Nick's Reviews > Till We Have Faces

Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis
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Aug 21, 08

Read in August, 2008

This is one of Lewis' least known and underappreciated works, though for understandable reasons. It is a book that requires multiple readings for its genius to sink in, though upon the first time through it is clear that there is much that lies below the surface. The "mythopoeic art" he found so fascinating in MacDonald has found its way into his own writing, in a way that is quite different from his other fiction (though I would be hard pressed to say just what that difference is).

Read it three times, with a few years in between each reading. It will not fail to reward you each time.

[PS Make sure you read Joe's comment on this review.]
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message 1: by Joe (new) - rated it 4 stars

Joe I agree with the assessment, and the need for rereading. Here's one difference that clearly marks it off from his other fiction: the lack of chattiness. Particularly in the Narnia books, but also in the Space Trilogy, and even in the apologetic works, Lewis exudes a warm and charitable - but frankly sometimes overwhelming - conversational tone. In the Narnia series his narrator, or storyteller, rather, gets almost conspiratorial; one feels as the reader that one is in on the secret lifeworld of a British child, and shares all sorts of esoteric knowledge about what's beastly and what's lovely and how odd grown-ups are. Ransom, in the Space Trilogy, presents a narrative point of view more immanent to the story, but his sympathies and character, not to mention his career and interests, are so close to Lewis' own that art still does not conceal his art.

In Till We Have Faces, by contrast, many of the familiar philosophical and theological concerns are there, though less overtly, but the chatty and charming presence of Lewis himself is almost completely gone. Partly this is accomplished by adopting the first person, but that's only the first step. Having done so, Lewis probes a character more deeply, by orders of magnitude, than he does in any of his other fiction.

I've just been watching Brideshead again, and so the art criticism of Anthony Blanche is fresh in my mind. What is so distinctive about most of Lewis' fiction (and even his non-fiction) is the overt conviviality, the openness both of narrator and characters. One might be so wicked as to call it charming. "Charm, my dear Charles, is the great English blight. It k-k-kills art ... it k-k-kills love, and I'm beginning to fear, Charles, that it has k-k-killed you." Paradoxically, Lewis takes up the first person in Till We Have Faces, and crafts both a narrator and a character who in spite of her frankness is anything but open - especially to herself. A whole interior world is gradually torn open that is hardly touched on in his other fiction, and a corresponding flood of philosophically and theologically rich thought is revealed.

Put it this way: none of the Narnia children, or even Ransom, could figure in a work that is a Confession before God, in the Augustinian sense, or an interrogation of God, a la Ivan Karamazov. (The nearest thing to an exception is Eustace Clarence Scrubbs.) Or if they did, it would be rather boring. We don't find a rich fragmentation of the will in those characters; in the cases of the bad boys, Edmund and Eustace, the story of redemption occurs in two or three simple steps. It's the beastly boy whose true goodness is rather badly concealed by his beastly behavior; rather simpler than Augustine weeping in the garden. Orual is completely different. Even her veil hides another - a face that obscures what she thinks is her true self. And what does that self obscure? She does not know, and we cannot easily guess.




message 2: by Laura (last edited Jul 24, 2008 01:20PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Laura This is my favorite novel by Lewis. Thank you for the wonderful review (and comment). It's true, this book grows with multiple readings. It floored the first time I read it, but I missed some of meaning and much of the subtleties. I first read it when I was only 16 so needless to say I missed a lot. It reminds me very much of "The Four Loves" and it makes a good companion with that work.


Nick Having recently reread the book I think you've hit the nail right on the head, Joe. I'm hoping to make my way through the space trilogy again soon to explore some of your observations on his other more mature fiction, but in terms of what characterizes Till We Have Faces I think you've articulated it marvelously.

Isn't it interesting, though, that in this masterpiece he chose a woman as his main character? I wonder how much this contributes to its special character, given his lifelong bachelor sensibilities .... and here again I am floored by a book whose main character is female. We're on a roll here, folks.

Interestingly enough I also found there to be some correspondences between this book and his short journal after his wife's death published as A Grief Observed. Though the accusation isn't as explicit, it's there, and most likely fueled some of Orual's complexity and hiddenness during Psyche's offering and in the years following.

If you're familiar with Rene Girard, you might have picked up on a small confirmation of some of his theories of mimetic rivalry and scapegoating. They weren't central to the story but the way in which Psyche was first designated as the "Accursed" in order to require her expulsion, and then the "Blessed" after order is restored to the kingdom by sacrifice. This apotheosis of the victim might as well have been copied straight from Girard's playbook, though it was written decades earlier; I think it attests to Lewis' command of ancient literature, drama, and myth as much as it does to Girard's astute conclusions about how and why they were created.


message 4: by Joe (new) - rated it 4 stars

Joe Julie and I just listened to a series of lectures on Lewis, and the guy said that the character of Orual is partially based on Lewis' wife. Your point suggests that some of his own response to his wife's death, or to her terminal illness, might be in the character as well. Interesting.


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