Till We Have Faces

by C. S. Lewis

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Till We Have Faces is one of C. S. Lewis’ later works and is considered by many to be his highest literary achievement. Like his earlier trilogy composed of Out of the Silent Planet (1938), Perelandra (1943), and That Hideous Strength (1945), it is a fantasy with philosophical, theological, and mythological overtones. A multilayered book, Till We Have Faces depicts the Fox as representative of Greek philosophy and reason; Bardia represents common sense, human strength, and devotion; and Orual’s father, King Trom, represents ancient, unregenerative pagan religions that demand blood sacrifices. Orual learns from each of her male teachers—even her cruel father—but is led to a real experience of the god by Psyche, who represents unselfish, giving love.

Orual, thought to be ugly, wears a veil to mask her face even before her father’s death and comes to be known for her wisdom, justice, valor, and mercy. In the end, many of her subjects surmise that she might be beautiful, which she is, after being reunited with Psyche. Orual’s veil also is a clue to the meaning of the title of the novel. The Fox teaches Orual the importance of self-knowledge and says to her, “How can they [the gods] meet us face to face till we have faces?” Throughout her life, Orual develops her character behind the veil and acquires self-knowledge of her defects. Unloved by her father and motherless, Orual pours her own love into Psyche but harms her by trying to control her. The Fox and Bardia give Orual the unconditional love and service that enable her to be a good queen, but she comes to see that she often asked too much of them, to their detriment. When Orual learns the defects of her love for others, she is ready to be reunited with Psyche and the god.

Lewis is well known as a Christian apologist, and there are certain Christian themes in Till We Have Faces. To see the novel as a work of Christian doctrine, however, would be a mistake. Lewis believed strongly that literature should have its own voice. Till We Have Faces has a unique voice and can be appreciated without a knowledge of Christianity, Greek philosophy, or the Psyche myth itself. Such knowledge enhances appreciation of the book, however, as does an appreciation of Orual’s resemblance to Queen Elizabeth I of England. Till We Have Faces puzzles and inspires long after its last page is read.

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Critical Context