Though he died over 50 years ago, C.S. Lewis remains popular both as a writer of Christian apologetics and as a novelist. Critics regard his “Narnia” books as childhood classics, and with sales of those books topping 100 million over the years, many children and their parents clearly agree. Some of the young people I used to teach touted Lewis’s space trilogy, which I have yet to read. The students and I did read together “The Great Divorce,” Lewis’s novel exploring the divisions between heaven and hell.
Of all Lewis’s novels, however, I would contend that his last and perhaps least-read fiction—“Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold”—is also his best.
The myth retold is that of Cupid (Love) and Psyche (Soul). In the account by Apuleius, from which Lewis takes his story, Venus, jealous of the mortal Psyche’s beauty, instructs her son Cupid to make Psyche fall in love with a monster. Instead, Cupid falls in love with Psyche. He comes to her only at night, having given her explicit instructions never to look on him. When she breaks her promise—wax dripping from her candle wakes the god—Cupid flees, and Psyche eventually finds herself in the thrall of Venus, for whom she must perform near-impossible tasks. Cupid finally rescues her, pleads to Zeus for help, and is allowed to marry Psyche, now an immortal like her husband.
An Ancient Tale Retold
In “Till We Have Faces,” Lewis does much more than simply recount this ancient tale of Cupid and Psyche. Their story serves as the skeleton to which Lewis adds nerves, blood, tissue, and flesh, bringing the myth to life, but with darker and deeper ramifications than Apuleius’s version.
Here, Psyche’s half-sister Orual, a princess and then the queen of the semi-barbaric Glome, is the narrator of the novel, and “Till We Have Faces” is her complaint against the gods. Ugly in countenance—she eventually takes to wearing a veil—and embittered by events, particularly due to her belief that the gods have stolen her beloved sister from her, Orual becomes a powerful ruler. She fights alongside her soldiers in battle, frequently condemns those who refuse to do her will to slavery or death, and demands much of her counselors, particularly Barda, her best general; and the Fox, the Greek who tutored her in her youth and remains her wisest adviser.
From time to time, Orual and the inhabitants of Glome suffer from plague, drought, and warfare, but Orual’s greatest and most constant agony derives from the absence of her sister, who loves, and is loved by, Cupid.
Orual is manipulative, self-pitying at times, by turns cruel and kind to those around her, and obsessed with the notion that the gods are wicked. She has a hand in the death of Barda, whom she overworks, and keeps the Fox close by her side, though she says, “I knew you were breaking your heart for the Greeklands. I ought to have sent you away. I lapped up all you gave me like a thirsty animal … I’ve battened on the lives of men. It’s true. Isn’t it true?”
A Look at Ourselves
It is true. Orual battened on the lives of the Fox and Barda. And as we come to know this queen, many of us may find ourselves looking into a mirror. For what is true of Orual is true of many of us as well.
That human beings so often love one another poorly is a theme in several of Lewis’s books, particularly in “The Four Loves,” “The Great Divorce,” and “The Screwtape Letters.” The mother who always hovers over her son, demanding his affection in return; the husband jealous of his wife’s acquaintances; the woman who wants her best friend to have no other companions than herself: All believe themselves paragons of love, but they fail to see that the bricks and mortar of their affection build not a palace but a prison for those they cherish.
Orual does indeed love Psyche, just as she does Barda and the Fox, but hers is a love made up of fences and bars.
As in other novels by Lewis, he makes excursions into philosophy and theology. The novel’s title, for example, comes from a line in the book: “How can we meet the gods face to face till we have faces?” By faces, Lewis means that when we are to confront the Divine, as Orual eventually does, we must be our real selves, with our masks and veils gone, our pretenses stripped away, and our souls revealed.
‘What Would Become of Us?’
Mercy, too, enters into the premises of this story. Near the end of “Till We Have Faces,” when the gods grant an audience to Orual, she meets with the Fox, resurrected from the dead. He is to bring her before her judges:
“Why, yes, child. The gods have been accused by you. Now’s their turn.”
“I cannot hope for mercy.”
“Infinite hopes—and fears—may both be yours. Be sure that, whatever else you get, you will not get justice.”
“Are the gods not just?”
“Oh, no, child. What would become of us if they were? But come and see.”
What would become of us if they were?
What both the Fox and Lewis intend by that horrifying question is that justice untempered by mercy would be hideous indeed. We see the results of that situation every day on our electronic screens, where judgment without any show of mercy is commonplace, where some are condemned without any sort of quarter or charity.
At the end of another fine novel, Graham Greene’s “Brighton Rock,” an elderly priest speaks these words to a young female penitent in the confessional: “You can’t conceive, my child, nor can I or anyone else … the appalling … strangeness of the mercy of God.”
“Till We Have Faces” reminds us that we too, if we so wish, may practice an appalling strangeness of mercy, that we can love well, that we can find beauty even in suffering, and that when we do these things, we can, as does Orual, become “beautiful … beyond all imagining.”
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C., Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.