There are few transformative books in a person’s life that rise out of the flotsam floating endlessly in the world’s literary sea. I recently devoured one such book: C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold. In Till We Have Faces, Lewis reworks the classical myth of Cupid and Psyche through the lens of Psyche’s sister, Orual. The setting is both pagan and fictional; the story, as the jacket asserts, “illuminates the struggles between sacred and profane love.”
In Till We Have Faces I was both emotionally moved and intellectually challenged. The book is broken in two. Book One mounts an argument against the gods. In the end, it asks, “Why silence? Amongst shattered loves, war, and suffering, why must the gods manipulate humankind without ever a glimpse of divine intent?” Orual, writing Book One, struggles with the loss of Psyche, Queenly responsibilities, and the stark realities of pre-modern life. She posits, “There must, whether the gods see it or not, be something great in the mortal soul. For suffering, it seems, is infinite, and our capacity without limit.”
The depth to which Orual plunges reminds me of Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. It is pure lament, true struggle, and wholly human. It is both searching and longing in a defiant, fist-shaking way. Orual concludes Book One by writing: “I say, therefore, that there is no creature … so noxious to man as the gods. Let them answer my charge if they can … and the gods will know … they have no answer[.]” By itself, Book One is narrative philosophy at its best. It provides glimpses of reality via Lewis’ imagination. Faces engages, questions, and illuminates (no matter how difficult its conclusions are to swallow).
Faces has not concluded, however. Reading Book One towards the end of her life, Orual realizes that edits are necessary. Through aged eyes, she claims to have written Book One as a frustrated youth understanding little. In Book Two, she is able, through a series of visions, to bring forth her case, to demand an answer. She receives one. In the long-dark hall of the gods, silence is her answer, for her case will not be answered by reason but rather by the nature of God. She writes: “I ended my first book with the words no answer. I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer.”
Ah, yes. The answer is God. What other answer could there be? “Before your face questions die away.” Till We Have Faces is a marvelous and probing book that requires hard work of its reader. It demands a searching, a questioning, and a response. It is Lewis at his best. For readers coming to Faces from The Chronicles of Narnia, Faces might seem both jarring and wooden. There is no whimsy, safety, nor playful and powerful lion to save the day. The story is complex, whereas Narnia is imbued with simplicity. Faces is a novel dripping with mythological references for an adult audience. Being written towards the end of Lewis’ life, one can’t help but see both Lewis’ maturity and subtlety, as Faces attains a profundity that Narnia could only dream.
Though the narrative is both beautiful and haunting, where Faces soars is in its ability to cultivate self reflection within the reader, for Faces deals with a very human issue: who are the gods and why are they silent? If in Book One we find a case against the gods, then in Book Two we find a presentation for the resolution of the human condition. This allows the reader to ask him or herself, “Where do I find myself? Am I stuck in Book One, angry and frustrated, or am I wandering through Book Two, at peace with my shortcomings and failures — humble before gods?”
In my journey, I find myself midway, caught somewhere between Book One and Book Two. Not wholly angry, mounting my case, but not wholly resolved to the cosmos’ structure as Lewis presents it. And that’s what makes Till We Have Faces a great novel, no matter where you might find yourself. There is something of greatness and longing for each and every reader.