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Till We Have Faces

January 18, 2008
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I am back on a C.S. Lewis kick, and am trying to read a lot more of his work in 2008.  (Gotta love resolutions like that.)  I’ve already been bringing some of his works home from the library, including his classic Till We Have Faces.

Till We Have Faces is an excellent book.  For those who don’t know the story, it is a retelling of the Roman myth of Cupid and Psyche, told from the perspective of one of Psyche’s older sisters, Orual.  In typical Lewis fashion, he packs a lot into a relatively short number of pages.  It is a great fiction work that makes you think about issues like sin, love, redemption, and our perception of the divine.  Lewis sets the myth in a more primitive, superstitious world, where Venus/Aphrodite becomes the ugly, vengeful goddess Ungit, and her son Cupid goes unnamed.  Lewis does a great job of limiting your perspective on the gods, not letting you see what they are actually like until the end of the story, and even then leaving room for interpretation for their desires and purposes.  The Greeks do appear in the story through a Greek slave, and you get their more intellectual perspective on the gods through that character.  In essence, the reader has to determine if the superstitious view of the people of Glome, Orual’s people, is correct, or if the Greeks are correct.  You get the feeling that neither understand the matter fully, but have no idea where reality lies.

The book is written as an indictment of the gods.  Orual believes they have wronged her, and writes in a spiteful manner, hoping to state her case against them.  However, she ends up getting her opportunity to make her accusations, and Lewis uses this to expose Orual’s impure motives.  This was one of the strongest things I think Lewis did with the book.  You discover that Orual’s love, which she claims is wholesome, actually uses up everyone around her, and would harm Psyche, the person she believes she holds most dear if only she could hang on to Psyche and not see her truly happy.  I thought this was a great move on the part of Lewis – using a pre-Christian setting to expose the sinful motives of even our purest desires.  In our natural state, we want to please ourselves with no thought to God or others – and in the end, this leaves us totally empty – embittered, accusing God of wrongdoing because we have been slighted.  We are deceived, like Orual – we believe that we want the best for others, when if we looked at our reasons, we would realize that our embitterment is because we are ultimately focused on ourselves.  Our love must be focused outwards to be truly fulfilled – outward toward others, and ultimately outward toward God.

Till We Have Faces is an excellent work, and one that makes you think.  It is my favorite fictional work by C.S. Lewis, because it is written to be a very deep work; deeper even than Narnia.  Lewis never breaks with the setting; he uses Christian themes in a manner that is both powerful and subtle.  Rather than hit the reader over the head like much Christian literature, Lewis weaves a Christian understanding into the fabric of the tale, and it is an enjoyable read because of it.

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