Dance, Long, Leap, Speak, Conquer, Break: The Heart in C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces

A friend of mine recently sent me a digital liturgy she had made for her church’s Zoom Vespers. As I typically haunt churches that look and feel more like small British rock revival concert, I am a bit of a liturgy clod. I have come, though, to appreciate the delicate beauty of the ancient art of liturgy writing. So I was very curious to see what traditional, liturgical churches were doing digitally during COVID-19.

As I expected, my friend did a lovely job, bringing together poetic prayer, classical music, and her own nature photography. I have as little to add about liturgy as I do about winetasting or water buffalo husbandry, but I did have one thought. She included lines from the instrumental music in her prayer, like a liturgical leitmotif. One of the lines was “Why should our hearts be sad?”, offering an exuberant invitation to live and love. Tentatively, I offered her what for me is one of the most gorgeous lines in C.S. Lewis’ literary fiction, Till We Have Faces:

“Why should your heart not dance?” (I.9).

Yes, why not?

The line didn’t fit this liturgical moment, but it keeps calling me back to new discoveries in Till We Have Faces–a text I teach almost every year, and yet never seem to find the bottom of.

This heart-dance lure occurs after Orual’s sister-daughter has been sacrificed to the god of the mountain. Disbelieving that Psyche has experienced anything more complicated than exposure following mob violence, Orual is determined to attend to her sister’s remains. Grief is a curious thing, and even in our deepest grief, we find laughter or hope springing into our hearts. Often enough, we feel that invitation out of the darkness as a kind of betrayal to the one we have lost, to their memory, to the grief we are carefully cultivating in our hearts.

This is what Orual feels as she climbs the dew-laden mountain into the warm sunlight. Orual allows her face to feel the sun, to sense both the natural beauty and “the huge and ancient stillness” that means she is on the doorstep of the divine. And though she had set out on a sad errand with all due gravity, her heart began to betray her:

Now, flung at me like frolic or insolence, there came as if it were a voice—no words—but if you made it into words it would be, “Why should your heart not dance?” It’s the measure of my folly that my heart almost answered, “Why not?”

Yes, why not? Yet, the grip of grief is deep, and we see that Orual has determined to live in sadness and hopelessness.

I had to tell myself over like a lesson the infinite reasons it had not to dance. My heart to dance? Mine whose love was taken from me, I, the ugly princess who must never look for other love, the drudge of the King, the jailer of hateful Redival, perhaps to be murdered or turned out as a beggar when my father died—for who knew what Glome would do then?

There is for Orual a litany of reasons why her heart should not dance, and yet….

And yet, it was a lesson I could hardly keep in my mind. The sight of the huge world put mad ideas into me, as if I could wander away, wander forever, see strange and beautiful things, one after the other to the world’s end. The freshness and wetness all about me (I had seen nothing but drought and withered things for many months before my sickness) made me feel that I had misjudged the world; it seemed kind, and laughing, as if its heart also danced. Even my ugliness I could not quite believe in. Who can feel ugly when the heart meets delight? It is as if, somewhere inside, within the hideous face and bony limbs, one is soft, fresh, lissom and desirable.

Orual rules her heart, and the loss wins out, though the heart-struggle continues for hours. “Was I not right to struggle against this fool-happy mood?” Orual asks. Could “a mere burst of fair weather, and fresh grass after a long drought, and health after sickness” make her “friends again with this god-haunted, plague-breeding, decaying, tyrannous world”? Orual is determined that they will not. And as they come to the place of sacrifice, Orual sees she has had reason not to give in to the joy.

Here the gods ceased trying to make me glad. There was nothing here that even the merriest heart could dance for.

The reality is, though, that Orual’s heart and will have betrayed her and will soon cause her to betray her greatest love.

Psyche lives–and lives well, if Orual could but let her heart be opened to the possibility of it. Rather than remains or a robber’s den, Orual finds Psyche glowing with health in a divine palace upon the mountains. As it turns out, Orual’s walk of misery and grief has all along been an invitation to Psyche’s palace. When the “first wildness of my joy” passes from Orual, she turns her mind to plans to get Psyche back home. For Psyche, happy as a queen and wife to the god of the mountain, there is nothing to do but share joy together:

Do? Why, be merry, what else? Why should our hearts not dance? (I.10).

There it is: Why should our hearts not dance? The voice of the god infused in Orual’s tempted heart by the natural beauty of the mountain is the same as Psyche’s own invitation to joy.

It is an invitation that Orual cannot receive. This is often the case with love, that because of how we see the world and because of the wounds we have received, we cannot receive the love of God, a parent, a mentor, or a child. We may not even be fully deceived in that resistance, but our lack of trust often creates its own wounds, doesn’t it?

It does for Orual, who stands against Psyche’s invitation to joy:

“my whole heart leaped to shut the door against something monstrously amiss—not to be endured. And to keep it shut” (I.11).

Her will and heart then conspire against Psyche’s joy:

Now again I made a deep resolve. I was half frightened when I perceived what I was resolving. “So it might come even to that,” my heart said; even to killing her (I.12).

Orual then goes to “the heart of the Moutain” (I.11) to compel Psyche with violence–homicide and suicide both, though only suicide is needed as a threat–to betray her love and to set aside her joy for Orual’s own alienated happiness.

I know, it isn’t exactly this way for Orual. She is for the most part unable to see Psyche’s palace and thus unable truly to believe that Psyche is happy and well. But her self-deception is deeper than she can know. For a moment, unveiled and kneeling beside the river that separates the holy part of the mountain from the natural part, Orual is able to see the palace: “saw that which brought my heart into my throat.” She almost even relents:

“She is happy,” said my heart.


My heart did not conquer me (I.12).

Orual was able to rule her heart as she ruled her kingdom, and she lost Psyche forever.

I am not certain why I had not seen before what you, dear reader, by now have seen: “Heart” is a critical theme in Till We Have Faces. Besides a handful of uses of “heartily,” the word “heart” occurs 72 times. People are constantly considering something in their hearts, and Orual’s heart bodes ruin–though she resists this intuitive warning. Psyche causes people to have a “pang” in their hearts, to be “cut to the heart,” to have one’s heart torn out, and when there is hope, to have hearts “crack for joy.” Though she threatens violence, Orual believes that she is “heart-shattered for Psyche’s sake.” Orual determines to harden her heart and accuses Pysche of having a “heart of iron” and stone–a theme I will return to in the next part of the Till We Have Faces series. Of course, hearts are broken all over the place.

Time and again–at critical points on almost every page–Lewis draws us to the heart. As the journal of Till We Have Faces is was originally written in Greek, I think of καρδία, the Greek word that is the organ of physical life that is also the seat of emotion, spiritual life, will, and mental clarity. Though it is attested from Homer and etymologically connected to our Old English heorte, it was taken up in Greco-Roman Jewish and Christian writings to especially capitalize on the central unity of volition, feeling, perception, and thought.

Applied to Till We Have Faces, we see that elastic, fulsome word usage at play. I will finish with three short examples that capture the breadth of Lewis’ use of the term.

Firstly, I spoke at the beginning of this series about a heart-felt peasant Pagan prayer in the story–unique, I thought. There is another such prayer, but with a much different energy. Orual at one point “took back every word I had said against” and made promises to the gods. The context is worth reading:

Then I did a thing which I think few have done. I spoke to the gods myself, alone, in such words as came to me, not in a temple, and without a sacrifice. I stretched myself face downward on the floor and called upon them with my whole heart. I took back every word I had said against them. I promised anything they might ask of me, if only they would send me a sign. They gave me none. When I began there was red firelight in the room and rain on the roof; when I rose up again the fire had sunk a little lower, and the rain drummed on as before (I.13).

Secondly, Orual’s choice to harden her own heart leads to a heart that is completely protected from love:

I could have loved him [her nephew and heir] if I had let myself and if Redival had been out of the way. But I would never give my heart again to any young creature (I.21).

I have written before about Lewis’ famous comment about vulnerability, but it is a worthy illustration of what the story shows us:

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give it to no one and nothing, not even an animal. You must carefully wrap it round with hobbies and little luxuries and routine and avoidances of entanglement, and then lock it up in the casket or coffin of your own selfishness. And this means that in the long run, the alternative to tragedy, or at least to the threat of tragedy, is damnation, for in that casket – safe, still, and unventilated in the darkness – it will go bad; not broken, but finally unbreakable, impenetrable, resistant to all good and joy… (The Four Loves lecture).

Finally, when Orual resolves to compel Psyche–to make her act without free consent, to “overrule” her–all things break and the true heart of Orual is revealed. “I am not sure whether I like your kind better than hatred” Psyche cries to her sister (I.14).

The lesson of love that is not love works its way through Orual’s story. Orual comes to realize that “love like that can grow to be nine-tenths hatred and still call itself love” (II.1). Psyche, “the very heart of my heart,” was actually the one whom Orual hardened her heart against. We see the moment of resolve in Orual:

“My heart was still as ice, heavy as lead, cold as earth, but I was free now from all doubting and deliberating” (I.14).

Yet, this heart-stillness is a complete delusion. It is actually the breaking of the unity of the heart. By setting her will against her reason–and both against her love–Orual shatters the integrated reality that is the human heart. In the space of “two heartbeats,” Orual writes, “my heart broke then.” I know what she means, and she both causes and experiences terrible sadness. But the reality is that Orual’s heart was already broken.

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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37 Responses to Dance, Long, Leap, Speak, Conquer, Break: The Heart in C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thank you – this was very fine! Dale and I have embarked on rereading Paradise Lost in parallel (with room for relaxed discussion), but this gave the biggest boost yet in your series to get me rereading TWHF nearly asap. (I’m having a Lewisier ‘intelligent lockdown’ (as the Dutch Government deems it) than expected – though if it continues into a Lewisy ‘intelligent further loosening’, I’ll not object…)

    Scattered thoughts:

    Reading along, I was just thinking of Lewis’s discussion of ‘kardia’ in The Discarded Image (VII, D: p. 160 in the ed. we have), when you discussed it similarly!

    I’ve just started on Satan’s soliloquy at the beginning of Book IV of Paradise Lost, and it looks an interesting comparison to your discussion, here – especially re. your first (I.9) series of quotations – but also implicitly very interesting to compare with your L.13 one on spontaneous and – organized? – ritualized? – prayer.

    Her I.9 reflection on ugliness got me thinking it would be interesting to compare the treatment of various women in Edith Pargeter’s Heaven Tree trilogy, which started appearing a couple years after TWHF (1960) – especially, her imagination of the inner life of the historical Princess Joan (bastard of King John, wife of Llewelyn the Great) and that of the (I take it) fictional Lady Benedetta.


    • A “Lewis Lockdown” sounds like an event I should have hosted!
      Oh, my post was just too long to get to the Discarded Image bit. I have trouble knowing how to date that book as it began in the ’30s and was published after he died. I also quibble a bit with how Lewis reads Paul there and didn’t want the complication. “It will be in the final chapter” is my answer, I guess! Just not sure what book.
      I’m not sure I see the Paradise Lost link. Can you help me?


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        That is a big and fascinating question – or field of questions – what would have been part of that lecture series lying behind the book over the – decades (!) he gave it? I’ve just been wondering about Jean Seznec and his book, The Survival of the Pagan Gods: Mythological Tradition in Renaissance Humanism and Art (1953), in this context. I don’t think I realized till a couple days ago that Seznec was at All Souls College, as Marshal Foch Professor of French Literature at the University of Oxford from 1950 until his retirement in 1972. Lewis could have known him personally – did he? (I don’t know, but maybe ‘we’ do!) Again, Lewis as a fluent reader of French could easily have known the first edition of that book, La survivance des dieux antiques. Essai sur le rôle de la tradition mythologique dans l’humanisme et dans l’art de la Renaissance (Studies of the Warburg Institute, 11), (London: The Warburg Institute 1940). Was it a part of those lectures from 1940 on?

        Maybe you’re ‘kardia quibble’ might provide a post, someday?

        That Paradise Lost comment was obscure! I was struck in Satan’s soliloquy by his perceptions of the personal (ahem) ‘heart’ of worship: “What could be less than to afford him [God, the Father] praise, / The easiest recompense, and pay him thanks, / How due!”, in comparison to Orual’s “I spoke to the gods myself, alone, in such words as came to me […] and called upon them with my whole heart” – something that has become unusual in her place in human history and culture. Yet, in earlier Books of Paradise Lost we see, if not exactly ‘ritual’, yet shared ‘liturgy’ – e.g., in III, 344-417, which ends “thus they [the faithful angels] in heav’n […] / Their happy hours in joy and hymning spent” – which Satan and the rebel angels presumably must once have done, too. But, now refuse to do – emphatically, in that soliloquy – which movement from recognition to rejection is interesting to compare with Orual’s experience and response as you show it in the I.9 quotations: compare, but not simply equate with…

        Liked by 1 person

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Has your friend loaded a YouTube (or Vimeo or wherever) recording of the Vespers? One of the astonishing effects (as far as I can see) of ‘lockdowns’ (etc.) is both the proliferation of online (shall I say) ‘liturgies’ and the heightened awareness of how much has come to be available already as the years have gone by. On (so to put it) ‘eastern reckoning’ Good Friday, I went looking for some Orthodox liturgical music, and ended up moving eastward over time zones trying to see as much of Ethiopian livestream services as I could (now, to find out exactly what was going on, as they were clearly geared to existing bodies of informed Church members). My wife has been able to attend daily services (at least visually and audibly) for the first time since she was a schoolgirl, and though my schola is suspended, I’ve been able to chant along in real time during sung services. (Providentially, in the autumn I found and bought a second-hand “Paroissien Romain”, and similarly in January last year a “Quindena Paschalis”.)

    (With respect to her including lines from the instrumental music in her prayer, on the King’s Birthday, Monday, I encountered on YouTube ‘Choros 6 “Wilhelmus van Nassouwe”‘ (op. 77) from 1957
    by the Dutch composer, Anthon van der Horst, in which each of the fifteen verses (!) of the national anthem (many of which are in fact prayers) was treated differently, including the interrelation of spoken word and lines from the tune played instrumentally.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • David, I know you are liturgist. Is that a word? I’m at the end of my liturgy knowledge right now! Her work is not online as far as I know–though I’m sure it is available somewhere.
      It could be an interesting liturgical period of renewal.


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Well, I did help put together a super-short Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, once… but I’m mostly a layman who wants – and loves – to learn more!

        I agree – it could, and it’s certainly very interesting as it goes along, with lots of (room for) enrichment, for us ordinary folk, ‘trying’ new liturgical things… (One of my choirs is embarked on recording choral contributions to livestream services, but I’m not yet clear about our domestic level of technology letting me get involved!)

        Liked by 1 person

        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          By the way, here’s a ‘virtual’ variant on a distinctly Magdalen-College liturgy (with some jokey ‘outtakes’ about working from home…):

          Liked by 1 person

          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            I see there is a Wikipedia article with text and translation of the traditional hymn: “Hymnus Eucharisticus” – there’s an 1848 magazine publication of the music and text (and a singable English text which clearly does not aspire to exact translation) in the Internet Archive, but I have not found more detail easy to discover (though there is a 1986 Folklore article I cannot ‘access’, but others – with immediate (university) library connections – may be able to).

            Liked by 1 person

        • Right, less liturgy and more choir.


          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            Lots of good questions implicit, there – re. ‘how much’ of ‘what’, how combined (said, sung, familiar, unfamiliar, etc.)?

            Liked by 1 person

  3. Joe R. Christopher says:

    A good discussion of “heart” in TWHF. Thank you!


  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I syncopated my Paradise Lost progress the last couple days, by starting to read a bit of Robert Grave’s novel, Homer’s Daughter (1955), hoping to ‘wind down’ after Satan’s soliloquy, so I could get to sleep – but got absorbed and drawn on… and read it right through in a couple days!

    Hmm… the things I don’t know – how unusual was it in the1950s to have a first-person narrative by the daughter of a minor king on the fringes of the antique world? Is this a (sub-)genre? Anyway, it seems interesting to compare and contrast Homer’s Daughter and TWHF – though it only occurred to me late in my reading to think I should have been looking out for and noting ‘heart’ imagery! After which, I encountered an intriguing discussion of ‘heartlessness’ – !

    I don’t want to give away too much (though I suppose the “Prologue” is already full of foreshadowing)… I can imagine Tolkien and Lewis and Joy and Warnie and Barfield might have enjoyed this novel – do ‘we’ know if any of them did?


    • I’ve always wondered how one “winds down” after Satan’s soliloquy!
      I think we can see various bits of other stories and forms in Till We Have Faces. I guess my question is this: What modern novels do we compare TWHF with?
      I haven’t read anything of Graves, except some of the memoir. I have always meant to. Where should I start?


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        I read the (or ‘a’?) Penguin edition of the revised version of the memoir, Good-Bye to All That, and thoroughly enjoyed it (though it leaves me curious about the first edition…). But I have not caught up with a lot of his fiction – my first was Count Belisarius (1938), which I enjoyed. And Homer’s Daughter is my second. Maybe, with an eye to TWHF comparison and contrast, it would be a good first one to try…

        Having watched the BBC Claudius dramatization, I bought the books (I think ‘remaindered’ inexpensively) – and have never yet read them (!). I remember being struck by Lewis’s remarks to Arthur Greeves in his 23 December 1941 letter, about I Claudius being “quite interesting, but so close to Tacitus and Suetonius that perhaps he doesn’t deserve very much credit for it.” I think this left me wondering if I should read Tacitus and Suetonius first (in translation) – but I haven’t managed that, either, yet, beyond the Penguin translation of Tacitus’s Histories (which are post-Claudius) and browsing around in his Annals a bit. I suppose I’m a bit shy of finding out by experience how much nastiness Suetonius treats in detail (after things I’ve heard), and how explicitly Graves follows him… As the saying goes, ‘there are things you can’t unsee’, which goes for the mind’s eye, too…

        Again, I’ve heard good things about The Story of Marie Powell: Wife to Mr. Milton (1943), but vacillate about trying it, too… And somehow vacillate more broadly about Graves’s fiction, thinking ‘should I?’, when I see a good second-hand buy, and being tempted to kick myself afterwards when I decided, ‘umm, no…’ So, I’m not the best ‘guide to Graves’, alas. But I’m glad I read Homer’s Daughter, though it has ferocious stuff, with something like a ‘hard-boiled historical fiction’ style in some ways. (That got me wondering if it is also interesting to compare and contrast with aspects of That Hideous Strength – which I’ll further leave cryptic, to avoid spoilers!)


        • Right, thanks for this list. I may actually work through Good-by first, and maybe see the Claudius film. I hadn’t even heard of the Powell book.


          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            I hear-tell there’s a good BBC radio-play version of Claudius out there, too…

            A couple Milton scholars told me they enjoyed the Powell book… maybe I should ‘brace up’ and give it a try (if I can get a copy easily)…


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        What modern novels do we compare TWHF with? A good question, also as to what elements – like, set in antiquity, (seeming to be) taking ‘the numinous’ seriously, first-person narration, woman narrating (or a main protagonist)? Your question, for instance, suddenly got me thinking how interesting it might be to compare and contrast Orual and Galadriel (as much as we know about her, outside, as well as in, The Lord of the Rings)…


        • Another great paper topic!


        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          Reading Arthur Ransome’s Autobiography (ed. Rupert Hart-Davis), I find he noted what he considered a good piece of advice, from the “well-known writer of short stories” and “close friend of Joseph Conrad”, Perceval Gibbon: “Never, if you can possibly help it, put your story into the mouth of one of your characters.” A challenging suggestion, in the context of Homer’s Daughter and TWHF, both of which succeed in doing just the opposite. A tantalizing one, too, in that he does not discuss it further. Might Gibbon and Ransome have viewed it as too limiting, and much more difficult to do well? In any case, Ransome, in his excellent 12-book Swallows and Amazons series, does what Lewis does both with Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra and (though less emphatically) the Narnia books, presenting himself as someone who knows the main people involved in the events and telling their story in the third person.


  5. Joe R. Christopher says:

    I was left trying to remember what I’ve read by Graves. King Jesus, yes. The White Goddess, yes. Hercules, My Shipmate (I think that’s one of the titles of the novel about the golden fleece), yes. The novel laid in the future with a revival of the Goddess worship–yes, I think so, but it was a long time ago. And a number of his poems. Lewis refers to Graves at least twice.


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