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A Semester with C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces (Introduction)

            One of the privileges and pleasures of teaching at a classical Christian school like Cair Paravel Latin School ( is working with a wonderful faculty.  This semester for faculty development we are all reading Till We Have Faces (Faces) by C. S. Lewis.  I would like to propose to my readers that we read the book together.  I’ll write a brief reflection on each chapter and everybody can chime in with their thoughts and questions.  This seems like a useful way to approach this, the most difficult and rewarding of Lewis’s works of fiction. 

            Before plunging into the story itself, we should look at the title page.  Lewis provides us with three clues for interpreting his novel: the title, subtitle and a quotation.

            Let me start with the subtitle, “A Myth Retold,” specifically the story of Cupid and Psyche.  The back of my edition has a note by Lewis that summarizes the original story.  In case yours does not, I’ll very briefly do so.  In essence, Psyche is so beautiful that she provokes Venus’s envy.  The goddess sends her son Cupid to make Psyche fall in love with the worst men.  Cupid falls in love with her and takes her to a secret palace.  They become lovers, but Psyche is forbidden to see Cupid’s face.  Led on by her envious sisters, Psyche accidentally wakes Cupid while looking on him.  Cupid leaves her, and Venus sets Psyche to do a series of impossible tasks.  With miraculous help she succeeds in all, but her curiosity makes her fail the last.  Cupid, however, forgives her and persuades Jupiter to permit his marriage to Psyche, who becomes a goddess.

            The fact that Lewis calls Faces “a myth retold” is an important element in understanding the novel.  Not only do the ancient myths narrate the interaction between the gods and men, they are generally multi-layered stories.  We should be open, then, to look at Faces from different angles and not be surprised to discover hidden depths.

            Another clue is an important, but enigmatic, quotation from William Shakespeare’s 151st sonnet.  “Love is too young to know what conscience is.”   I’m not sure what this means, but I’d like to take a stab at it.  Somewhere Lewis stated that in a perfect world there would be no sense of “ought” in our relationship with God.  All action would flow from love.  In a sinful world, however, conscience is needed at times to goad us to the right action.  Does anyone have a better idea?

            The Shakespeare quotation becomes important when we remember that Psyche is the Greek for “soul” and that Cupid is the god of erotic love or desire.  Faces is not, let me repeat, is not an allegory, but we should not ignore that it is a story that speaks deeply to the human soul’s relationship with God and the place of love and conscience.  As we shall see, the story mainly concerns Orual, Psyche’s elder sister, and her complaint against the gods, but I also think that we should look for development in Psyche.

            This leads us to the title, Till We Have Faces.  Here “face” means character or persona, something similar to its use in the exhortation to those about to partake of Holy Communion in the 1559 edition of the Book of Common Prayer,  “With what face then … shall ye heare these words?”  The implication is that we lack faces.  We are inauthentic.  Lewis’s compelling retelling of the Cupid and Psyche myth is intended to help us examine our authenticity as persons, indeed as human beings, before ourselves, others and, above all, God.

            Let me know what you think.  The next post will be on chapter 1.

6 thoughts on “A Semester with C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces (Introduction)

  1. What a great introduction! I’m fascinated by the relationship this retold myth will share with our own soul, loves, and faces. Fascinating!

  2. Thank you, Bill. I enjoyed your introduction. Before, I never gave much thought to the subtitle and quote, but now I find myself pondering, “Love is too young to know what conscience is.” Looking forward to more discussions.

    1. Thanks, Becky. Lewis pondered the Cupid and Psyche myth for a long time; so Till We Have Faces is the fruit of much thought. That means that things are there intentionally. I actually had never even noticed the quotation before, and this is my third or fourth reading. If you come up with some ideas about the quotation about love, please share them. I’m still pondering it too.

  3. It took me a while to get my feet under me on this but now I’m reading it from the furthest point reached and rereading from the beginning. It’s funny to me that I have assigned my youngest sister as Psyche and my oldest sister (still younger than me) as Orual. At present I am sympathetic and understanding of Orual even though she may well face difficult challenges and make “wrong” decisions. In which case I may wish to reassign an evil female to take my sisters place.
    I’ll take your advice and pay attention to the development of Psyche although at present she is a dumb blonde and spoiled to me.
    “love is too young to young to know what conscience is” reminds me of a quote from “It’s a wonderful life”. ” youth is wasted on the wrong people”.

    1. Thanks, Mike. I always like your humor. We’ll see what other blondes think. Isn’t William Barron a blond(e)? Seriously, I’m not unsympathetic to Orual either. I have felt angry at the “gods” too.

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