I have been pleased with the renewed enthusiasm for everything C.S. Lewis these days. Most of it is undoubtedly connected to the Narnia movies, (which I did not particularly enjoy) but are still better than typical fare served to our young people.
A much harder sell to a mainstream audience is the staggering novel Till We Have Faces, widely regarded by scholars as Lewis’s best novel. It had a profound impact on me when I first read it, and with each re-reading I see new insights that further convince me this book is a masterpiece.
The setting is a fictional barbarian kingdom somewhere in the Mediterranean. The time period is roughly 400 B.C., so the spiritual references are entirely devoid of Jesus, although the philosophical principles are there. It is a retelling of the Cupid and Psyche myth, although told from the point of view from one of the jealous sisters, Orual. In this version, Orual is an intensely sympathetic narrator. She is the ugly, disfigured daughter of a cruel barbarian king, and the only light in her life is her Greek tutor and her beautiful sister Psyche, upon whom she dotes. Orual despises the pagan gods and all the associated superstition and ignorance.
An intelligent woman, she refuses to accept anything she cannot see and experience. She grows up to become a great warrior Queen, but her hideous face (which she hides behind veils) and her position as Queen mean no one will ever love her. Fear her? Respect her? These she has, but she is also an intensely isolated person. The reader will watch Orual’s journey into old age as she wrestles with questions of duty, mercy, and the battle between faith and reason.
It is a magnificent book. The writing is raw and primitive, a perfect reflection of its barbarian setting. Themes of spirituality and redemption are heavily woven into the text, but so is despair, uncertainty, and the struggles that come along with faith. It has none of the magic or fireworks of the Narnia books, so people hoping for a retread of Narnia might be disappointed, but I found it to be a brilliant combination of a unique plot mingled with profound human questions.
Till We Have Faces also explores the odd combination of joy mingled with longing, which I have written about here.