Till We Have Faces

C. S. Lewis considered this the best book he had ever written.  I agree.  When I first read Till We Have Faces, it took me it till the wee hours of the morning to finish but I could not put the book down, and I cried and didn’t feel the least ashamed for doing so.  I cannot understand why this book is so hard to find, why it does not stay in print as do so many of Lewis’s more popular but less worthy works.

There are several reasons that this book is a favourite of mine.  First of all, I can’t find Lewis in it at all.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Narnia and Screwtape and all the rest, but an air of English male priggishness and conservatism faintly flavours those otherwise excellent stories in a manner that makes them feel slightly alien and inimical to me.  Other works, like The Great Divorce, feel more universal, but still lean heavily on English example and milieu.  Till We Have Faces is a very un-English, almost un-Western book, where the male perspective plays only a supporting role.  When I read it, I do not sense Lewis, I only hear Orual.

Another reason to like this book is Orual.  She is ugly in a world where beauty is a woman’s chief wealth, and because of this she has to fight for everything.  She even tries to fight the gods.  She is the angry, unattractive, bitter image of the human self even as her beloved sister Psyche is the mirror aspect of peace, beauty and love.  In many ways, they are the same person, because of their deep love for and attachment to each other, because of their parallel lives, because of their identical fates.  Lewis does extremely well with the characters of Orual and Psyche, demonstrating a phenomenal growth in maturity and understanding of women that I had not thought possible after seeing his weak, pathetic female stereotypes in the early work The Space Trilogy (a series of books which many love but I cannot recommend).

Hear Orual expressing her fear of rejection:

A terrible sheer thought, huge as a cliff, towered up before me, infinitely likely to be true.  No man will love you, though you gave your life for him, unless you have a pretty face.  So (might it not be?), the gods will not love you (however you try to pleasure them, and whatever you suffer) unless you have that beauty of soul.  In either race, for the love of men or the love of a god, the winners and losers are marked out from birth.  We bring our ugliness, in both kinds, with us into the world, with it our destiny.  How bitter this was, every ill-favoured woman will know.  We have all had our dream of some other land, some other world, some other way of giving the prizes which would bring us in as the conquerors; leave the smooth, rounded limbs, and the little pink and white faces, and the hair like burnished gold, far behind; their day ended, and ours come.  But how if it’s not so at all?  How if we were made to be dregs and refuse everywhere and everyway?

This is all the more poignant when one considers that in this story Psyche’s beauty hardly made her ‘a winner’ in the conventional sense.  It made the masses adore her until at last they hated her (as often happens to celebrity) and sacrificed her to a god’s desire (or to a goddess’s jealousy, according to another view).  It seems that neither the ugly nor the beautiful can win, for to be envied by gods and men is a perilous thing.
The chief reason that I love this book is its theme.  The story shows how the masks that we wear and the voices we assume hide our real faces and our true voices even from ourselves.  If you would stand before the gods, you must stand naked in your own skin speaking with your own voice the truth of what you have done and why.  This experience alone will represent a form of purgatory to all of us, who live constantly with self-deception.

Often when he was teaching me to write in Greek the Fox would say, ‘Child, to say the very thing you mean, the whole of it, nothing more or less or other than what you really mean; that is the whole art and joy of words.’  A glib saying.  When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the centre of your soul for years, which you have, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about the joy of words.  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?

For this story is the myth of Cupid and Psyche retold, a story of a woman who marries a god, but is never allowed to see his face, who is tricked by her jealous sister(s) into thinking that he must be a monster, who lights the lamp to glimpse his face while he is sleeping, who then discovers that the perfection of divine beauty does not reassure, it terrifies even as it ravishes. Such beauty is indeed Truth, because it is pure Reality, and that is terror to those of us who fear the look of our own (beautiful!) faces behind the masks we wear.