book review: Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis

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TILL WE HAVE FACES by C.S. Lewis
★★★★★
originally published in 1956

 

“When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about the joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”

This book is something rare and extraordinary. Though ostensibly a retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche (I’d recommend reading Lewis’s afterward before you begin if you’re not already familiar with the story, as he provides a succinct summary), it’s told from the point of view of one of Psyche’s sisters, Orual, a princess cursed with an ugly face. I think if I’d been informed before starting this book that so much of the focus would be on Orual rather than Psyche, I would have been disappointed – and that disappointment would have been very misguided indeed, because Orual captured my heart. This strong, flawed, broken young woman is honestly one of the most complex and haunting female protagonists I’ve come across.

I hadn’t read any C.S. Lewis except for the first three (I think) books in the Chronicles of Narnia series when I was younger, and, as evidenced by the fact that I only read the first three (I think), I was not a huge fan. Honestly, he was an author I never had much interest in, but after reading Till We Have Faces, I am distraught that more of his fiction doesn’t appeal to me (I’m not a big science fiction fan). I love his writing – the passage I quoted above is only one of many that I had to pause and reread because I found his prose so striking.

It’s hard to summarize this book, or even fully wrap my head around it, as it’s one of the more thematically complex things I think I’ve ever read. It’s a book that almost demands to be read more than once. That’s not to say that it’s dense to the point of incomprehensibility – I read it in two days, and doing so was an absolute joy. But Lewis provides a thoughtful meditation on beauty and ugliness (with a startling commentary on how a woman’s worth is wrongly determined by her appearance), as well as the symbiotic nature of love and hatred, before delving into even deeper philosophical and theological themes, examining the very nature of man’s relationship with God (or, in the case of mythology, the gods). It’s heavy stuff, but in a rewarding way. This book will stay with me. (Also, on a personal note, I’m not religious. I can’t comment on whether having a vested interest in Christianity is essential for reading any of C.S. Lewis’s other works, but I found that, despite the religious themes, this was really not the case here. I’d recommend this to absolutely everyone.)

Till We Have Faces achieves everything I like to see in a retelling – it fleshes out the stories of minor characters who only play bit parts in the original, it interrogates and expands on the original themes, and it captures the wondrous atmosphere that makes mythology so compelling. I’m in awe of this book.

15 thoughts on “book review: Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis

  1. Ooh, this sounds intriguing! Having read all the Narnia books last year (or was it the year before..?), I’m so glad to hear he actually treats a female character well, because the way he treated Susan at the end of the Narnia series was frankly ridiculous and very anti-woman. Perhaps he learned the error of his ways, haha.

    Liked by 2 people

    • OH YIKES I’m glad I never finished those books, then! To be honest I generally tend to be wary of female characters who are written by straight white men, especially in classics, so I was kind of floored by how sensitively constructed Orual’s character was?? I very highly recommend this as an antidote to Narnia’s misogyny!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Glad to hear his heroine fares much better here! Let’s just say he liked Susan until she was old enough to know what boys and lipstick were, then… not so much. I believe there’s actually a whole feminist academic debate about how badly he treated her called ‘The Problem with Susan’ – that’s how bad it was, haha.

        Liked by 1 person

      • OH GOD that sounds awful… I just googled ‘Susan Pevensie misogyny’ and these receipts are horrifying. I guess Lewis had the idea for Till We Have Faces from before he started working on Narnia, and it was published the same year as the final Narnia book, so I’m really shocked that his treatment of female characters would be so radically different from one book to the next. The main character, Orual, is undoubtedly Lewis’s ‘ideal’ female character – unattractive and virginal. But then Psyche is described as being beautiful, and I thought his treatment of her character was equally as sensitive, if not more so – Psyche never really does anything wrong but she still bears her punishment. So this huge change is kind of baffling… poor Susan!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent review of a most wonderful, awe inspiring book. I would add that Lewis’s retelling explores the archetypical challenges of the pain of deep injustices, Orual’s complaint to the gods is a main theme throughout the book. It also covers the responses to injustices, and the incomplete justice of this world.

    Like good transcendent art, the exploration of the themes and subplots are so deep that they have the potential to tap into some deep questions in the reader. I understand that this was Lewis’s favorite book of all that he authored.

    Like

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