Review: C. S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces, 1956 (Part 3)

In the first two parts of this analysis of C. S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces, I laid a foundation by providing a brief summary of the original myth of Cupid and Psyche and noted the similarities between this myth and so many myths and fairy tales prevalent in the stories told and retold in our modern era (e.g., Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, Hercules). In the second installment I summarized the bulk of the retold myth and Orual’s complaint against the gods: that they were unfair and unkind and that they hid their faces. I noted that Lewis’ retelling has a powerful message that will resonate powerfully in believers: to borrow the words of a relevant hymn (“My Song Is Love Unknown”), God’s love is “love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be.”

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. (Matt 5:8)

The Myth Undone: Summary of Part Two

The final act of C. S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces, simply named “Part Two” and broken into four brisk chapters, demands the reader to rethink the story, even as Orual admits that she must amend her story or die “perjured”—in fact, she would even go so far as to scrap and rewrite the entire thing if she were not nearing the end of her life. Orual notes that even that act of penning her plaint (Part One) had begun the change in her, priming her “for the gods’ surgery.” She opined: “They used my own pen to probe my wound” (287).

The events of her old age climax when Orual found herself spirited away in a final vision, in which she passed through the same trials Psyche passed, and shortly Orual found herself ushered into a court, with her complaint (which she presumed was her handwritten complaint) to finally take her stand against the gods. At last, Orual’s complaint is revealed plainly to the reader, and the full truth is laid bare that she is no hardened atheist or sophisticated agnostic, but rather her complaint is intensely personal: she accuses the god of stealing Psyche away with his irresistible goodness and grace. But her complaint only incriminates herself: “‘It would be far better for us if you were foul and ravenous [than beautiful]. We’d rather you drank their blood than stole their hearts’” (332). Eventually, after she has repeated herself senselessly, the judge in mercy interjected, “Enough,” and “Are you answered?” (333–334).

Standing before the divine tribunal, Orual came to the realization that her complaint was her answer (at least in part!), which she had longed for her whole life. Finally telling the truth, she accused herself mostly of her unholy and selfishly devouring kind of love which she even turned towards her beloved Psyche. Jonah-esque, the only accusation that she leveled at the gods that actually sticks is that the gods are indeed unbearably loving and irresistibly lovely.

Compared to the original myth, the immediate revelation that this story will be told not from the perspective of the pure beloved princess of the fairy tale, but instead from the pen and tongue of the cynical and literal ugly stepsister suggests that the reader will walk with Orual through the experience of an angry unbeliever who brazenly puts God on the dock, and who finds not retributive judgment but beautiful redemption by grace. The reader (whom Orual addresses as a sophisticated Greek) is repeatedly called upon throughout the book (and even in the opening paragraphs) to evaluate Orual’s case and determine if she has a right to make a complaint against the gods, and whether the gods should provide her with an answer. This book thus takes on the form of a dialogue, where the reader is seated in a theater, and Orual participates as an author with the drama she reenacts upon the page. But every now and then, she pauses the scene, breaking the fourth wall to demand the reader take note of the evidence. Even Orual’s nigh-unpronounceable name seems to be wordplay to evoke the reader’s participation in the drama (“or-you-all?”). In other words, this novel does not permit or suggest that the reader should imagine himself/herself to be the hero of the story, nor does it begin with a happy scope. In this way, the novel feels eerily realistic. Happily, this story does not conclude with divine comeuppance. Instead, the reader who has been so thoroughly drawn into the story is called upon to grapple with the grace of God extended to Orual. Put simply, this story dramatizes the Christian experience of conversion by the grace of God.

Not only is this a powerful story which smacks strongly of the gospel, but this story slightly mirrors C. S. Lewis’ own life (and conversion) experience: Lewis was himself redeemed in his adulthood. Lewis may well have modeled the character of the Fox after himself (since Lewis was a classically trained scholar and professor), but the Stoic philosophical ideas and Greek myths that Lewis has sprinkled throughout the book always fall flat.

The way that Lewis describes the stand-in for Aphrodite, Ungit, is telling. Ungit (her name obviously derived from the British derogatory slang, namely “git”) and her symbol in Glome’s temple are mysterious but utterly unremarkable in shapelessness. Her symbol within the temple is simply a hunk of misshapen black rock; Lewis describes her early on in this way: “She [Ungit’s statue] is a black stone without head or hands or face, and a very strong goddess” (4). Describing Aphrodite in such language and with such an image is quite a twist from how she is usually depicted and imagined in the western world, as the goddess of beauty, sensual love, and fertility (she is often depicted as a shapely nude woman). Yet this twist helps shape the reader’s perception of the world of Glome—Aphrodite may well be the goddess of love, but her love is monstrous, ugly, cruel. The only way one might imagine the outline of a face here and there, at one time or another upon that misshapen stone is when the blood of sacrifices would congeal in such a way as it is poured and dried over the stone of Ungit. Such a face divined only by blood invoked neither comfort, peace, nor joy, and certainly not desire.

A major theme that is developed throughout the book, which is even hinted at by the title (Lewis’ original title, Bareface, bespeaks this point clearly), is Orual’s veil. Almost constantly, Orual dons a veil from the moment she is maliciously informed that her face is nauseatingly ugly. The inciting event is the arrival of the new queen, her father’s bride-to-be, who would eventually bear Psyche. The imagery of Orual’s veil comes to the forefront of the story after her trips to the Grey Mountains where she found Psyche alive and well. She had veiled her face then, not to hide her ugliness, but to hide her identity in order to keep her mission a secret. In the years following her return from having ruined Psyche’s happiness by her own unbelief, Orual would only ever present herself publicly behind her veil. By the end of Queen Orual’s life, her bareface was unknown to virtually all but the oldest of her subjects.

Her veil symbolizes how she has sought to hide her shame (cf. Gen 3:7), namely her cruel love toward her fellow man and wicked unbeliefs of the divine, from the eyes of her fellow man and even (if possible) from the eyes of God. At one point her veil served a cosmetic purpose (to hide her ugliness), but it eventually became to her an icon of holding power over and against another person, which she used to her political advantage. For example, Orual found the courage to stand up to her menacing father (and many subsequent challengers and opponents) when she could see his face, but he could not see hers. Later, as queen, Orual stood as an impassive judge to hear the complaints of her people because the veil prevented them from reading her face. Orual effectively fought as her people’s champion in one-on-one combat, her opponents unnerved by facing a faceless opponent. She even began to receive compliments that her voice was lovely and her rule magnanimous—compliments that she supposed would otherwise probably not have been given if the visiting dignitaries had seen her bareface.

And all this added up to Orual’s steadfast belief that she could adequately argue and publish a plaint against the purposes and plans of the gods, when in reality, she had nothing to present but ugliness, cruelty, and a monstrous self-serving and consuming love bent in on itself. Orual’s internal monologue pronounces the title of the book: “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?” (335).

Thus, the climax at the end turns the book on its head. For, despite all the sound and fury of the deep-seated and heartfelt complaints of ordinary human beings, we will not understand life truly, nor rejoice in goodness, nor pursue beauty until we can be shown the truth of our own wretched misery. Or, to put it in Reformed categories, we cannot comprehend the magnitude of mercy until we can rightly behold the horror of our sin. As Westminster Larger Catechism 76 puts it:

Repentance unto life is a saving grace, wrought in the heart of a sinner by the Spirit and Word of God, whereby, out of the sight and sense, not only of the danger, but also of the filthiness and odiousness of his sins, and upon the apprehension of God’s mercy in Christ to such as are penitent, he so grieves for and hates his sins, as that he turns from them all to God, purposing and endeavoring constantly to walk with him in all the ways of new obedience.

And when we are thusly given the grace of renewed sight, then we will desire the one who is truly lovely, wonderful, holy.

That Orual was granted repentance unto life (as it were) by the mediation and heroic labors of another (in this case, her sister Psyche, who suffered for her), as well as by the providential grace of even the worst events and persons of her life is wonderfully relatable to the Christian life. Her abusive father mocked her for the hideousness of her external appearance, which was something Orual was able to hide behind a thick veil. But there was no hiding her ugliness of soul, which the gods revealed to her immediately and by providential appointments. Orual’s selfish and possessive love for her sister is a grim reminder of our propensity to twist God’s good creations and gifts and to bend them to serve our own ends and devices. Orual’s love is also idolatrously self-aggrandizing; because she deified herself, she brought the full weight of her wrath down on Psyche for failing to venerate Orual alone.

As different of a story as this is compared to Lewis’ other works of Christian fiction, Till We Have Faces can powerfully build the faith of the believer by modeling repentance unto life. In Orual, Lewis paints a picture of postmodern humanity, twisting God’s good gifts and seeking to put God in the dock while always hiding our own faces and willfully deluding ourselves that we have eyes to see. Not only does Lewis tell an allegorized version of his own (and his beloved’s) experience of repentance unto life in the character of Orual, but Lewis also dramatizes the biblical teaching that salvation comes from outside of ourselves and that we are hopeless apart from divine intervention, grace, clemency.

©Joseph Pollard. All Rights Reserved.

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  • Joseph Pollard
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    Joseph Pollard came to Christ through God’s ordinary means of grace as a covenant child in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He grew up in a suburb of Los Angeles, CA; he now lives in Phoenix, AZ with his beloved wife and sons. Joseph enjoys fostering fellowship over food, games, songs, and stories.

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  1. “In Orual, Lewis paints a picture of postmodern humanity, twisting God’s good gifts and seeking to put God in the dock [….]”.

    Hmmmmm…we have heard these words before…
    Isaiah 40:27 for one: “Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God”?”

    But he gives more grace, and then speaks to hiding his own face from us no more forevermore…Isaiah 54:4 “Fear not, for you will not be ashamed; be not confounded, for you will not be disgraced; for you will forget the shame of your youth, and the reproach of your widowhood you will remember no more. 5 For your Maker is your husband, the LORD of hosts is his name; and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called. 6 For the LORD has called you like a wife deserted and grieved in spirit, like a wife of youth when she is cast off, says your God. 7 For a brief moment I deserted you, but with great compassion I will gather you. 8 In overflowing anger for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,” says the LORD, your Redeemer.”

    Thank you, Joseph, for this stark and brutally clear imagery – imagery that although uncomfortably realistic, yet brightly illumines how amazingly blessed we are by God in Christ; that instead of hiding our faces as we once did, like ugly and selfish Orual, we may rather uncover them without shame as should a beautiful bride at the celebratory wedding feast, for we are The Bride made holy and therefore beautiful by The Believing Husband.

    God is so good to us!


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