Book Review: "Till We Have Faces"

I would be interested in some of your opinions of the best and hardest to understand of one of C S Lewis’ most complicated books, “Till We Have Faces.” This review illuminated one of the central thrusts to me:

“Woven into those themes is the greatest theme of the book – the exploration of the lies we tell ourselves in order to make sense out of that which does not make sense.”

At the bottom of studying science and the Bible is our attempt to make sense of that which does not make sense–suffering, who, and why. In some ways, this parallels Rauser’s review of what makes a good apologist–someone who really plumbs the depth of suffering, and acknowledges that pat answers are not there.

What other themes did you see in this book? Did you feel that Lewis was honest in his portrayal of himself and Orual? Apparently, he began the book as an atheist/agnostic, and ended as a Christian. I don’t feel the answers are there…at least, not the sort of answers we usually look for. However, that is apparently intended. Is the ending humble enough?



Thanks for sharing, and good timing. I literally just decided to start reading this book last night, so I’ll have to revisit this topic later!

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You’ve inspired me to add this to my summer re-read list. I would love to be able to add comments here, but can’t remember enough to say anything. I do suspect I may be able to get more out of it my second time around, though! Will probably have to resurrect this thread by the time I’ve got through it.

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I haven’t heard of it before and my first thought was, 'Shouldn’t that be " ‘Til" ?’, but checking on line I found,

Many assume that till is an abbreviated form of until . Actually, it is a distinctive word that existed in English at least a century before until , both as a preposition meaning “to” and a conjunction meaning “until.” It has seen continuous use in English since the 12th century and is a perfectly legitimate synonym of until .

So there, I’ve learnt something.


Me too! Thanks.

Challenge accepted, Randy. And completed. Thanks. The themes have all come piling back to me now - not that I presume to have come close to guessing all of them (or have done so correctly or completely on the few that I fancy to have caught hold of).

Medium grade spoiler alert: I don’t really give away any details of plot development, but I do discuss themes as I saw them, so if you want to read the book with your own fresh eyes in that regard, you might forgo the following.

One of the main themes I see might be called “gods in the dock”, so to speak. I.e. the charge against the gods of never letting men see till it’s too little, too late - and why can’t they just communicate clearly as even a simple child quickly learns to do.

Then on top of that the title theme emerges late in the book: that all our lives down here seem to consist of layered duplicities as we contrive and engineer our public identities for each other’s (and even our own) benefit. And then in the final judgment when all that is stripped away, and we speak with our actual and true voice (our true face), only then do our very questions and complaints turn into their own answer that we then see with shame has been there all along.

I also find it fascinating that the protagonist of the book is also it’s ostensible author from within. (sorta like Bilbo Baggins undertaking to write ‘There and Back again’ or some such thing that we can have fun thinking of as the very ‘Hobbit’ story in our hands.) But since we recently heard examples such as Hamlet being unaware of Shakespeare, as an analogy to how a playwright is in a God-like position towards the characters of the story; it is interesting that this main character, Orual, is very much owning (and writing) the story we’re reading. A character, that while not being aware of “Lewis” as she writes her story, is nonetheless allowed (by Lewis) to step outside her own the story and observe it as her own. What to make of all that, I’m not sure. But those are a few thoughts.

I think the main theme I caught, though, was the tussle between the wisdom of this seen world (the ‘Fox’ for the Greeks), and the suspiciously shrouded truths of the gods’ world (represented by Barda, the priests, and most of the people, not to mention the gods themselves).

Interesting teaser, that! One is tempted to undertake the challenge of guessing at what point in the tale this occurred. But to play such a game would be, I think, to fail to drink in the spirit of the whole thing in the first place.

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Very good review!

Apparently, it took 30 years to write. The initial purpose was just like Orual’s first book–a complaint against God.

I still don’t feel comfortable with all the themes. All in the story, as well rounded characters as they are (Bardia the simple but true, the Old Priest–the occult; the king–beer; the young priest–the “liberal” Christian who it’s hard to pin down on beliefs; Redival the superficial but hurt; Orual, who has been hurt but also in a measure ,selfish;) suffer, without knowing what their real responsibility is to others. Psyche, the Christ figure, is the only one who sees clearly, and once also falls because of her love for Orual.

I also always felt that the ending, where Orual is ashamed, doesn’t fit in Lewis’ teaching from Macdonald–that to God, doubting exhibits a love for truth.

I think that’s right. I just found this review, which also noted:

“But even then, the gods took her actions, which had caused so much pain for so many people, and used them to accomplish good in the lives of others, especially those of others that she dearly loved…”

But it is only after she sees her soul’s twisted face that she is given a new face, a beautiful, shining, radiant face of the gods."

The children and I are reading George Macdonald’s “The Princess and the Goblin” nightly now, and we just came to one of my favorite parts–a bit more Macdonaldian than the conclusion above. Princess Irene, a child of 8, develops a relationship with her magical great-great-grandmother, who lives at the top of her house, can only be seen when she wants to be, and represents God. Through the book, Irene, like Orual, struggles through alternate periods of doubt and faith. She feels guilty when she doubts her benevolent grandmother’s existence. However, one night, something frightens her terribly, and she runs in the wrong direction–into danger on the goblin-infested mountain, rather than away from it. She becomes dirty in the woods, but finally sees the old lady’s magical moon lamp that leads her back home. She feels unspeakably guilty and filthy when she reaches her grandmother’s chamber. However, the good woman warmly reassures her that she could not help making a mistaken turn here or there; and then clasps her to her bosom, not fearing the dirt that she smeared on her beautiful dress. All this comes as an argument against the little Princess’s protests that she is guilty and dirty, and could not be accepted or touched by her grandmother. When I was a child, I read this over and over, slowly realizing Macdonald’s point that God knows our limitations and only welcomes us for what we learn, and doesn’t vindicate Himself against us for how He made us.

My son quoted one of my favorites from Macdonald at that point–“You doubt because you love truth.”

Thank you for your conversation.


I’ve got to confess some other books I’ve been waiting for have come available so I don’t know if I’ll be reading the Princess and the Goblin in the near future.

Right now I’m reading Romeo, an account of a wild wolf which decided to live in the capital of Alaska. Interesting insights into the progenitor of man’s best friend. I’m in chapter five and am very worried that someone will shoot it.

After that my copy of Inspired should become available.

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Maybe you can post on Inspired. I am going to listen to it again before I feel smart enough to comment on it, but I look forward to that discussion. Is Romeo good for kids? Sounds good. Don’t tell me the story yet though. I want to keep the suspense on whether he survives or not. :slight_smile:

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Perhaps we can cut Lewis some slack on that … he was apparently after all, … a brand new Christian at that point! But even so, why do you see this as contrary to McDonald? He has nothing against shame, but sees it as a potentially necessary medicine to motivate repentance. Or is it because it’s near the end of the tale, thereby lending it a seeming finality? In any case, I guess nothing in the story struck me as glaringly incongruous with what I’ve come to appreciate about Lewis or Macdonald.

I think after reading Lewis’ “…Faces”, I may be ready to try Macdonald’s “Phantastes” and see how I fare with that.

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You’re probably right. He was apparently quite far along as a Christian and finished it with his wife, but on considering, there’s more to this comparison than I realized. For example, shame and guilt are different; and I often feel shame as reading the Bible or conversing with my wife makes me realize I was not quite the fine fellow I thought I was (as wonderfully kind as both are to me!). Shame is definitely there–and it’s an impetus to do better. The key seems to me that both the gods in TWHF and the grandmother in “Princess” welcome repentance with loving mercy.

Quotes from TWHF that resonated:

“The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing — to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from — my country, the place where I ought to have been born. Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back.”

“There must, whether the gods see it or not, be something great in the mortal soul. For suffering, it seems, is infinite, and our capacity without limit.”

“I was with book, as a woman is with child.”

“But now I discovered the wonderful power of wine. I understood why men become drunkards. For the way it worked on me was not at all that it blotted out these sorrows, but that it made them seem glorious and noble, like sad music, and I somehow great and revered for feeling them.”

“I have seen something like it happen in battle. A man was coming at me, I at him, to kill. Then came a sudden great gust of wind that wrapped out cloaks over our swords and almost over our eyes, so that we could do nothing to one another but must fight the wind itself. And that ridiculous contention, so foreign to the business we were on, set us both laughing, face to face - friends for a moment - and then at once enemies again and forever.”

“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?”

“I cannot hope for mercy.”
“Infinite hopes—and fears—may both be yours. Be sure that, whatever else you get, you will not get justice.”
“Are the gods not just?”
“Oh no, child. What would become of us if they were?”

“I felt ashamed."

“But of what? Psyche, they hadn’t stripped you naked or anything?”

“No, no, Maia. Ashamed of looking like a mortal – of being a mortal.”

“But how could you help that?”

"Don’t you think the things people are most ashamed of are things they can’t help?”

Best wishes with Phantastes. That, and Lilith, were the two that Lewis said he was reading as he became a Christian. I found them both very rough going; but maybe I wasn’t old enough to read them yet. You will probably get more out of them than I, still. Thanks.

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There! I do remember that bit now, and it did catch my attention as something that I now have a different perspective on. I am now persuaded that there is not (indeed cannot be) any separation between justice, mercy, and love. So on that reading, one must absolutely find nothing but justice in and from God. Which seemed like good news to the old psalmists who pray for retribution on their enemies … and yet becomes terrible news after Jesus gets through showing us our own state before God … but then finally becomes good (and terrible) news again for us as we learn that we are not to be left in our sins (the good news) and so must therefore ultimately turn with loathing from our sin and our desires for it; all of which only happens only with God’s help. And that is terrible news for those of us hoping to ‘get off’ without much fuss or sweat - (‘I’ll take perfection but hold the suffering please!’) We are attracted to the easy way, but even Jesus was obliged to endure suffering to reach the other side. The difference could be put this way (as indeed I used to): Jesus suffered so that I don’t have to. But should rather be put thus: Jesus suffered, so that I may follow him on that path. The former way could still be seen as true in that, because of his suffering, we are rescued from an eternity of enslavement to our sin (hell). But just as we are not above our master (who was obliged to endure death that he might attain a resurrection), so we are called, not to avoid suffering, but to pick up our cross and follow him. If we utter that former phrase in the spirit of “suffering avoidance”, then we have missed the message, I think.


What lover would shun his bride’s eyes unless he had some terrible
reason for it?

That was a key quote that caught my attention, as representing Lewis’ struggle with the notion of a Christ that keeps himself hidden from us, his very church, his bride.


Yes, Lewis does a good job of putting his case as a person seeking God who doesn’t find a response–as that is the reason he started the book–a complaint against God. It’s a complicated book, and I do understand more with each reading.

His capacity for empathy reminds me of the Anthony Hopkins version of “Shadowlands,” the movie about Lewis and the loss of his wife–(“shadowlands” alluding to a George Macdonald theme from “The Golden Key,” where all we see here is but a reflection of the real thing in God’s country)–“we read to know we are not alone.”

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This idea that there is something essentially wrong with raw human nature which must be overcome in order to become worthy of transcendence is interesting to me as an outsider. If I were younger I would scoff at the notion. But anyone who has suffered and eventually given up the hope of finding a diversion from suffering will know there is something to it. Sometimes accepting a demotion in ones sense of self worth is necessary for ones psychic growth and maturation. Suffering is a way to knowledge. It looks as though Christianity provides a context for that suffering.

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I agree that there is something profound in that. The school of suffering teaches something that I doubt can be learned any other way. … I suppose … since I don’t presume to have graduated from said school yet … and probably am not even enrolled at this point, though that can change at a moment’s notice. I have been on the edges of suffering by intimately knowing others who have. By supporting them, a small bit of that learning may rub off, but it still isn’t the same I’m sure.


I didn’t realize that Lewis had started writing this before he became a believer, but I can see how that would have played out. I didn’t notice anyone mentioning a couple of critical points in the plot: Orual was jealous of Psyche’s relationship with the god. Orual was the big sister who had always protected Psyche. And now Psyche was in an intimate relationship with the god. Orual had been replaced. Though Orual pretended that she only wanted to expose the god as a hoax, the truth was that she wanted to break up Psyche’s relationship with him.
The other point is that after Orual succeeds in getting Psyche to disobey the god, the god shows himself to Orual. She might pretend to others that the gods don’t exist, but now she really knows better. That is why, at the end, her complaints against the gods is exposed for the petulant rant of a jealous sister that it really is.

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Right. That part is sort of the “ouch” one, where she was certain that the gods were out to destroy Psyche. She was aware only of that motivation of protection (with her experiences otherwise, how else would we feel)? The “ouch” part is where she realized her deepest motivation; and we, too, struggle till we find our own faces and submit to having our deepest, worst desires changed to beautiful ones.

A second point was that despite that, the gods were able to use bad events for the good of those who participated. Whether it was because of some good intent, (as Orual said, “thank the gods” that she was able to help Psyche in some way in retrospect), or just because of their benevolence, they did bring good out of it–thus, the grace (mercy would be lack of justly deserved punishment, and grace undeserved favor).

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Uh…no. She wasn’t certain the gods were out to destroy Psyche. She justified her actions with the pretext that the gods were out to destroy Psyche. She knew better…or ought to have known better.

Her deepest, worst desires weren’t “changed.”. They were finally repented of.

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