“How can [the gods] meet us face to face till we have faces?”
This is a line from a book I read in high school that I just recently decided to reread almost 10 years later, and in finishing it over my Christmas Quarantine, I wanted to get the word out to as many people as I could that they should put this at the top of their 2022 reading list. The book is one of CS Lewis’s less talked about works of fiction, the title of which comes from the line above, Till We Have Faces.
Lewis is well known (rightly so) for landmark works like Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, and The Chronicles of Narnia. Readers here of his Space Trilogy might also know that he can be counted amongst the “Christians who curse sometimes”, but I find it a shame that this particular book doesn’t typically get mentioned in lists of his anthologies. It is far and away his best work of fiction, and a serious contender (in my mind) for his best work period.
If you’ve read and enjoyed Narnia or even Lord of the Rings and found yourself at a loss of what to do with yourself once you finish the last page and the worlds you’ve come to know and love so well become closed to you once more, then the best thing you can do is pick up this book. You will be transported to a world long past and yet not wholly unfamiliar to our own. It’s a tale of gods and men, of priests and kings, of love and hate, of justice and mercy. I would spoil the whole thing for you now, but let me do my best to try to persuade you without that.
Till We Have Faces (TWHF) is billed as “A Myth Retold.” The myth is the ancient Roman myth of Cupid and Psyche, the story of a god who falls in love with a beautiful human woman. In it, Psyche’s sisters become jealous of their sister and spoil the relationship she has with Cupid. The journey then begins for Psyche to try to reconcile her relationship, not only with Cupid but also his mother.
Now, that’s the original myth, and there’s much more to it if you ever decide to read it. Lewis has taken this general story line and added a few new elements, most notably that of the point of view of who is telling the story. The author of this book is named as Psyche’s eldest sister Orual, and the story is told through her eyes. Her life has been one of tragedy, having been born wholly unattractive and never allowed to forget it, abused by her father, and robbed of her chances at happiness. The book is her complaint against the gods, how they have toyed with her, manipulated her, stolen everything she has ever loved from her including her own sister who she loved like a daughter. She demands a response, at least an acknowledgment that she has been wronged, and is consistently met with silence or worse.
In a time in our own lives where we see more and more narratives that trace the origins of the villain to justify their motives (think Maleficent), Lewis in TWHF has has looked at the love story of Cupid and Psyche and asked the question “Was this really a love story?”
By changing a few key elements in the narrative, Lewis invites us to imagine ourselves as the cheated sister, robbed by the gods of all the good we could have had. He takes the most common complaints against the God of this world and weaves them masterfully into accusations against the gods of that world. Where were they when our lives were falling apart? Why do they stay so far away and yet close enough to tease us? Why must everything good belong to them, loaned to us only to be yanked away once we have fallen in love? And why, if they are there at all, will they not speak to us face to face and answer our charges?
And finally, what would their answer even be?
I so SO want to spoil the ending for you here so I can tell you just how beautiful this story ends, the themes it weaves together, how it invites us into the depths of ourselves to reveal truths we dare not admit to.
So if you end up reading the book, DM me, and we’ll chat.
In the meantime, start 2022 off on a high note. Get this masterpiece, and lose yourself in it.
Nick Henretty is a music and audio producer, podcaster, and blogger based out of Richmond, Virginia. He has worked with organizations such as Inspiring Philosophy, Deeper Waters with Nick Peters, and Moral Apologetics Press, and currently hosts the 3 Priests Walk in a Bar podcast promoting ecumenism between different Christian denominations. He has a passion for peeling back the surface layers of pop culture issues to expose the deep and abiding questions at the heart of the human experience and showing how the person of Christ is the answer and fulfillment to them.