A few months ago, I was boring my friend to tears, telling him how I’d read my children Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader on a six-hour car ride. Saving me from my own encomium, he interrupted with a bold claim: “Narnia is great, but Till We Have Faces is C.S. Lewis’s best work, hands down!” Surely, he couldn’t be serious. Admitting I’d never read it, I promised soon to disprove him. Well, whether providence or the gods, or dumb luck were to blame, on the very next day my habitual stroll past the “discarded/free books” table at my University’s library brought me face-to-face with a ratty old codex, the cover worn beyond legibility and entirely torn from the book’s corpus. This book, literally, refused to be judged by its cover. You’ll have already guessed its title—I soon discovered its identity as C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold. Not one to tempt the Lord, I vowed then and there to read it post haste.
Two pages in,I knew I wasn’t in Narnia anymore. Based on a myth found in the Latin novel Metamorphoses, this retelling gives the story of an irascible King’s three daughters: the eldest is a Frump-asaurus Rex; the middle a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model; and the third a beauty so innocent and profound she is taken for a goddess by the townsfolk.C.S. Lewis takes the title of his reworked mythical novel from a question asked by the heroine (or villain?) near the book’s climax. The oldest daughter (Orual), cursed with an irredeemably ugly countenance, having suffered the loss of her sister (Psyche) at the hands of the gods, wishes more than anything to render publicly her charge against the gods. She claims the gods are guilty of stealing the greatest of human loves (namely her own love for Psyche). Still worse, the gods expect belief and obedience while refusing adequate positive evidence for that belief. Orual finally gets her chance in a vision wherein she journeys to a mountain containing the presence of the dead and those who would hear and answer her case against the gods. She blames the gods for not more directly (and sooner) revealing themselves and Psyche’s enchanted castle. Had they done so, Orual would not have lost Psyche to lifelong exilic wanderings. At the moment of her chance before the judgment seat, however, before the dead and the gods, she asks: “how can we meet them face to face till we have faces?” I think it is the central question Lewis’s masterful retelling. In the hopes of sparking some late summer reading and some interesting debate, allow me hazard an answer to Orual’s query.
The question is baffling in part because its terms are opaque. Who are they? What does “faces” mean? On the face of it (I couldn’t resist the pun), “they” are the gods, and “faces” cannot mean simply the anatomical face. It must mean the capacity or means to intentionally project one’s identity. Such a reading makes sense of the various uses of “face” in the text. Being a blog post, this composition excludes my making a complete case. Begging your charity, therefore, I will highlight a couple poignant moments in the effort to inspire your own reading of Lewis’s masterpiece. First, Orual (the eldest, ugly daughter) decides, upon becoming Queen, to wear always her veil. This decision to efface herself amounts to the construction of a new identity. She becomes “the faceless one.” She is the one who sees all faces, all emotions and thoughts born out on them, yet refuses to reveal her own. Her effort to remain faceless behind the veil, however, is betrayed one night when she must attempt to walk through town unrecognized. Her disguise of choice, however, is none other than her own countenance. In leaving the veil behind, she discovers that the blank, expressionless, one-way mirror of her veil had become her true face. Hers was the power to withhold the mystery of her identity; hers was the power to see and not be seen, to behold yet be unbeheld, to know while remaining unknown.
The beauty and irony of this discovery is its corollary—that Orual has been grasping at being everything she so hated about the gods; namely, their unwillingness to reveal freely their “faces.” Their local goddess (Ungit), whom she viscerally hates, is none other than a faceless monolith in a dark temple. Ultimately, she can take on any face her worshippers desire, any angle of her multifaceted surface becomes its own face for the one coming to sprinkle blood on her stoney skin. Furthermore, Orual cannot decide whether her sister Psyche is delusional when claiming she has been wed to “the god of the mountain,” who built her an invisible castle and visits her nightly but commands her never to gaze upon his countenance. Unable to believe this fantasy, Orual compels her sister to steal a glance at her lover by lamplight. As a consequence of this “enlightenment,” Psyche is cast into the darkness of a life of wandering exile. Demanding to see the god’s face, she is cast from the sight of all the living. At the moment of Psyche’s exile, this “god of the mountain” blasts Orual with the full glory of his own “face,” the beauty and brilliance of which burns a blackened imprint on her soul.
With these reflections I’ve barely scratched the surface of Lewis’s grand myth retold. I hope you bring yourself face-to-face with this novel over the next month. Let’s plumb the depths of Lewis’s imagination together!