I have invited the readers who visit Living Our Days to join me in reading C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, and to return here each Thursday for a discussion. If you’re just joining us, you can find the reading schedule here.
Approaches to C.S. Lewis’s brand of fiction vary widely, ranging from “This is a great story, and I love it. Please leave me alone and let me enjoy it,” to those who seek a point-by-point application for every possible allegory. Wherever you fall on this spectrum, it’s clear that Chapters 1-3 set the stage for many of the major themes that permeate the book. Even if you have not yet started to read with us, this short summary of the first three chapters may serve as a teaser to get you started!
In the semi-barbaric kingdom of Glome, in a time before the fall of the Greek empire, there lived a homely princess named Orual. Her mother has died, and the king remarries and fathers, to his dismay, yet another daughter, making three in all. Transfixed by the baby’s beauty and good nature, Orual raises and dotes on the child who grows in beauty and goodnessand is beloved by the people. The young Princess Psyche is rumored to have healing in her hands, and chapter three ends with an ominous sense that the jealousy of the middle daughter (Redival), two years of poor harvest, and the onset of an epidemic of fever may, together, signal the end of happy times for Orual and Psyche.
The word “standing” reached out from Romans 5:1,2 and chose me for its own this year,
“ By entering through faith into what God has always wanted to do for us—set us right with him, make us fit for him—we have it all together with God because of our Master Jesus. And that’s not all: We throw open our doors to God and discover at the same moment that he has already thrown open his door to us. We find ourselves standing where we always hoped we might stand—out in the wide open spaces of God’s grace and glory, standing tall and shouting our praise.”
and it leaves me wishing that Orual (and her present day sisters) could see and know this God who “has always wanted to do” good for us, to be “all together” with us so that we would see the wide-open door which He has already flung aside in welcome.
With her opening paragraph, Orual makes it evident that she is (and has long been) at enmity with the gods. She has concluded that the gods hate her, but clearly, she is not in a position of unbelief:
- She recognizes but disregards their power to do her harm, and describes Ungit as a “very strong goddess,” (pg. 4). Dressing traditional Christian concepts in pagan clothing, C.S. Lewis portrays Ungit as a nature goddess and Ungit’s son is the “god who lives on the Grey Mountain.”
- She acknowledges that the gods have knowledge that is unavailable to humans, “and gods do not tell,” (p. 33).
- As a child, even the smell of Ungit’s temple was frightening to her, and she continues to refer to it as a smell of holiness, “the Ungit smell,” (p. 11).
By contrast, Psyche seems to have been drawn since childhood toward the Grey Mountain: “When I’m big,” she said, “I will be a great, great queen, married to the greatest king of all, and he will build me a castle of gold and amber up there on the very top,” (p. 23). Even when she succumbs to the fever, her delirious ravings are all about the Grey Mountain.
In the midst of these two polar opposites stands The Fox, a Greek slave who has been assigned to tutor the girls. Spouting rational explanations for all the mysterious actions of “the gods,” and insisting that all the murky evidence for the numinous all around them is “just lovely poetry,” he still trembles before the mystery of death, and fails to convince anyone with his reason-based protests. Throughout the book, we will see that Orual continually struggles to reconcile the teachings of The Fox with the teachings of Ungit’s priests.
C.S. Lewis, in his writing, frequently ties the distant hills to the sense of longing that formed the backdrop to his formative years — “sehnsucht” he called it, a German term that manages to convey deep yearning and nostalgic longing. The theme permeates much of what Lewis wrote, and at this point in the novel, the longing is tied to the distant hills and their “otherworldliness” that draws Psyche. Of course, C.S. Lewis was famous for having said,
“If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”
Some Issues to Ponder
- Do you see any similarities between Orual’s devotion to Psyche and the people of Glome’s failure to look beyond Psyche to the god of Grey Mountain?
- Lewis used the term “myth” not as an opposite to the word “fact,” but instead to label a device of meaning-making. For instance, he referred to “the myths of the Bible,” referring to the stories and themes we all know. Converting to Christianity at the age of 31, Lewis found that Christ “is the reality which all myths are suggesting.” In Miracles he refers to “a long preparation [of all previous myths which] culminates in God’s becoming incarnate as Man, so . . . the truth first appears in Mythical form and then by a long process of condensing or focusing finally becomes incarnate as History.” He believed most myths were initially theological; for instance, that all nations’ myths of blood and sacrifice arose from “initial revelation,” all pointing toward the same truth of Christ crucified. Do you find Lewis’s portrayal of Christian concepts in a strange context to be helpful — or distracting?
- Lewis scholars claim that his wife, Joy Davidman, was quite influential in the development of Orual’s character. This does give insight to the amazing ability of a nearly lifelong bachelor to develop the interior landscape of a strong female character. But . . . then there is Jadis in The Magician’s Nephew. And Mrs. Beaver. And Lucy Pevensie is no slouch either! Any thoughts on this?
- How are you pronouncing Orual’s name as you read? I’ve always said “Or-oo-all” which is a bit awkward. Anyone saying “you” for the middle syllable?
I hope that you will share your thoughts on the first three chapters in the comments below. I will be thrilled if you choose to link up your own blog posts for all of our benefit and enjoyment!
On Thursday, January 19th, I’ll be here having read chapters 4-6.
I hope you are enjoying the experience of exploring this beautiful, complex, and compassionate story.
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