Book Review: Till We Have Faces

A review of Till We Have Facesby C.S. Lewis.

The story, ultimately, of a courageous woman’s case against the gods, this book is at once cathartic and rousing.

Technically, this is Lewis’ “modern retelling” of the myth of Cupid and Psyche. But familiarity with the myth, of which most modern readers probably have little, is unnecessary—this retelling is complete in its own right. The book tells the story of Orual, princess and queen of Glome. Through haunting and extraordinary circumstances, she loses her teenage sister and must grapple with that loss, and her role in it, for the rest of her life, while learning hard lessons about the world of men, gods, war and friendship. Eventually she dedicates herself to her worldly affairs, choosing implicitly to reject thoughts of higher things—the gods, most centrally—and of her beloved lost sister.

A reader would have missed the point of this book had it not brought to the mind buried, or perhaps active and present, frustrations with the world and what forces direct the more random aspects of our lives. Set in pre-Christian Europe and tangential to ancient Greece, this story is full of analogies that paint a picture of us all—mortal people with immortal questions about the human condition.

From the protagonist’s coming-of-age pains to her adolescent kingdom’s identity crisis (in the shadow of towering Greece) to her Greek tutor’s instruction on the world and the gods, the book is an exploration of what it means to deal with pain and uncertainty in a world infused by spiritual forces yet seemingly devoid of any supernatural intercourse. Are the gods real? Is it foolish to ask such a question, even after one has seen their faces? Can we even understand such questions or their answers, and do the gods care about us?

In more ways than one, the book does not answer these questions. It raises them by way of intimate first-person narrative that, ideally, will feel familiar to readers as a narrative that lies somewhere deep within them—an elaborate “retelling” of their own attempts to reconcile what was with what could have been, and why the gods don’t seem to care.

As a piece of writing, the books dialogue and narrative is simple and unornamented. Lewis, of course, was a classicist (and the myth, of course, is classical) and reveals no transparent urge to differentiate his prose from other early- and mid-twentieth century mainline writers. In that sense, the language itself is uninteresting. The chapters are not long and the writing is easier to understand than one might expect, given the book’s mature subject.

This is one of Lewis’ best.

The earth beneath

“Do you know, Sister, I have come to feel more and more that the Fox hasn’t the whole truth. Oh, he has much of it. It’d be dark as a dungeon within me but for his teaching. And yet … I can’t say it properly. He calls the whole world a city. But what’s a city build on? There’s earth beneath. And outside the wall? Doesn’t all the food come from there as well as all the dangers? … things growing and rotting, strengthening and poisoning, things shining wet … in one way (I don’t know which way) more like, yes, even more like the House of–”

“Yes, of Ungit,” said I. “Doesn’t the whole land smell of her? Do you and I need to flatter gods any more? They’re tearing us apart … oh, how shall I bear it? … and what worse can they do? Of course the Fox is wrong. He knows nothing about her. He thought too well of the world. He thought there were no gods, or else, (the fool!), that they were better than men. It never entered his mind — he was too good — to believe that the gods are real, and viler than the vilest men.”

“Of else,” said Psyche, “they are real gods but don’t really do these things. Or even — mightn’t it be — they do these things and the things are not what they seem to be?”

From chapter seven of C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold.