Till We Have Faces

by C. S. Lewis

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Themes and Meanings

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The central image of the book is the palace of Cupid, totally real, visible, and tangible to Psyche, as totally unreal and invisible to Orual—except for a brief moment which Orual tries to forget or to explain away as illusion. If the palace had been as real in Lewis as it is in Apuleius, however, then there would be no excuse for Orual. As it is, there remains something of force in her complaint against the gods: Why do they work in hints? Why will they not show themselves for worship?

These questions are of particular force in the twentieth century, the Age, one might say, of Lack of Faith. There is a Christian answer to them, which Lewis knows well. The virtue of Faith would cease to exist if divinity were present as simply matter-of-fact. In the same way, the virtue of Obedience would vanish if there were not some pledge of obedience for mortals to take, such as not seeing her lover, in Psyche’s case, or not eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge, in the story of Genesis. Till We Have Faces may be read, then, as an allegory of Faith (even Christian Faith), with Orual as a representative of modern humanity, anxious to do her best and to reach the divine but with only inadequate theories of reality from which to work—on the one hand the Fox’s barren rationalism, on the other Bardia’s primitive superstition.

Throughout the novel, indeed, Lewis takes pains to scatter examples of the main modern theories of myth (or rather, of the main theories current in his maturity). Myth is merely a narrative version of ritual, says the foolish priest who provokes Orual into authorship; it explains what people do in temples. This theory was popular among early classical scholars (though it fails to explain ritual). Myth is an allegory of the forces of nature, expressed obscurely to hide it from the vulgar, declares the second Priest of Ungit, ironically “enlightened” by the Fox. This idea was popularized, for example, by Max Miller, the great Orientalist: A lot of fuss about the obvious, thinks Orual. Most powerful in the novel are the theories of Sir James Frazer, author of The Golden Bough (1890-1915), propagandist for the notion of myth as magical story and magic as proto-science, and creator of such fascinating modern concepts as “the wasteland” and “the king must die.” “Barren king makes barren land,” shouts a voice at King Trom. The king has the speaker instantly shot, but he has voiced a key Frazerian notion, which carries a kind of conviction even to the king.

Lewis is presenting in Orual the progress, in short, not of an atheist, but of an agnostic. She wants to believe but does not know what to believe. She comes to better knowledge of herself. Does she, and does the reader, come to better understanding of the divine? With great restraint, Lewis offers no hint of Christian revelation. Yet he does allow one to believe that Orual is given a kind of grace, and forgiveness, at the end. Her situation is felt to emblematize that of many in the modern world, well-meaning but ignorant, or in older terms, “righteous” but “pagan.” Christian churches have long been uncertain as to whether such are saved.

Social Concerns / Themes

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In an introductory note to the English edition of the novel not included in the American editions, Lewis presents four themes which "suddenly interlocked: the straight tale of barbarism, the mind of an ugly woman, dark idolatry and pale enlightenment at war with each other and...

(This entire section contains 214 words.)

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with vision, and the havoc which a vocation, or even a faith, works on human life." Each of these themes is explored throughout the two-part retelling of the Psyche/Cupid narrative. The barbarism of Glome is personified in the king, Trom, with his arbitrary and thoughtless cruelty toward his daughters. Glome's goddess, Ungit, expresses the barbarism even as her worship has about it depths of significance which indicate that the opposing rationality of Fox, the Greek tutor of Orual, although more humane is not necessarily the correct alternative. Finally, in the character of Orual, the protagonist, what happens when a mission, even a noble one, absorbs a human being's whole person to the exclusion of love, is exposed in all its pathos.

Clearly, Lewis in this novel is not interested in social commentary or in satirizing contemporary trends and movements as he is in his space trilogy. Rather, he is dissecting a soul, describing its operations, its motions, its growth from self-delusion to truth through pain and love.