A Place for “Till We Have Faces,” by David C. Downing, Wade Center Co-Director

For today’s Friday Feature I’d like to share the Wade Center blog for this month, highlighting a book that I really, really should write more about. Each time I reread Till We Have Faces it is richer than the last.

Off the Shelf

Recently the Wade Center unveiled a new display in its museum space, recounting the story of C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces (1956) and how it came to be written. The exhibit features the portable Royal typewriter upon which Joy Davidman typed the novel, as well as a colorful afghan she crocheted for Lewis.

Museum display featuring Joy’s typewriter, and first editions of TILL WE HAVE FACES by C. S. Lewis (Left: British, London: Geoffrey Bles, 1956; Right: American, New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1957).

In 1960 Lewis sadly noted about Till We Have Faces in a letter, “that book, which I consider far and away the best I have written, has been my one big failure both with critics and with the public.” But time can heal wounds and bring fresh perspectives, and Lewis’s late novel is now generally regarded as one of his best, if…

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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16 Responses to A Place for “Till We Have Faces,” by David C. Downing, Wade Center Co-Director

  1. dalejamesnelson says:

    TWHF is a major 20th-century British novel and might be better recognized as such if someone else had written it. As it is, Lewis’s fame as scholar, as writer of children’s books, as Christian apologist, and so on — though well-deserved — probably comes between some prospective readers and this book. I included it for many years in my teaching, it and would go over well, although it’s a book that needs to be re-read, and my students were first-time readers of it.

    Dale Nelson

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    • I am curious about your theory, that if someone else wrote it there would be less resistance. You could well be right on that point, and I think on two fronts. One is that of genre fiction writing and the quality critics expect. The other is the idea of Christian “allegory.”
      My undergrad students seem to do okay, but I think that it really is a better re-read and I’d love to have a group of second-time-around readers to go through it with.

      Like

      • dalejamesnelson says:

        Not to go too far away from TWHF (so blame me, if subsequent discussion does) — but this point about TWHF being a major British novel connects with the old Kathryn Lindskoog controversy. I now think that Mrs. Lindskoog was wrong about “The Dark Tower” and about some of the ways in which she conducted her campaign to force the issue of tamperings with Lewis’s writings. But I remember supporting her publicly, arguing that we have here the canon of a major British author, about which some serious allegations have been made; I’d suggest that if, say, comparable allegations were being made about George Orwells’s writings, everyone would see that, yes, we need to have a serious, impartial, scholarly investigation made, to settle as definitively as possible the textual questions. THAT was the main thing and not whether or not Walter Hooper had done wrong. But it was as if Lewis wasn’t really a major British author in a class with Orwell, or, say, Virginia Woolf or Graham Greene. But at the very least a case can be made that he was and is, and in the forefront of the case to be made for his having made a major contribution to mid-century British literature would be TWHF. Instead it seems to languish as a book that even a lot of people who think of themselves as Lewis fans haven’t read, and it gets dismissive remarks from, say, the Zaleskis in The Fellowship, their Inklings book. I wish that a bunch of people who concern themselves with the mid-century British novel (rather than specifically with Christian themes, or with fantasy, or with the Inklings, etc.) could read it without a lot of preconceptions, and then that we could hear from them about it. Is the first-person female narrator literarily effective? I remember a traditional Roman Catholic mother of my acquaintance expressing the few that this narrator is a failure, but I’m not sure exactly why. What about the family dynamics in the story? There seems to be quite a bit of interest in “dysfunctional families” these days, so what about this one? I am no admirer of most of what gets classified as “feminist,” but is it too much to hope for that there could be productive discussion of the treatment of Orual’s succeeding to her father’s throne? There are many interesting matters here for consideration after a reading of the novel, but it needs to be read through first.

        Dale Nelson

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        • There is a lot here. Yes, TWHF is an interesting novel to consider from a feminist perspective for a mid-century male British novel. The novel is literarily interesting on quite a few fronts. I don’t remember dismissive remarks, but when i hear glowing remarks or dismissive criticism I tend to ask for evidence, for people to explain their thoughts. I just don’t remember these ones, but I can see why TWHF would grate some people’s nerves, or disappoint many who look for fantasy from their author.
          As far as status, I don’t know how to judge that. When he died, he wasn’t as important as most in the Bloomsbury set or even Grahame Green or George Orwell. Over time, though, George Orwell, Lewis, and F. Scott Fitzgerald have increased in status, while others have softened. In 1977 when Lindskoog began her conversation, Lewis was an interesting apologist and pretty good Narnia writer. 40 years later he is a leading 20th century figure.
          I do think if there was a Tolkien manuscript controversy or Orwell plagiarism controversy, there would be a strong response today. But in 1977? Dunno.
          These things are viral. And, let’s be honest, 80% of the posthumous growth of an author is about movies. Orwell’s films are not terribly popular, and the Bloomsbury set haven’t created great film (with a couple of great exceptions). But, boy, Narnia, Middle-earth, Harry Potter, George Martin…. fantasy works on film.
          And so the literary vote buoys by the popular visual fan class.
          What will happen with Narnia on Netflix? I don’t know, but it will make the books sell better.

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          • dalejamesnelson says:

            Here are the Zaleskis:

            “It is the most controversial of Lewis’s fictions, intensely disliked by many of his readers, extravagantly [sic] praised by a few, an anomaly among his works with its female narrator, its bleak landscapes, its bitter, ironic tone – more than a few passages might have come from Camus or Sartre – its complex plot, its cultivated obscurities, and its uncertain conclusion. …the book’s presiding darkness and relentless melancholy make it a struggle to read and nearly impossible to cherish. …Even T. H. White – a writer deeply sympathetic to modern retellings of ancient myth – caviled over Lewis’s ‘mumbo-jumbo.’ Till We Have Faces remains, for all its brilliances, the Lewis novel most readers turn to last and slog through with grudging admiration.” The Fellowship, pp. 449-450

            I won’t take the time to spell out objections to each of the (at best) questionable statements that accumulate here. The opening sentence is a statistical one offered without support. Why the praise of the “few” is “extravagant” is not explained. They end with more dubious statistics (“most readers” turn to TWHF last and find it a slog, etc.).

            That’s what I meant about them dismissing TWHF.

            Dale Nelson

            Like

  2. Yewtree says:

    I must get around to reading TWHF. I haven’t because I tend to agree with Tolkien about allegory, and the main premise of the book seems to be that individuality didn’t exist prior to Christianity (or something) — but the book does sound interesting.

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    • dalejamesnelson says:

      Allegory? I’d say that TWHF is perhaps the most novelistic of Lewis’s books, replete with sensory details, the examination of motive (by a fallible narrator), the evocation not of a timeless realm but of a well-realized (though imagined) time and place in our world, etc.

      Have you read Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw? TWHF has some affinity with that novella, but as if Lewis was concerned not with evil so much as with holiness. But the governess (who is not insane and is not hallucinating ghosts) and Orual have some interesting similarities.

      Dale Nelson

      Liked by 1 person

      • dalejamesnelson says:

        I wrote awkwardly just now in that I seem to be implying that an allegory will lack sensory details. Of course that’s not necessarily the case. I suppose what I was getting at is that the book contains plenty of sensory details intended to evoke objective scenes that build up Glome, etc. in the reader’s mind as a “real” tiny kingdom of the ancient world.

        DN

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      • Yewtree says:

        I haven’t read Turn of the Screw because I don’t do horror (I’m scared by 1930s horror films with obviously fake rubber bats).

        But you’ve convinced me to read TWHF 🙂

        Like

  3. L.A. Smith says:

    I will admit that I haven’t read TWHF yet. I think I got scared off by the whole “retelling of the Psyche myth” thing and thought it might be above me. But everything I read about it tells me that I do need to give it a try. Hopefully next year!

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    • dalejamesnelson says:

      I’ve read TWHF nine times, most of those times being in connection with my teaching at a state university. It was one of the books in a course on the British Novel. The course met once a week on Monday evenings and we’d spend two weeks on it. I prepared a list of proposed pronunciations and major concerns to help students. Some readers may be put off by unfamiliar names, or, if reading fantasy, by names that depart from certain “templates.” Having a list of names in itself could help first-time readers.

      The novel held up very well.

      DN

      Liked by 1 person

    • You could do a year of reading books you’ve avoided!

      Like

  4. Pingback: The Shape of the Cross in C.S. Lewis’ Writing: My Oct 23rd Talk at the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society | A Pilgrim in Narnia

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