Personally, I think C.S. Lewis is at his best when he writes fiction. (I was underwhelmed by Mere Christianity, perhaps because I recognized his theological influences, such as Augustine and Aquinas, and thought them more magisterial than he. Exceptions are A Grief Observed and The Weight of Glory.) Not just his celebrated Narnia Chronicles—a literary delight for all ages—but also his remarkably (and unjustly) un-celebrated Space Trilogy: Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength. And Till We Have Faces is no exception; it is a chef d’oeuvre, a masterstroke of captivating narrative. Lewis grabs and pulls on heart-strings. Here is love, obsession, jealously, regret, betrayal, remorse, bitterness, loneliness, companionship, happy memories, misguided memories, painful memories, religious rituals, noble rituals, violence, and cryptic divine messages all wrapped in one.
I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer…. why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces? (294)
Finally, the reveal of the book’s title nestled at the last two percent. It is a powerful, powerful reveal. I remember how I thought similarly the first time, but re-reading dwarfed previous experience. And I have a feeling that the third time will prove the same. This is the brilliance of Till We Have Faces: it’s dark luminance blinds us as it absorbs us into the lull of the story. One forgets the future reveal because one is swallowed in the now.
The book is really two books: the first and much longer portion is Orual’s complaint against the gods, and the much shorter second is Orual’s revelation. It is the latter that is the pièce de résistance of the whole, but not without the former. It’s not enough to say that the first portion is the stage or backdrop of the second; the first has its own brilliance. But the second really does outshine in a way that does not diminish the first. It is how Psyche, Orual’s little half-sister, compares mortality and immortality by means of dreams and reality:
It’s the being mortal—being, how shall I say it? … insufficient. Don’t you think a dream would feel shy if it were seen walking about in the waking world? (114-5)
Likewise, Orual’s complaint—as bitter as it is—is mortal, dream-like in its sufficiency compared to Orual’s revelation.
I’ve heard this before but didn’t realize it for myself until this time: Till We Have Faces parallels the Book of Job. Like Job, Orual makes a complaint—really, a case—against the gods: how their unjust acts and ways terrorized and ruined her life. Like Yhwh to Job, the gods speak shockingly little to Orual. And like Job, Orual silences herself when she finally hears divine speech. But what really cemented the connection is this:
The complaint was the answer. To have heard myself making it was to be answered. (294)
Just listen to these words, heavy with relieved restlessness. Her unbearable complaint was the release she wanted and needed. The gods did not answer so that she could raise her voice, charge a case, and nearly break under the weight of it—for who can ever last so long with a case against the gods? But right before she breaks, the judge stops her and concludes the trial with a question, “Are you answered?,” nothing more and nothing less. To which she feebly but with full assurance responds, “Yes.”
I ended my first book with the words no answer. I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice? Only words, words; to be led out to battle against other words. Long did I hate you, long did I fear you. I might— (308)
And just like that, Queen Orual ends mid-sentence but not in mid-thought. She has been answered.
Oh, there’s so much more to this book, like how I think Ungit and the Fox (a Greek eunuch) represent Lewis’s fascination with myths and how they shape us and with classical philosophy, respectively. How a woman’s physical beauty (or lack thereof) can plague a her and fellow women’s lives. How those who most love us can be our most dangerous enemies. But I’ll stop—for now.