I’m a bit conflicted about reading C S Lewis. I want to re-read his Narnia books, for instance, but whenever it comes to sitting down and working my way through the first one (whichever it should be, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or The Magician’s Nephew), I remember my feelings of being let down by what seems, to me, the rather shoehorned-in moral stance he brings to his Space Trilogy. (As I put it in my review of That Hideous Strength: “he’s always subtly telling me what to think.”) All the same, I was intrigued to read his final novel Till We Have Faces, just from hints I’d heard about it over the years. I have to admit that when I started it — and for much of my reading of it — I did so with my defences up, keeping a mental list of objections to what I felt was going to be Lewis’s moral take on the tale. (That we should obey divine dictates, however unreasonable, simply because they’re from “the gods”.) Then, abruptly, in the final section, I found myself reading all those objections, all my complaints against what I’d thought was Lewis’s worldview, laid out by the novel’s own narrator in an extended, bitter diatribe. That sort of deep-down, excoriating honesty was exactly what I wasn’t expecting. And so, when it came to the novel’s ultimately redemptive ending, it felt as though Lewis had genuinely earned his conclusions, in what feels like a truly mature work I’m still unsure how to feel about.
Till We Have Faces was published in 1956, when Lewis was in his late fifties. That is, after his civil marriage to Joy Davidman Gresham (to allow her to remain in the UK), but before the later (and this time in earnest) re-marriage that followed her diagnosis with terminal cancer — in the midst, then, of the whole Shadowlands thing. How much those elements played into the writing of the novel, I don’t know, because an added complication is that Till We Have Faces is a retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, something Lewis had been attempting since the early 1920s. Back then, intriguingly, he’d started a verse version that included characters named Caspian (not a male prince of a land near Narnia, but Psyche’s sister) and Jardis (not the female White Witch Jadis, but Psyche’s brother). What’s even more intriguing about those gender reversals is that some commentators — and I certainly had the same feeling — say Till We Have Face’s female narrator could well be presenting us with “the real Jack Lewis—his loss of his mother, his disrespect for his father, his desire for closeness, his struggles with disbelief.” (This from Bareface: A Guide to C S Lewis’s Last Novel by Doris T Myers, “Bareface” being the novel’s working title.)
That narrator is Orual, eldest daughter of the King of Glome, a minor kingdom in the days between Athens’ fall from dominance and Rome’s rise. Orual has one younger sister and one even younger half-sister. The sister, Redival, is depicted as shallow and only interested in chasing after men and so, as with Susan from the Narnia books when she discovers “nylons and lipstick”, is relegated to being a silly non-person, freely despised by the narrator. (Orual, meanwhile, is unusually ugly, and her self-consciousness about this leads to a lifetime of loneliness. All the same, Lewis can’t seem to forgive Redival her quite natural desire to not be lonely.)
The half-sister is Psyche. Her actual name is Istra, but she and Orual have Greek nicknames for one another (Orual’s is Maia, meaning “foster-mother”), Greek being the tongue of learning even in these barbaric lands. Istra, in contrast to Orual, is beautiful, so much so that the people think she must be divine, and make that fatal mythic mistake of comparing her to the local goddess, Ungit — who, it has to be said, lacks beauty both in appearance (in the temple dedicated to her, she’s a shapeless rock) and soul (she demands blood sacrifices and other barbaric rituals). When Istra is led by the people to mistakenly believe her touch can cure the plague, and so is treated as actually divine, Ungit’s retribution comes down. Glome has no male heir, is in the midst of plague, famine, and drought, and is now disrespecting its gods. Therefore, a sacrifice must be made, and that sacrifice must be Istra — Psyche — who is led up the mountain, chained, and left to be the bride of “the Brute”, a monstrous creature that pops up in the bad times, marriage with whom is generally taken to involve being devoured.
Days afterwards, Orual makes the difficult journey to the mountain, not wanting her beloved sister’s remains to lie strewn about. But when she gets there she finds Psyche not just whole but happy and free. Psyche claims to have been taken up by the God of the Mountain to be his bride, and she’s right now living in his magnificent palace. All Orual can see, though, is the mountainside wilderness. She questions Psyche about this “God of the Mountain”, but her half-sister says she’s been forbidden to look on him, and he only comes to her in the dark. Orual, sceptical about “the gods” anyway thanks to her Greek education, starts to think her half-sister is delusional from her horrific experiences, and perhaps is being preyed on by some bandit or madman. The only trouble is, in the fog that evening, Orual thinks she glimpses that palace… But convinces herself this, too, must be a delusion.
And so she does what any caring friend would do, she seeks to help Psyche out of this deception, or madness, or whatever it is. She brings her a lamp, and tells her to light it in the darkness when her supposedly divine husband is lying beside her. Then she’ll know if he’s a god or not. But when Psyche, under much duress, obeys, it turns out that not only was he genuinely divine, but she’s now banished from the palace and the presence of her husband for disobedience.
Orual, then, has her scepticism answered in the most brutal way. On the one hand, she now knows the gods definitely do exist; on the other, the price paid for that knowledge is that her half-sister must live in constant misery and exile, and she herself must live with the guilt of what she’s done to the only person she genuinely cared about.
This much is almost straight from the myth of Cupid and Psyche — all except the detail that Lewis says he felt, right from his first encounter with the tale, had to be added: the idea that Orual would not be able to see Psyche’s paradisal palace, and so think it a delusion. This, then, takes us to about the halfway point of the novel. After that, for much of it, the book is about how Orual becomes Queen of Glome, and makes a pretty good go of it — but is always unhappy, alone, and guilty, because of what she’s done. She takes to wearing a veil, tired of her ugliness. When she learns, much later, a new goddess is being worshipped in far temples, a goddess whose myth is Psyche’s story, and in which her own role is played by a sister who acts entirely out of jealousy rather than love, Orual writes her own story as a rebuttal and a “charge against the gods”.
Then comes the second part — the final fifth of the book — and this is where things take such a devastating turn. Orual has a series of visions, or perhaps actual visitations from the gods. She’s given the chance to read them her story, to make her complaint against them, but finds herself, instead, venting all her bitterness, spite, and anger — as well as speaking with an honesty about her own pettiness and jealousy which she was not prepared for. What she speaks is not her story as she wrote it — that carefully-crafted self-justification — but something far more honest and self-revealing:
“When the time comes to you at which you are forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the centre of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over…”
In a way, Orual hears herself — and sees herself — for the first time, and it’s not a pretty picture, though it is a deeply human one. But there is a further step. Now she must hear, and see, the gods against whom she has brought her “charge”, and again it will be for the first time, because, “How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?” We can’t know their true, divine nature, till we know and accept our own human one.
Meeting the gods, in this novel, is the same as meeting one’s deepest self; making a complaint against them is the same as having oneself laid bare. The complaint itself becomes the answer to that complaint. For much of the novel, this is a bleak world, seen through the eyes of a profoundly lonely and unhappy soul, self-despising and disappointed, haunted by that one misdeed she can never put right. But once the lowest point is past — at the end of quite a slow-moving novel — there is, finally, redemption, as Orual comes to learn that she and Psyche were not as torn asunder as she thought.
Lewis himself called it “far and away the best [novel] I have written”, though Roger Lancelyn Green says Lewis liked Perelandra best, while considering Till We Have Faces his masterpiece. But then, it’s a difficult book to really like — so much of it, to me, felt rather plodding, though perhaps it was the very length and slowness of the book that helped make the ending so impactful. It is, though, certainly a work of real emotional power. And it definitely surprised me into giving Lewis more credit than I had (jadedly, or perhaps Jadis-like) been giving him. Maybe it’s time to re-read those Narnia books at last. (If only I didn’t have so many other books I want to read.)