13 May 2008

Till We Have Faces

Yesterday I finished C. S. Lewis' Till We Have Faces. I read it eight years ago but all I remembered was that I enjoyed the book - I didn't remember one thing about the story itself.

It is a story, I think, about one very ugly woman's journey of self-discovery that real joy is found not in being loved but in loving. Until she stands before the gods and finally realizes this, however, she is gradually building up a series of complaints in anticipation of unloading on the gods once she has the chance. Yet it is when she stands before the gods - rather, God - that her accusations disappear. (Makes me think of Job 38, when Yahweh appears to Job and answers him out of the whirlwind, and all Job's complaints vanish.) If any of you have read it I'd be curious to know how you would put the point of the book in one sentence.

My two favorite passages are these. The first is that from which the title of the book is drawn.

When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you'll not talk about joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces? (p. 294)

The second is the last page of the book. (Ninety percent of the book is Book I; Book II is the last ten percent, which is an addition in light of new discoveries.)

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. (p. 308)
In a letter, Lewis later wrote this when describing the significance of the title:

How can they (i.e. the gods) meet us face to face till we have faces? The idea was that a human being must become real before it can expect to receive any message from the superhuman; that is, it must be speaking with its own voice (not one of its borrowed voices), expressing its actual desires (not what it imagines that it desires), being for good or ill itself, not any mask, veil, or persona.

--C. S. Lewis in a letter to Dorothea Conybeare (Walter Hooper, Companion, p. 252)


Gavin Ortlund said...

hey dane,

thanks for the quote from the letter - very fascinating. The other two quotes are two of my favorites as well. The first was my senior quote in our high school yearbook, and the second I quoted in one of my sermons this year. I think the book has a lot of overlap in its themes with Job as well. I think one of the sub-themes has to do with jealousy: Orual's feelings about Psyche's love for the god being comparable to the way a non-believer feels about their spouse becomes a Christian. Can't remember where, but I remember reading about that somewhere. Thanks for posting about this - TWHF is one of my favorite books ever, along with The Great Divorce.

Stacey said...

Interesting Gav, about the conversion of a spouse. Hadn't thought of that. The GD is one of my favorite books ever as well. I need to read it again...

Eric said...

Thanks for the great post, Dane! TWHF is absolutely one of my favorites. In a way, I think the book runs so deep that it is difficult to state its meaning simply and straightforwardly; but I think it's core is when Orual stands before the gods and essentially complains about them having Psyche when Orual wants Psyche all to herself - even if that's not best for Psyche. But saying that is far less powerful than actually reading it.

Have you read any George MacDonald? I worked through Phantastes last year and will definitely read it again.

Stacey said...

Thanks Eric. Never readd MacDonald; often wanted to! I think you're right: the meaning of TWHF is not able to be captured in a pithy statement. Maybe that's one of the marks of the book's greatness. Decent books can be summarized. Great books can only be understood when they are themselves read.