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Commentary on C. S. Lewis, Till we have Faces: A Myth Retold: Pt. 1

Introduction

            I will be publishing my thoughts, on this book by C. S. Lewis, in this, and the next couple of blog posts. Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold is a work of fiction that C. S. Lewis published in 1956, the same year that he married, in a civil ceremony, Joy Davidman (to whom it is dedicated). This book, as C. S. Lewis remarks in a note which is appended to the book, is patterned after the classical myth of Cupid and Psyche, as found in the Metamorphoses, or the Golden Ass, of Lucius Apuleius Platonicus.[1] Lewis has, however, not only reworked this myth, but he has given it a spiritual profundity that the myth never possessed.

            The book is divided into two parts of unequal length, composing what is, essentially, an extended attempt to accuse the gods of being unjust. In part 1, composed of 21 chapters, we find Orual (the main character) giving an account of the salient events of her life, and attempting to build a case against the gods. In part 2, composed of 4 chapters, Orual returns to her book (part 1), at the end of her life, to add perspective. We here see here realizing that the gods are fully just, and that her so called love for others was more akin to hatred than to true love. The key to the whole story, wherein we find the title of the book, is found in chapter four of part 2, where Orual is reflecting on everything that has happened. She says, “When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about 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?”[2] This passage is even more powerful when read in the context of the story, and helps to understand what has really been happening throughout the book. In order to get the most out of this excellent book, we will begin by explaining the book, its genre, main characters, and overall story. We will then point out some of the very powerful ways in which C. S. Lewis uses this story to ask some profound questions, and to teach some important truths.


Overview of the book

Genre

            This book is a work of fiction which is best understood to be in the genre of mythology. It is, as the subtitle states, a modern reworking of an ancient myth. It is written as a narrative, and, as it is written in the first person singular, the reader views everything that happens in the story from the perspective of the main character—Orual. There are two main characters, and a number of supporting characters.


Characters

            Orual, who is narrating the story, is the oldest daughter of Trom, King of the city of Glome. Orual, though truly ugly (a description which is mentioned frequently throughout the book), is also portrayed as a very wise and caring woman. Throughout the story, she is portrayed as quite level-headed and rational, well-educated, and, when she eventually becomes the Queen of Glome, as a benevolent and wise ruler.

            The second main character, though named Istra by her father, which, in Greek, is Psyche. Orual refers to her as Psyche throughout the story. Psyche is the only daughter of Trom’s second wife, a young woman who dies shortly after giving birth to Psyche, and Trom’s third daughter. Throughout the story, which essentially follows the life of Psyche, she is described as a girl of unfathomable beauty and innocence. She is loved by all, and almost worshipped as a god.

            The supporting characters include Trom the king of Glome, who is a mediocre ruler, and has a bad temper. He is also portrayed as one who has little, if no respect for Ungit, the God of Glome. His only worry is keeping his throne, and some semblance of a kingly life. Redival, the middle sister and second daughter of Trom, is portrayed as a superficial girl who is more beautiful than Orual, but who only cares about the immediate pleasures of life. She seems to have no ability to foresee the consequences of her actions. There is also a Greek philosopher-slave in the castle who is called, by Trom, the Fox. Trom has him in the castle as both an advisor to the king and as a teacher to the girls. The Fox is portrayed almost as Orual’s grandfather, and as a person whom she respects much more than her father. He is clearly a Stoic thinker, who has knowledge of the works of Plato and Aristotle. Other characters who play important roles in the story include Batta, the handmaid to the girls; Bardia, the leader of the king’s army; Ungit, the Goddess of Glome, who is never seen nor heard from, but who, according to the priests of Ungit, curses Glome; and the god of the mountain, the son of Ungit, to whom Psyche is eventually sacrificed. There are, in the story, two priests of Ungit. The first, dies of old age and is replaced by a younger (seemingly more liberal and less convinced) priest.

           Follow this link for part 2: a summary of the book.




[1]C. S. Lewis, Till We have Faces: A Myth Retold (New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1984), 311.

[2]Ibid., 294.

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