It is Easy to Teach C.S. Lewis’ “Till We Have Faces,” but It’s Hard to Blog About It

Though I am always nudging readers to see The Great Divorce as C.S. Lewis’ most genius work of fiction, Till We Have Faces truly is a remarkable novel. It is the dying-days journal of Orual, Queen of Glome, who sues her capricious gods for their unfairness to her. The writing is elegant, the portrait is intimate, the transformational element is intricately tied to the psychological development in Orual’s tale, and the fictional world is complete. I know of many people who resist Lewis’ work, but admit that Till We Have Faces is among the 20th century’s important novels.

And, despite this, in more than 900 posts, I have never really blogged about Till We Have Faces. I have several hours of lectures about the novel, and get to teach it twice this semester–once at The King’s College, and once at Signum University, with two weeks in each class for discussion. These teaching times have included several close readings of texts. Moreover, Till We Have Faces is critical to my research into C.S. Lewis’ theology. And, despite all this, I have struggled to talk about Lewis’ only work of “literary fiction” for the blogging community.

Part of this hesitancy, I think, is that I don’t fully understand the novel. Unlike some work that is obscure or poorly written, each time I have read the book I have deepened in my knowledge. Over time, some questions have settled in for me:

  • How does Till We Have Faces connect to the rest of Lewis’ fiction?
  • How do we read TWHF in the midst of Lewis’ life?
  • What is the novel’s relationship to the cross–an event that will come later in the secondary world that he has created?
  • How is the critical moment of transformation in the text related to Lewis’ theological understanding of human experience and God’s character?
  • How can there be “love that is not love?”

But there are other questions that still gnaw at me. When reading, I can often intimate the answers to them. When I set the text down and look around, though, I have trouble talking about these ideas that seem to slip away from me. Here are some questions I keep asking myself:

  • What does it mean that Orual says, “I am Psyche?”
  • There is a tremendous amount of gender play in the book. How are these integrated into Lewis’ understanding of sex and gender roles when he wrote the book? Are they even coherent?
  • It is clear to see how Psyche is a Christ-figure; what is the role of the Shadowbrute?
  • Beyond that, what is the speculative logic behind the god figures in the universe of the text?
  • I understand Orual’s dream-vision and Psyche’s temptations in the way they relate to the story of Cupid and Psyche that went before, but some of the details about how they connect to Orual’s awakening are confusing to me.
  • What does the title mean?

I have decided not to worry too much about all the limitations I have in reading Till We Have Faces. As good wood matures and grows richer in colour, I trust that the novel will also deepen inside of me. But I have decided to share some of the things that I have discovered over my years of reading the text. I hope that these thoughts this spring can strengthen the reading of those who love this novel, and encourage people who enjoy literary fiction or Lewis’ other storytelling to pick up Till We Have Faces for the first time.

So over the next few weeks, I am going to include some thoughts about the Till We Have Faces. Some of these are about background reading, such as Lewis’ writing life and the novel’s journey to publication. Others are reflections on the text, such as a word study on “cruel” and a thoughtful post about “Orual and the King of Glome.” I hope you can join me in this series, reading and talking about what some consider to be C.S. Lewis’ crowning literary achievement, Till We Have Faces.

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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36 Responses to It is Easy to Teach C.S. Lewis’ “Till We Have Faces,” but It’s Hard to Blog About It

  1. dpmonahan says:

    Interesting that Lewis started writing fiction in middle age and saved his best for last. Most authors start young and peak fairly early.
    The thought occurred to me yesterday that Lewis’ fiction is over-praised in Anglophone Christian circles, not taken seriously outside those circles, and his best novel universally ignored.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Wayne Stauffer says:

    Hi Brenton, I heard Andrew Lazo talk for a bit at the CSL Retreat in Texas last November, and he thinks that TWHF is a fictionalized version of Lewis’ The Four Loves. That Lewis wrote TWHF partly in response to misunderstandings of TFL. Lazo is working on an analysis of this novel. Don’t know if article or book length.

    wayno Sent from my iPad

    >

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hey Brenton,

    We’re nearing the end of TWHF on our podcast and would love to have you on the show to talk about your articles when you’re done.

    Thanks,

    David.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Not having reread it for awhile… I have been wondering in how far it (a) fits in with all the (mythic) historical novels the Fifties (and, with. e.g,, Pargeter’s Heaven Tree trilogy of the early Sixties), and (b) fits in with Tolkien’s massive mythic historical novel, The Lord of the Rings, which immediately preceded it – and for that matter, with the assorted queens (and pretended queens) – and mysterious Lion – of Narnia.

    Looking forward to this series!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. danaames says:

    I’m looking forward to it as well. It heartens me that you admit you don’t fully understand it 🙂 I’ve read it twice and most of it is still a mystery to me. I think a lot of that has to do with not having the tremendous literary background Lewis did. I like seeing the big picture, and I feel like the picture of TWHF is beyond my grasp: all the connections and allusions he would have been making in his own mind, and thinking about how he wanted to say what he was thinking and feeling. And also how much of it is Joy. So, thanking you in advance.

    Dana

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Christine Norvell says:

    So glad you are writing out your thoughts here! “What is that critical theological moment?” Eager to see what you think.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’ve never thought of Psyche as a Christ figure. I’ve thought of the Shadowbrute as the Christ figure. Christ is the Bridegroom, after all.
    I’m quite open to a woman being a type of Christ; in fact I think that happens fairly often in the Bible. I even think there are a couple places where the bride/bridegroom imagery switches in the Bible. But I don’t think Lewis would have been open to that, and I really can’t imagine him having a bride serve as the Christ figure. He’s all about how we’re all feminine vis a vis God, who is always masculine to us…. And talking about the psyche/soul as the bride is pretty standard in Christian tradition. He might have a woman Christ figure in a non-nuptial context, but not within such a context.
    Of course Joy had influence on this book. But I still can’t see it. I’ll keep thinking about it.

    Like

    • Thanks for the note, Laura. Can I respond in a post to this? Basically, Psyche is sacrificed upon a barren tree by a nation to die in the stead of her people. The sacrifice does indeed bring the salvation they are looking for, though it is more complex than they know. Something is going on here, and it’s connected, I think, to Lewis’s theology as a whole.

      Like

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Tangentially, re. Lewis’s imaginative appreciation of female Divine imagery, it is worth (re)reading his review (of the same title) of Robert Ellrodt’s Neoplatonism in the Poetry of Spenser published in Etudes Anglaises sixty-nine years ago this month (and reprinted in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature (CUP, 1966) ).

        Liked by 1 person

      • Well, sure, saints and martyrs resemble Christ in lots of ways. But Psyche is married to a god, whom she betrays. Who is he, if she’s the Christ figure? And how can a true Christ figure be a betrayer? The symbolism falls apart for me there.
        Also, her name means “soul” – which is not really subtle. So I find it more fruitful to think of her as a saint or a pilgrim; in medieval terms, she’s a soul in ascent toward God. She’s not a confused pilgrim like John in The Pilgrim’s Regress, but a model pilgrim.

        Like

  8. Sorry – I got caught up in a specific question and neglected to say thanks for a thought provoking post! I am glad you’ll be posting more about it.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. L.A. Smith says:

    I will admit that I have never read TWHF. The subject matter intimidates me, to be honest. I don’t know a lot about the Greek myths. But it is a book I am determined to read this year, so I am looking forward to your posts on it. Hopefully I will get inspired to start it! Currently reading The Brothers Karamazov, though (another one I’ve been meaning to read for a long time) so TWHF might have to wait for a bit until I’m done TBK.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Karamazov is a profound novel. TWHF is less great, but right up your line.

      Liked by 1 person

      • L.A. Smith says:

        Awesome! I’m looking forward to it. I’m about halfway through TBK and finally starting to get into it. It was a bit of a slog at the beginning, tbh. All that speechifying!! 😀

        Like

        • I’m actually teaching the Grand Inquisitor “poem” next week, but only read the whole for the first time in 2018. While many say Anna Karenina is the great novel, Karamazov blew me away as Crime & Punishment did, but with so much more weight. Both have taken 6 months to read!

          Liked by 1 person

          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            We got assigned Crime & Punishment for our senior year in high school – at the beginning of the summer vacation after the junior year, so we could have about three months to read it! I liked it so much, I went on to TBK and the Idiot – though I only got round to Notes from Underground fairly recently, and have still not read The Possessed.

            There’s an enjoyable abridged Grand Inquisitor dramatization:

            Liked by 1 person

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      I’m confident it can be enjoyed simply as a pre-Christian historical novel with convincing supernatural elements (perhaps interesting to compare and contrast with Mary Renault’s The King Must Die from a couple years later).

      Liked by 1 person

  10. lk. says:

    There’s an interesting part about how Psyche and Orual experience the god – I think the time the story is set is sometime after that of Barfield’s Original Participation, after the time when the spiritual world was an experienced reality rather than a belief.
    Lewis seems to elevate Psyche’s experience above that of the pagan ‘participation’ however, and though it’s not Christian it is premonitory of it. Orual’s blindness is very interesting in this regard in the light of her later understanding.
    And the later matter of the ‘images’ – the statues and cults that spring up around Psyche, counterpoised against the earlier naturally formed rock ‘venus’ (which is based on real mediterranean idols).
    It moves from symbolical to a reality, albeit one which can, at that point in history, hardly be more than fleetingly experienced, and passes back into mere representations.
    The story transcends the allegorical in a similar way.
    I think Lewis, stimulated by Barfield, takes the latter’s insights further and illuminates aspects of them. Maybe this is why it was his favourite among Lewis’ books.

    Like

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