Till We Have Faces by C S Lewis

Current PB, art by Kimberly Glyder

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.

First UK HB

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.)

1966 edition, cover by Leo and Diane Dillon

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.

1957 HB from Harcourt Brace

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.

1979 HB, art by Peter Goodfellow

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.)

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The Stones of the Moon by Judy Allen

UK HB, art by Pat Marriott

David Birch is the son of a professor of archaeology currently working on a Roman mosaic uncovered during the construction of a new motorway in a small Yorkshire town. Although he’s been taken out of school to be with his father as he’ll supposedly learn more on an archaeological dig, Professor Birch is happy to let his son follow his own interests. David fixates on a local stone circle, something his father — and, it seems, just about everyone else — has no interest in at all. Standing among the Weeping Stones, though, David gets a strong feeling of fear:

“He didn’t believe that they wished him harm, only that they were dangerous, unimaginably dangerous, just as heavy machinery in action is dangerous.”

Touching one of the stones as he leaves the circle, he gets an electric shock. These things, then, have a power, but what it is and what it’s for, nobody, at first, can tell him.

He bumps into a pair of local kids of his own age, Tim and Jane. Tim wants to be an ecologist when he grows up and is, as part of a school project, checking pollution levels in the local river, both above and below the local mill. He knows that downstream from the mill the amount of life in the river declines, but keeps wanting to double-check his results, not because he’s unsure of them, but because his father works at the mill and they need the money. Jane, meanwhile, has some unspecified connection to the stone circle.

Paperback from 2000

It’s not until David meets John Westwood, though, that he learns anything more about the Weeping Stones. John is, in the eyes of about everyone else in the book, just “some elderly hippie”. He’s fascinated by the stones, and has embarked on a fifteen-year-long project of self-education so he can understand them, a syllabus that not only includes history, archaeology and geology, but astrology and folklore. He believes the stones are associated with the moon, and tells David’s father the mosaic, when uncovered, will show that the Romans knew this too. When the mosaic proves to be of Diana, though, Professor Birch shrugs it off:

“I’ve come across them before, these people. The world of what you might call Alternative Archaeology is full of them. They give up everything of real value in their lives to prove something they believe to be external. In fact it’s all inside their own heads…”

“Or it could be,” David counters, “that he’s being true to himself. He’s given up all the things society thinks are important…” But David also starts to doubt Westwood when Tim and Jane’s father says the old hippie is into drugs, and doesn’t want his kids having anything to do with him. When David asks Westwood if it’s true, he says:

“I began to use drugs about five years ago in the hope of finding a short cut to the knowledge I was looking for… I met strange and magical things, but the only knowledge I found was this—that illusion blurs the perceptions even while seeming to heighten them… Now… I try to approach the truth as it should be approached, with directness.”

But, he admits, “the drugs I used are using me. They have left my mind just a little clouded…” When Tim and Jane’s father sees his kids with Westwood again — even though they’ve only bumped into him by chance — he gets the police onto him, and Westwood is taken away. Sure that he was onto something about the stones, David goes through Westwood’s papers (they were staying at the same boarding house) and comes to realise the stones do have a sort of power: they were created long ago to draw water up from deep in the ground so as to replenish the river in times of drought. Back then, they’d be activated by singing to them, but now it seems the sound of the machinery at the mill is providing a constant vibration of exactly the same note, and the stones are set to flood the town…

Judy Allen

Judy Allen’s The Stones of the Moon (1975) is a very short novel, chiming in with some of the folk-fantasy themes of the day, as well as the belief in “Earth mysteries” that took off in the 1960s, before going into flying saucer overdrive in the 1970s. As a YA novel, it doesn’t quite have the toughness of Alan Garner or the quality of Penelope Lively, but it does hit a few of the same notes. Tim, for instance, taciturn throughout most of the novel, at one point bursts out with an “it’s all right for you” type of speech about how it’s easy for middle-class David to talk about shutting down the mill to stop the stones from destroying the town or polluting the river, but his working-class family needs the income. But some aspects of the novel — such as Jane’s odd link with the stones, which never gets developed (I was expecting to find she was possessed by Diana, or something), or the fact that Westwood never gets his “I told you so moment” when the town is flooded — made me feel this isn’t quite as strong a work as the real classics of the era. (It was re-released in paperback in 2000, though, so it evidently had some staying power.)

What was most interesting to me was the attitude it takes to Westwood. It’s one of my fascinations with the culture of the early 1970s, how it deals with the aftermath of the late-60s upheavals not just in social change, but in imagination. The hippie era dumped a whole lot of weirdness into the culture, and suddenly everything, from aliens and UFOs to magical stone circles, ley lines and paranormal powers, not to mention psychedelic weirdness generally, were seeping into the mainstream.

Here, Westwood is dismissed by everyone as a slightly crazy hippie, mixing astrology with archaeology and using it to come to conclusions no one in their right mind would accept. His one-time drug use is latched onto as an excuse to dismiss him entirely. Even David, though drawn by his enthusiasm, starts to doubt him, comparing drugs, and the ideas they conjure, with the notion of the “fairy food” of folklore:

“In every story it is made plain that eating the fairy food is an irrevocable move, and that those who once taste it pursue it to the detriment of their lives, right to their lives’ end. It is never a beneficial or nourishing food; it is a teasing food, and it changes the personality.”

“So did the fact that Westwood had made that mistake [taken drugs] invalidate all his ideas?” It’s as though we’re also being asked, “Did the fact the hippies believed in so many crazy things mean that nothing they valued — all the social changes, and so on — is worth holding onto?”

Ultimately, in this book, Westwood is proved right, but, as I say, he never gets his “I told you so moment”, as though to keep his right conclusions at some distance from his unsound methods. Once he’s been carted off by the police, he’s not seen again — which is, perhaps, a symbolic ushering out of all that suddenly seemed slightly embarrassing, naïve, garish, or just plain wild-and-weird about the 60s, by the harsher side of reality. David is the one who’s left with Westwood’s ideas, to try to sort out what’s right and wrong, just as (it seems to me) Children of the Stones-era kids were perhaps being handed all that Earth-mysteries/UFO/psychic-powers craziness of the 60s as though to say: we don’t know what to make of it, you sort it out.

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Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon

US HB, published by Jonathan Cape

How to approach Olaf Stapledon’s future history epic Last and First Men today? It was first published in 1930 (by Methuen, who clearly weren’t too burned by the poor sales of David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus ten years before), and its first chapters — all the ones which use such terms as Europe, America, Britain and China — were instantly outdated by the outbreak of the Second World War. These early chapters, which perhaps might be read as satire if Stapledon were of a more satirical bent, are anyway the least interesting. (The most successfully satirical moment, perhaps, is a Gulliver’s Travels-like glimpse the Second Men get of our own primitive descendants, still recognisably human but fallen into serving as beasts of burden and objects of mockery for a race of semi-intelligent monkeys, about 10 million years from now.)

It’s after the rise of the Second Men that Stapledon’s novel really becomes what it’s meant to be — not political commentary or satire, but a

“…serious attempt to envisage the future of our race; not merely in order to grasp the very diverse and often tragic possibilities that confront us, but also that we may familiarise ourselves with the certainty that many of our most cherished ideals would seem puerile to more developed minds. To romance of the far future, then, is to attempt to see the human race in its cosmic setting, and to mould our hearts to entertain new values.”

Magnum 1978 PB, art by Peter Goodfellow

Last and First Men, he goes on to say in his Preface, “is not prophecy; it is myth”.

But what sort of myth? Stapledon is writing in the cosmic mode (which might be considered the religious aspect of atheism), but not cosmic horror a la Lovecraft. Take a passage such as this, a direct pronouncement of the book’s narrator (one of the Eighteenth, and final, race of humans, dictating this novel from billions of years in our future):

“Great are the stars, and man is of no account to them. But man is a fair spirit, whom a star conceived and a star kills. He is greater than those bright blind companies.”

The first sentence could be Lovecraft, but by the third we’re in a different mindset altogether. Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove, in their history of science fiction Trillion Year Spree, point out both Stapledon’s link to, and difference with, cosmic horror by comparing him to another writer in that genre:

“We may suspect that Stapledon’s alienation was at least as severe as [William Hope] Hodgson’s; but Stapledon’s powerful intellect has shaped his mental condition into a metaphysic.”

So if it’s not horror, what’s a better term for Stapledon’s brand of cosmicism?

Dover Books omnibus with Star Maker

To him, humankind is not, as with Lovecraft, an insect-like nothing crushed by immense and indifferent alien powers, but a potentially noble race. This nobility, though, doesn’t come from being the favoured creation of a benevolent Deity. It’s self-generated, derived from an intelligent self-consciousness that allows it to appreciate both its huge potential and its immense vulnerability. Humankind, in each of the eighteen “races” Stapledon presents us with, is constantly beset with difficulties, both self-created (the “anti-social self-regard” of the First Men, for instance, which led to so many self-destructive wars), and visited upon it by the workings of a genuinely indifferent cosmos, whether this be disease, natural disaster, or shifts in the conditions of our solar system that threaten our delicate survival.

A growing awareness of this vulnerability only heightens the potential, as Stapledon sees it, for each of the races of humankind to achieve a fulfilment of its place in the cosmos — not because this is destined to happen, but because not to do so would be a waste of such a “fair spirit”. Stapledon doesn’t believe this fulfilment is guaranteed by any means, even given the many millions, if not billions, of years through which he pursues these eighteen races, each one “in spite of innumerable digressions, a single theme, a single mood of the human will”. In fact, he seems to take it as granted that such a fulfilment may never occur (unless that fulfilment is to be found in the attempt, rather than a final moment of achievement).

Penguin omnibus with Last Men in London, art by David Pelham

Perhaps, then, the best way of describing Stapledon’s brand of cosmicism isn’t cosmic horror but cosmic tragedy, though it’s a tragedy of genuine nobility faced with insurmountable odds, not the Shakespearian type of tragedy in which an overweening nature gets ideas above its station. (Perhaps cosmic elegy might be a better term, if an elegy can be written while its subject is still alive.)

There’s something of this tragic air in the moment when the Second Men find the knowledge-tablets of the First Men, which that initial race of human beings created so as not to lose all they felt most valuable when faced with a race-threatening disaster. Deciphering the tablets, the Second Men find little in this culmination of their predecessors’ civilisation to be of any interest:

“The view of the universe which the tablets recorded was both too naïve and too artificial; but the insight which they afforded into the mind of the earlier species was invaluable.”

The one thing the Second Men do value are the words of what the First Men called the Divine Boy, a prophet who preached an at-the-time unpopular way of understanding life:

“For I seemed to see a thousand worlds taking part with us in the great show. And I saw everything through the calm eyes, the exultant, almost derisive, yet not unkindly, eyes of the playwright.”

We should, Stapledon seems to be saying, learn to look at ourselves — our lives, our strivings, our failures — in purely aesthetic terms. Not as an excuse to escape into make-believe, but, in the words of the Second Men, so that “Seeing the depth, we shall see also the height, and praise both.” Or, as the Last Man-narrator puts it:

“But this we know: that we ourselves, when the spirit is most awake in us, admire the Real as it is revealed to us, and salute its dark-bright form with joy.”

Humankind, for Stapledon, “is dignified by his very weakness, and the cosmos by its very indifference to him”. It’s an outlook that has the same conditions as Lovecraftian horror, but which has plenty of room for things of genuine (though never lasting) human value.

The metaphor Stapledon reaches for is of “that great music of innumerable personal lives, which is the life of the race”. As the Last Men say:

“For we shall make after all a fair conclusion to this brief music that is man.”

Which reminds me of David Lindsay in Devil’s Tor — another novel of the 1930s — who uses the same metaphor, also in the same atmosphere of cosmic-level tragedy:

“It was like the ordered emotion of a far-distant orchestra numbering, not hundreds, and not thousands, but millions, it seemed, of instruments… … each instrument, with its voice of unique timbre, should be proclaiming its own peculiar message…”

C S Lewis found Stapledon (as he did Lindsay) both imaginatively inspiring and philosophically detestable. In fact it seems to be Stapledon, rather than Lindsay, who was the immediate spur to Lewis writing Out of the Silent Planet, through a need to take what he thought of as Stapledon’s “desperately immoral outlook” and critique it through the character of Weston. (And, just as Lewis found Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus “detestable, almost diabolist”, he thought Stapledon’s sequel to Last and First Men, Star Maker, “ends in sheer devil worship”.)

Whereas for Lewis the world was as God made it, and it was up to humankind to fit in with the cosmic harmony or suffer, for Stapledon suffering was the only thing that was guaranteed, making it all the more important that humankind should work towards its own kind of meaning and fulfilment. For Stapledon, there was no cosmic harmony, because everything is in constant flux, and we must instead learn to appreciate this difficult cosmic music, with all its dissonances. For him, humankind reaches its apex in the Fifth Men, but they’re not the end of the story — far from it — for no sooner have they embarked on their path of perfecting the expression of their potential, than they realise the Earth will soon become uninhabitable, and they’ll have to move to a new world, one where the need to adapt will send them back into primitive forms of life, and into a whole new series of cycles of striving and failure.

Last and First Men is not an easy read. As Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove say in Trillion Year Spree:

“The atmosphere Stapledon generates is chill but intoxicating. Reading his books is like standing on the top of a high mountain. One can see a lot of planet and much of the sprawling uncertain works of man, but little actual human activity; from such an altitude, all sense of the individual is lost.”

But something of its bleak but uplifting, tragic yet elegiac, mournful yet meditative feel comes through in the recent (2020) film by Jóhann Jóhannsson. This combines Stapledon’s words (read by Tilda Swinton), Jóhannsson’s sombre music, and black and white footage of the strangely futurological/modernist “Spomenik” — war memorials in the former Yugoslavia that were intended, through their abstract forms, to be relatable by all the region’s diverse cultures and beliefs. The result is “a requiem for the Last Men and for the ideals of a failed socialist Utopia” (quoted from the statement at the film’s official website) — but I nevertheless found it uplifting, through its insistence that, even in the face of a race-annihilating threat, humankind can strive for a level of meaning, and fulfilment, on its own terms.

Stapledon, evidently, had a belief in humankind as a united thing, with values and aims in common. Their enemy, as well as their teacher, was the cosmos in which they were born, and in which they are to die, and his eighteen races of humanity, though often breaking out in war, just as often find unified civilisations through which to express a common character. It’s hard to connect this with our often very fragmented world today, but it’s nice to be reminded of it as a possibility every so often.

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