of these books warrant inclusion but none to the exclusion of the others. 

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This process of elimination having been followed, we are left with a mere handful of titles from which to choose. Of those that remain, Till We Have Faces is indubitably the best. And this is not just the considered opinion of the present author; it is also the considered opinion of C.S. Lewis himself. He called it “much my best book” and “far and away the best I have written.” It was also the “favourite of all my books.” Since the great man himself considered it both his best and his favorite, no further justification for its inclusion instead of his many other great works need be given.

The foregoing having been said, it must also be admitted that it is the most difficult of Lewis’ books to understand and, in consequence, is not the most popular. The first difficulty is that it is a retelling of the ancient myth of Cupid and Psyche. It is helpful, therefore, though certainly not necessary, for readers to have some knowledge of the inspirational source that fired Lewis’ imagination when writing Till We Have Faces, which is subtitled “A Myth Retold.” 

In essence, the story focuses on the estrangement between friends or family members following religious conversion. Orual deeply loves her younger half-sister Psyche, and the two develop a close bond in childhood. Orual is disturbed and then angered when Psyche claims to be living in happy marriage with a god after she had been “sacrificed” to him in a religious ritual. Although Psyche clearly believes that she is in a beautiful palace, it is invisible to Orual who can see nothing but barren countryside. 

As with the religious convert, Psyche now sees reality very differently from her sister, who is unable to see that which is inaccessible to the nonbeliever. What makes matters worse is Orual’s obsessive and possessive love for Psyche. She resents Psyche’s happiness because it has placed a barrier between them. She blames the gods for taking Psyche from her. 

She is so full of anger that she refuses to acknowledge the existence of Psyche’s palace even when granted a glimpse of it. She explains the vision away. Orual’s anger turns to hatred of the gods and of Psyche. (Those wishing a deeper understanding of the destructiveness of possessive love should read Till We Have Faces in conjunction with those parts of Lewis’ The Great Divorce which deal with the domineering self-centered wife and the domineering self-centered mother whose possessiveness prevents them from willing the good of the beloved.)    

Another facet of Till We Have Faces is the tension between “reason” and “religion” as made manifest in the disagreements between a character called the Fox, a Greek slave steeped in the philosophy of his homeland, and the Priest of Ungit, a pagan priest steeped in the rites and traditions of his religion. The Fox is skeptical of all religious claims that transcend his philosophical rationalism; the Priest is skeptical of philosophy because of the limitations it seems to place on numinous or transcendent truth. This dynamic tension creates a dialectic between faith and reason which highlights the dangers of the divorce of one from the other.

One reason that Till We Have Faces is less popular than many of Lewis’ other books is that it is harder to understand. It is Lewis at his least didactic and most literary. The meaning does not float on the surface or near the surface, as with many of his other works, but is submerged and subsumed in the story itself. Lewis is not preaching, nor is he teaching. He is simply telling a story, or retelling an old story, in his own inimitable way. 

Paradoxically, Till We Have Faces is a work about masks which wears a mask itself. This is evident in its very title, which many have found confusing. It is taken from the words of Orual, who had shielded herself from reality and from life, and from god and neighbor, by the wearing of masks, placing a barrier between herself and others. 

In the final chapter, in a moment of epiphany, she says the following: “How can they [the gods] meet us face to face till we have faces?” This is the question that Till We Have Faces asks us. If we insist on living in a self-constructed masquerade, wearing masks as false identities to hide ourselves from ourselves and others, we will not be able to see the splendor of the truth that is beyond ourselves. This is made clear in Lewis’ own explanation of the title and its significance:

How can they (i.e., the gods) meet us face to face till we have faces? The idea was that a human being must become real before it can expect to receive any message from the superhuman; that is, it must be speaking with its own voice (not one of its borrowed voices), expressing its actual desires (not what it imagines that it desires), being for good or ill itself, not any mask, veil or persona.  

Throughout the story, Orual is prevented by her own pride from seeing reality. She needs her pride to be broken in humiliation so that she can gain the humility necessary to come to her senses. It is only then that she can sense the deeper reality that had eluded her. 

We’ll conclude with a descent into the vulgar vernacular of the modern voice. The ultimate meaning of Till We Have Faces is that we need to get real before we can get reality.      

[Image Credit: Dan Rempel]

Editor’s Note: This is the forty-fifth in an ongoing series of articles explaining the great works of literature “in a nutshell.”

  • Joseph Pearce

    Joseph Pearce a senior contributor to Crisis. He is director of book publishing at the Augustine Institute, editor of the St. Austin Review, and series editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions. An acclaimed biographer and literary scholar, his latest book, Benedict XVI: Defender of the Faith, is newly published by TAN Books. His website is jpearce.co.

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