Till We Have Faces
C.S. Lewis’ novel Till We Have Faces (TWHF) is retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche. The original myth is of a woman whose beauty is so renown that Aphrodite grants her to marry her son Cupid or forces her to marry her son, Cupid. Psyche’s sisters are so jealous of her husband that they plot to ruin the marriage (as Cupid is either so beautiful or hideous that he hides himself). The sisters tempt Psyche to use a lantern to catch a glimpse of Cupid, everything goes wrong from there. Lewis’ version utterly inverts this. I cannot say too much without revealing key plot points, but in the original tale the gods are petty and in the wrong. In this tale, the main character sees her own face as she tries to reveal what the gods’ faces are truly like.
The book shows Lewis’ understanding of human nature. He saw us in all of our pettiness, silliness, ugliness, beauty, and grandeur. His view of the human is thoroughly medieval and it show here. The main character, Orual, is narrated in such a way that the reader will want or even need to get to know her. It is interesting to have Lewis narrate the tale from the perspective of a female character too. I often find books written from the perspective of the opposite gender of the author to be bizarre. For some reason, this one works.
The bad, here, is predicated upon the book. I’ve read it twice and it is haunting. It leaves me very unsettled because of its realistic depiction of our infinite capacity for self-deceit. So this is really good, but just expect to feel weird, even exposed after reading this novel.
Lewis’ thought comes through in the book in Marvelous ways, particularly in the interaction between the religion of the main character and the philosophy of her tutor, a Greek named, “The Fox.” This back and forth of concepts reminded me of a section from Lewis’ Essay, Christian Apologetics in God I the Dock:
We may [reverently] divide religions, as we do soups, into ‘thick’ and ‘clear’. By Thick I mean those which have orgies and ecstasies and mysteries and local attachments: Africa is full of Thick religions. By Clear I mean those which are philosophical, ethical and universalizing: Stoicism, Buddhism, and the Ethical Church are Clear religions.
The divergence and then convergence of understanding that the main character experiences is astounding, but again, largely because once she sees her own face or “speaks with her own voice” she is unable to address the gods. This is important for all of us. Until some experience of repentance or numinous horror can lead us to see ourselves as we are, then all our valid and thus very important reasoning about God’s reality is still somewhat inert. Even if we understand God’s essence in some way, it is not until we realize how he sees us that we can address him truly. This is what we have in the cross. Anyhow, the book just astounded me. I may read it again in December. I hope somebody else reads it and loves it.