Till We Have Faces, aka, the CS Lewis Book I Should Have Been Reading

September 24, 2015 § Leave a comment

(Almost.)

I feel it’s only fair that I put in a brief note here about Till We Have Faces, since I devoted so many thousands of words to whining about The Chronicles of Narnia. Faces is much more up my street. It’s

–> for adults!
–> far more developed in terms of geographic/cultural/character consistency!
–> better-suited to its own allegory! (mostly)

–and the prose is wonderful, I can’t say this enough, it’s some of the best first-person narration I’ve read in ages and ages and I like the narrator-protagonist so much and Gosh, What a Good Book. Though I get why it wasn’t received well at the time. Lewis thought it was some of his best work, and he’s right, but there wasn’t really a clear audience for it? Nowadays we have more of a stomach for the intersection of fantastical/fairy-tale/mythological settings and Bleak Bleak Themes but back then it was more “damn, this king and princess nonsense looks like it’s for my children but wait, it’s all about death and sex and God and confusing classicism? uhhhhhh…” Though it wouldn’t  have found much favor with us either, even if published last year, because generally we don’t like our Bleak Bleak Themes to resolve in “and then everybody converted and everything was perfect after all!”

Spoilers: it is a CS Lewis book, the person who wasn’t down with Jesus is down with Jesus by the end. It is interesting that heroine Orual is presented as a misotheist rather than an atheist–it’s her hatred of gods that must be reconciled, rather than her doubt of their existence, despite the title and the invocation of Psyche’s faceless lover as a God in whom Orual can’t believe or trust. The book is divided into two parts (pre- and post-conversion, more or less) but has three functional sections: Orual and Psyche and Psyche’s ‘death’ and reappearance as the god’s bride; Orual’s queenship after leaving Psyche’s story and causing Psyche’s exile; Orual’s repudiation of her previous complaint against the gods before she is ushered into Christian-coded paradise and reunited with a now fully divine Psyche.

The second section is my favorite, predictably: it concerns Orual’s earthly rule and character development, acts of tremendous bravery and complex human motivation, relationships of long standing and respect and shared sorrow. Pathos about which I can Give a Darn. Orual’s love for Psyche is intense and the story’s primary motivator, but Psyche is such a…well, she’s one of Lewis’ targets for admiration and emulation who doesn’t act like a human, so any scene involving her tends to fall flatter than scenes over which she presides as a faraway influence/symbol. We meet Psyche as a young woman defined by her indescribable, transcendent beauty; one whose touch is thought to heal the sick; who confesses to having dreamed of death since childhood and who walks toward holy sacrifice with all the self-possession of a saint. After her marriage to the god, her Perfect Femininity is at its apex. She submits herself to her faceless husband every night without question and when her older sister wants to advise her her reply is always “I have a husband to guide me now,” “I will be ruled by my husband,” etc.

If you’re thinking “yuck!” then you and I are of the same mind. Like, the audience knows he’s allegorical-Jesus, and she knows, but can Orual really be blamed for finding it disturbing? Orual’s not only the best-realized female character in Lewis canon but maybe the best-realized character, period, so it’s so strange that such lousy Woman Problems rear their heads in Till We Have Faces–but there are so, so many. Orual’s ugliness is one of her primary character traits, and it allows her to assume political authority and discuss matters of state with other men without difficulty. The third section (“Part II”) has her discovering that Ungit, the earth goddess of her country, may also be a reflection of herself. Ungit imagery tends to use maiden-mother-crone archetypes a lot, and portrays the kind of pagan chthnonic female guardian that I’m accustomed to thinking of as…if not positive, then at least neutral and necessary. But I was wrong to expect the Ungit-Orual association to be empowering. She desperately seeks to shake it off, and in doing so enters into a series of Helpful Vivid Explanatory Visions that comprise the book’s climactic scenes.

This was probably my least favorite part of the book, even more so than the gross sexist dichotomies. It felt so lazy. You just undermine your protagonist’s 200 pages of character development if you have her realize she was wrong about everything by virtue of having it explained to her by Magic! Also what she came to realize was that her hatred of the gods had nothing to do with their actions and everything to do with her jealous possessiveness of her sister, which is….a strange kind of convert-realization, as it has no real-world analogue. (Neither do visions, but eh.) “Jesus is boning my sister” isn’t a common reason why people don’t have come-to-Jesus moments. She meets Psyche again and Psyche reveals that she went on a difficult journey in order to bring Orual the kind of beauty Psyche has always had, and then Orual has a rush of revelatory emotion in which her love for Psyche blossoms into something that could never be cruel and then in turn isn’t love for Psyche at all, but for Cupid Jesus:

And yet it was not, not now, she that really counted. Or if she counted (and she did, oh, gloriously she did) it was for another’s sake. The earth and stars and sun, all that was or will be, existed for his sake. And he was coming. 

And this is borne out in the final paragraph: I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You yourself are the answer. Before your face questions die away. Orual demanding answers from the gods was her reason for narrating the entire first two-thirds of the book, mind, and provided the story with a lot of momentum–and this is what we get. I think it might just be that the Ineffable and Omniscent and Flawless just makes for a completely lackluster plot point? Let alone a plot resolution? It’s like reading a mystery novel and then the last scene is the detective sighing contentedly, saying “It doesn’t matter who did it,” and being suffused in soft light while contemplating a photograph of the murder victim in crucifixion-pose.

Even so, now I feel like I’m on a Quest. I want to find some Christian-themed fiction that can navigate successfully around the narrative problems of its mythos (and no, I don’t mean one of the hundred thousand Our Hero Was Jesus The Whole Time stories). Anyone have a recommendation? Bonus points for no sexism!

Here’s my favorite song about God (in English):

 

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