I am so excited to talk about this book together.
It’s the last full work of fiction that Lewis wrote, and the last we’ll be discussing in this series at Tor.com. It’s quintessentially Lewis in so many ways, but unique among his other books. There are critiques to be had, I’m sure, but it’s a book I love, and one I came to late. When I was reading my way through Lewis I left it till last because it seemed very much like it might be the least interesting. But it quickly became one of my favorite of his novels, if not the favorite.
In March of 1955, Lewis was feeling burnt out. He felt he had run out of creative ideas. An American woman with whom he had been corresponding came to visit, along with her two sons. This was, of course, Joy Davidman, the woman who would marry Lewis in less than a year. At first, they said they’d married for visa reasons; eventually they admitted that they were in love.
In any case, Davidman and Lewis talked about stories and threw ideas at each other for a while, and the next morning Lewis had written the first chapter of the book that would become Till We Have Faces (originally titled Bareface). It was a “myth retold”… a revisiting of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, a story that had bothered Lewis from his youth, because he felt the characters acted in ways that didn’t make sense. Now he was going to dig into it and find the truth of the whole thing.
Lewis considered Till We Have Faces his best novel. I think he’s right. Critics and the public at large didn’t agree—or at least many didn’t, not at first. Lewis said, “that book, which I consider far and away the best I have written, has been my one big failure both with critics and with the public.” His Christian fans were put off by the unapologetically pagan nature of the book… The familiar God of Christianity never shows up in a way that was obvious. Others thought the sudden swerve toward some sort of literary work was strange, and that the prose was needlessly opaque. If you wanted a space adventure, a heavily and obviously theological work, or a children’s fantasy, you were bound to be disappointed. This was something different, a book about a woman who hated the gods and was putting them on trial.
I don’t want to say too much about the content of this book, because I get the feeling there may be some of you out there who’ve been with us through this reread but who haven’t read Till We Have Faces yet. I don’t want to get too deeply into the characters and plot before you have a chance to read it, so I’m going to keep this article brief(ish) and share a few bits of trivia and a handful of things to be looking for as you read:
- The title Bareface was rejected because the publisher felt that it might be confused for a Western. Lewis didn’t agree, and actually thought it wouldn’t matter much if you picked up the book thinking it was a Western. Nevertheless, he worked on coming up with a different title, and chose this one from a line in the book.
- There’s some disagreement about exactly how much Joy Davidman contributed to the text of Till We Have Faces. We know for sure that she typed it off of Lewis’ handwritten notes. We know that Lewis asked her advice on many points, and that his confidence in writing a female point of view character was due almost entirely to her advice. There are aspects of Orual’s story that surely echo Davidman’s. The style is not like any of Lewis’ other books, either, and there are aspects that seem like Davidman’s. So critics and scholars have some disagreement here, as to exactly how much of the book was hers vs. Lewis’. For her part, Davidman said only that she “helped him write more like himself.” I suspect that is very much true: this book feels like the first one that Lewis wrote for himself and not for someone else. But he did, of course, dedicate the book to Davidman.
- Lewis was turning some version of this story over in his head for much of his life. He first read Apulieus’ version of the story in The Golden Ass when he was 18. He even took an attempt at writing a poem version of the story when he was an undergrad. Interestingly, it’s a story that held his attention from the time he was an atheist through to the time that he became a Christian. It seems to me there are some interesting places in the novel where we see Orual’s journey reflecting Lewis’ own on the matter of gods and the divine.
- Side note: In the poem version, there are two characters with familiar names… Psyche’s siblings, named Caspian and “Jardis.” Lewis wasn’t one to let a good name go to waste!
- Much like That Hideous Strength was a fictionalized journey through the same content as The Abolition of Man, Lewis said publicly that Till We Have Faces was a fictive version of similar thoughts being explored in The Four Loves. It’s worth remembering those four categories: Storge (affection/fondness/empathy); philia (friendship); eros (romantic love); and agape (the unchanging divine love). If you have the time to read The Four Loves, pay special attention to how Lewis describes love when it goes wrong or is unbalanced… that’s a lot of the story in Till We Have Faces!
- Lewis expects that his readers will have at least a passing acquaintance with the story of Psyche and Cupid; he wants you to note the ways he’s changed or subverted or illuminated the original tale. If you don’t know that story, it’s well worth your time to read it before you dive in to Till We Have Faces!
This book is, I think, the most honest Lewis ever was in his novels. It’s a story about him, about his family and family history, about his life and faith (or lack thereof), about his questions and anger. It’s the most free he ever was in focusing the story on things he himself loved, keeping the pagan story at the center and not trying to shoehorn in a religious piece that wasn’t already present. The Greek and Roman and Norse myths were essential in his own movement toward Christianity, and he trusts that the Truth of the story will be clear without making the trappings of the story overtly Christian.
Lewis once wrote:
This re-interpretation of an old story has lived in the author’s mind, thickening and hardening with the years… Recently, what seemed the right form presented itself and themes suddenly interlocked: the straight tale of barbarism, the mind of an ugly woman, dark idolatry and pale enlightenment at war with each other and with vision, and the havoc which a vocation, or even a faith, works on human life.
It’s a story, in the end, about having the courage to reveal one’s true self. There’s such beauty in that. I’m looking forward to discussing it with you all in the weeks to come.