Unveiled, barefaced

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Fantasy of an Ancient Bath (1755/1760)

Till We Have Faces
by C S Lewis.
The C S Lewis Signature Classics:
HarperOne, 2017 (1956).

Glome. A polity somewhere in the Levant (as we may suppose), far from the sea, sometime in the centuries immediately before the Common Era. A name connected to ‘globe’, its meaning a mass, a clump, or – like the Latin glomus – a ball of string. A place where we can follow the thread of story to its end. Or so we may infer from this novel by a literary scholar, lay theologian and children’s author.

Glome is also the setting of a story to parallel the tale of Cupid and Psyche, the legend recounted in The Golden Ass by Apuleius back in the second century CE. A narrative now to focus not on Psyche herself but on one of her two sisters. A novel in which Lewis concentrates more on the human than the fairytale aspect of the Roman fable to explore contradictions like love and hate, courage and fear, belief and ignorance, free will and fate.

For behind this first person account by the sister called Orual are deep considerations which Lewis wishes to confront. Inspired by religious views of the afterlife – as in 1 Corinthians 13: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face” – Lewis has his protagonist tell us, “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?”

J W Waterhouse: ‘Psyche Entering Cupid’s Garden’ (1903)

In the obscure little barbarian kingdom of Glome a widowed king has three daughters, the eldest by her own account not a looker, the middle one vapid and at times a trouble-maker, and the youngest the epitome of every princess in every fairytale you can remember. But the youngest has angered the goddess Ungit and she has to be offered as a sacrificial victim. Instead she is rescued on condition that she never seeks to see the face of her rescuer; however on her elder sister’s impassioned promptings she disobeys this rule, with terrible consequences, leaving the older sister trying to expiate guilt by committing the story to manuscript.

This focus on the older sister (whom he calls Orual) allows Lewis to create a distinctive character – distinctive in looks (her bullying father calls her a ‘goblin’), in physical ability (she shows an unexpected propensity for swordplay), and in intellect (she develops consummate skills in statecraft). She is also fierce in all things, a quality which will allow her to achieve much but could also result in her undoing.

Lewis’s long obsession with the legend of Cupid and Psyche arose from his belief that there were inconsistencies in the classic story where human motivations were concerned. But mixed in were his own feelings about having long resisted a return to religious faith after a period of agnosticism, feelings he has Orual partly express at a moment of personal crisis as a kind of apologia or justification for blaming the gods for all that has happened:

That moment I resolved to write this book. For years now my old quarrel with the gods had slept. […] Often, though I had seen a god myself, I was near to believing there are no such things. […] Well, I could speak. I could set down the truth. What had never perhaps been done in the world before should be done now. The case against them should be written.


Till We Have Faces is a profound and intense read, hard if not impossible to do full justice to in a short review. Lewis has a strong cast of characters for his drama, from Orual’s family members to her well delineated confidants the Greek tutor Fox, the soldier Bardia, and the temple priest Armon. He evokes the otherwise anonymous archaic period vividly, and the narrative is varied in terms of action, pace and dilemmas to be confronted. But those who like me are most familiar with his children’s fiction or his so-called Space Trilogy may find a depth and a subtlety that I personally found missing or buried beneath the allegory in those earlier stories.

The clue to this sea change, I think, comes from this novel’s dedicatee: Joy Davidman. She married Lewis, seemingly a confirmed bachelor, in the same year the novel was published, and was known to type up his handwritten drafts; as a poet and author in her own right she must surely have had more than just a hand in suggesting improvements. The psychological make-up of Orual in particular can justifiably owe much to Joy’s direct influence, as illustrated in asides such as this reaction to Bardia’s enthusiastic outburst:

‘Oh, Lady, Lady, it’s a thousand pities they didn’t make you a man.’ (He spoke it as kindly and heartily as could be; as if a man dashed a gallon of cold water in your broth and never doubted you’d like it all the better.)


For me a lot of the heavy moralistic tone I’ve resented in some of Lewis’s previous fiction is largely missing in this final novel, a tone which when combined with the rounded psychological portrait we get of Orual herself suggests a substantial input from Joy. Considering that Orual spends the greater part of the narrative behind the veil she has voluntarily adopted, I wonder if the theme of no longer seeing “through a glass darkly” is part-metaphor of Joy’s greater involvement in Till We Have Faces being tacitly acknowledged?

Joy Davidman, 1915–1960

Bearing in mind too that Lewis is drawing on the Cupid/Eros and Psyche tale, and that the couple’s names respectively mean ‘desire’ and ‘soul’, there is a final theme I want to touch on. As a vocal critic tells Orual, “They say the loving and the devouring are all one, don’t they?” Loving and devouring: Orual comes to see that she might be like the goddess Ungit, “that all-devouring womb-like, yet barren, thing. Glome was a web – I the swollen spider, squat at its centre, gorged with men’s swollen lives.”

Is she correct in her summation? Will she meet her soul sister Psyche ever again? Will she finally feel able to go unveiled? Only a close reading of Lewis and Davidman’s narrative may bring answers to such questions.

C S Lewis was born in Belfast, NI; this novel was read for Cathy @746books’s Reading Ireland Month

29 thoughts on “Unveiled, barefaced

  1. Thank you for this lovely consideration of one of my favorite books. It’s absolutely his best novel in my opinion and I am sure Joy Davidman had a lot to do with that. Whatever the reason, it’s one I return to again and again for its truly mythopoeic wisdom.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The rounded personality that Orual displays was a revelation, a personality that none of the advance notices had prepared me for – true, someone with faults and foibles but mostly a determination to be brave, virtuous and a good sister. A fictional person in fact I would’ve liked to have met in real life, which is a compliment to the skill of both Jack and Joy.

      Having only read the Ransom and the Narnia books I can’t say whether it’s his best novel, only that it’s the best novel of his I’ve read! Thanks, Lory, for being one of those who urged me to read it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Aonghus Fallon

    Lewis’s most mature work, imo. That said, I think how well this story works depends very much on your expectations. Approach it as a Christian allegory, and Orual’s culpability and Pysche’s purity of heart are self-evident – as is the story direction.* Otherwise, you might find the second half of the book a bit confusing.

    * even this is debatable. The reader is expected to understand that the God of the Mountain and ‘God’ are synonymous, for example. Why we should do so is never clarified.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I like the ambiguity inherent in most of the work, Aonghus, and so most of it really worked for me as an atheist.

      The Fox comes closest to my point of view regarding divinity and/or divinities, but I accept that Lewis was inclined to make him lose the argument. Orual’s epiphanic visions moved her to doubt or at least question the Fox’s imparted Greek teachings, but it’s all of a part of one’s personal responses to what seem like inexplicable external stimuli which Lewis presumably took as manifestations of the Divine.

      Theology aside, debatable as it is, I really appreciated the psychological depiction of Orual’s points of view, and the individuality brought to so many of the supporting characters. That’s what drew me in, the subtleties which escaped me in my readings of the Ransom and Narnia stories.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Aonghus Fallon

        I’d totally agree that the book has a level of nuance lacking in Lewis’s previous work. I’d also reckon Orual is his best (and most realistic) character by a country mile. Would have been interesting to see what he might have written next!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s been a long time since I read this book, but I remember really enjoying it. An excellent exploration of the relationship between Lewis and Davidman is portrayed in the play “Shadowlands” by William Nicholson.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’ve not attended the play but I did see the associated film many years back, though without much engagement or understanding – I’d love to watch it again, now with a deeper appreciation of the background and circumstances.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Karen, though I myself wouldn’t want to reread it soon I can imagine myself considering it again in a few years time, particularly for the psychological journey Orual takes. And I’m reminded that we of course owe the origins of the word ‘psychology’ to the Greek psyche

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Not sure why, but I just can’t enter this story. We had a book club meeting at church on it years ago. After first reading, I didn’t get it. Even though I’m very familiar with spiritual matters, have given scholarly lectures, and the like.

    And I have read and loved several books by Tolkien, CS Lewis, and MacDonald, including the more spiritual ones, like Lilith (which I like a lot).

    So I reread the myth. Before rereading the book again. And even the discussion at church didn’t enlighten me much.

    I guess I have to accept that somehow this book is closed for me.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Some novels are just like that, aren’t they, however much they’re lauded if you can’t find a way to the nub of them it’s disappointing, even irritating.

      I wonder too if other expectations precondition one. I can’t say I love either the Narnia books or the Ransom trilogy because they’re so obviously primarily allegorical, which is not at all the way I want to approach fiction.

      TWHF is not so obviously so, despite the unspoken hint that the ineffable god Eros that Lewis’s Psyche knows is a stand-in for the Christian divinity, a manifestation of the Johannine phrase ‘God is Love’. If Eros is Aslan in another form and another story Lewis is much more obtuse about it here, I think.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m always grateful that your Begorrathon is the ideal excuse to dig out anything in my TBR shelves with an Irish connection, however obscure, though I really need to explore more in contemporary Irish writing. As for this, it’s the best bit of fiction from him I’ve read so far, and maybe will remain so if the advice I’m getting is correct!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: It’s Reading Ireland Month 2023!

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  7. This isn’t one I’ve read (it’s just been the Narnias so far though I do have Out of the Silent Planet lurking somewhere on the TBR), but it does sound intriguing, particularly the impact of Joy’s influence which you point to.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think you’d enjoy this, for all the reasons I’ve given – though it’s been decades since I read Out of the Silent Planet I think Orual’s story is infinitely better as a story and in its telling. But don’t let me put you off his Ransom trilogy!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. That was a fascinating piece, Nick, really enlightening, so thank you so much for that! Lewis’s standard response – “There may be something in what you say” – is a response I’ve come across before as “You may be right”, meaning “I beg to differ”, and had me smiling in recognition. But this was a lovely and appreciative pen portrait of Joy from your dad.


  8. Chris, I’ve been had this novel for a long time, so long that I had come to believe that I’d read it. Reading your review, I see that I haven’t. But now I am determined to locate it on my shelves and finally sit down with it. Thanks for a review that draws one in, asks intriguing questions, and tells one just enough but not too much.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, I do hope that you find your copy, Josna, and when you get round to it that you enjoy it – I got so much satisfaction out of reading it compared with his more fantastic fiction which I felt was compounded of equal parts delightful imagination and heavy-handed allegory.

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