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Thursday, July 05, 2007

Till We Have Faces, by C. S. Lewis

I think, and I am by no means alone, that Till We Have Faces is the finest work of fiction by C. S. Lewis, who also wrote the Narnia books and the Space Trilogy. Since those works have considerable merit of their own, Till We Have Faces is pretty good. (See here for the Wikipedia article on the book. Here is an article on the book, and here is another.)

Why do I feel this way? Because the book is well written. Because it is a thorough examination of the life, and character, of a single individual, namely Orual, queen of a fictional kingdom in the neighborhood of Greece, before the time of Christ. Lewis seems to have known that time, and that civilization, well. He believed that pagans were often led toward Christ: There are people in other religions who are being led by God's secret influence to concentrate on those parts of their religion which are in agreement with Christianity, and who thus belong to Christ without knowing it. . . . Many of the good Pagans long before Christ's birth may have been in this position. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity: What One Must Believe to Be a Christian. New York: Macmillan, 1952. pp. 175-6. (There is a Calormene who has this experience in Lewis's The Last Battle.)

What is the book about? Well, I don't want to give away all of the plot, but it is about Orual's search for vindication by the gods. She wants them to say that she has done the right thing. They answer, but their answer is much like the answer that God gave to Job, namely Himself. Here are a few quotations from the book.

And because it was so beautiful, it set me longing, always longing. Somewhere else there must be more of it. C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980, p. 74. Istra/Psyche, speaking of the Grey Mountain. This states one of the themes of the work of Lewis -- the idea of sehnsucht, sweet desire.

There's one part love in your heart, and five parts anger, and seven parts pride. C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980, p. 148. The Fox, her teacher, on Orual's attitude (and mine, I fear).

I ended my first book with the words no answer. I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice? C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980, p. 308. Orual's tale is in two parts, the second short. With this statement, she summarizes the results of stating her case that she has not received justice from the gods. How true of Christ this is! He is the only answer.

Thanks for reading.


Neil Gussman said...

I've been a member of the New York CS Lewis Society since 1980. When the subject of Lewis' fiction comes up, many members say "Till We Have Faces" is CSL's best. When my daughters were 11 and 13, I read TWHF aloud to them. Thanks for a great post.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks! And thank God for the late CSL.

Julana said...

I'm finally getting around to reading Alan Jacob's The Narnian, and really enjoying it. I re-reread the Space Trilogy last year. It's been quite awhile since TWHF. I hope to start through some of Lewis's work again. I have a cousin who is quite a fan.

Martin LaBar said...

Lewis is always worth reading, and reading again.


Trish said...

I agree with you that this is by far Lewis's finest work of fiction; it was also the one he liked the best.
I wish it were better known, because it would put an end once and for all to the claim that Lewis hated women. The narrator, Oruel, is a woman, and is perhaps his most sympathetic and most finely drawn protagonist.

Martin LaBar said...

"Lewis hated women?" That's a strange claim, even without Orual.

There's Lucy Pevensie, for one, who is the most important character (except Aslan) in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.

There's also the Green Woman in Perelandra, and quite a bit about Jane Studdock in That Hideous Strength. Both of them are clearly important and sympathetic characters.

Thanks for commenting.