12 Passages from C. S. Lewis’ “Till We Have Faces”

Notes from the Mockingbird Book Club

Ben Self / 5.11.21

Several weeks ago, members of Mockingbird’s inaugural Zoom Book Club hopped online to discuss our first book, the fascinating C. S. Lewis novel Till We Have Faces (1956). The book is a liberal retelling of the Psyche and Cupid myth — but from the perspective of one of the myth’s side-characters, Psyche’s older sister Orual. It’s the second-to-last full-length novel Lewis published, and was apparently his own favorite from among his works.

Without giving too much away, we thought we’d share a few of the novel’s most provocative passages for those who might be interested in giving the book a read. Here are 12:

The Wisdom of the Greeks:

‘It is very subtle. But it brings no rain and grows no corn […]. It does not even give them boldness to die. […] Much less does it give them understanding of holy things. They demand to see such things clearly, as if the gods were no more than letters written in a book. I, King, have dealt with the gods for three generations of men, and I know that they dazzle our eyes and flow in and out of one another like eddies on a river, and nothing that is said clearly can be said truly about them. Holy places are dark places. It is life and strength, not knowledge and words, that we get in them. Holy wisdom is not clear and thin like water, but thick and dark like blood.’ (50)

Spiritual Homesickness:

‘I have always — at least, ever since I can remember — had a kind of longing for death.’

‘Ah, Psyche,’ I said, ‘have I made you so little happy as that?’

‘No, no, no,’ she said. ‘You don’t understand. Not that kind of longing. It was when I was happiest that I longed most. It was on happy days when we were up there on the hills, the three of us, with the wind and the sunshine […]. Do you remember? The color and the smell, and looking across at the Grey Mountain in the distance? And because it was so beautiful, it set me longing, always longing. Somewhere else there must be more of it. Everything seemed to be saying, “Psyche come!” But I couldn’t (not yet) and I didn’t know where I was to come to. It almost hurt me. I felt like a bird in a cage when the other birds of its kind are flying home. […]

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 — […] 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. All my life the god of the Mountain has been wooing me. Oh, look up once at least before the end and wish me joy. I am going to my lover.’ (74-6)

The Best Defense Against the Gods:

Now mark yet again the cruelty of the gods. There is no escape from them into sleep or madness, for they can pursue you into them with dreams. Indeed you are then most at their mercy. The nearest thing we have to a defense against them (but there is no real defense) is to be very wide awake and sober and hard at work, to hear no music, never to look at earth or sky, and (above all) to love no one. (80-1)

The Delights of the Heart:

Now, flung at me like frolic or insolence, there came as if it were a voice — no words — but if you made it into words it would be, ‘Why should your heart not dance?’ It’s the measure of my folly that my heart almost answered, ‘Why not?’ I had to tell myself over like a lesson the infinite reasons it had not to dance. My heart to dance? Mine whose love was taken from me, I, the ugly princess who must never look for other love, the drudge of the King […]? And yet, it was a lesson I could hardly keep in my mind. The sight of the huge world put mad ideas into me, as if I could wander away, wander forever, see strange and beautiful things, one after the other to the world’s end. The freshness and wetness all about me […] made me feel that I had misjudged the world; it seemed kind, and laughing, as if its heart also danced. Even my ugliness I could not quite believe in. Who can feel ugly when the heart meets delight? (95-6)

The Things We’re Most Ashamed Of:

‘Don’t you think the things people are most ashamed of are the things they can’t help?’ (111)

The Impurity of Our Intentions:

‘Daughter, daughter. You are transported beyond all reason and nature. Do you know what it is? There’s one part love in your heart, and five parts anger, and seven parts pride.’ (148)

Selfish, Devouring Love:

‘You are indeed teaching me about kinds of love I did not know. It is like looking into a deep pit. I am not sure whether I like your kind better than hatred. Oh, Orual — to take my love for you, because you know it goes down to my very roots and cannot be diminished by any other newer love, and then to make of it a tool, a weapon, a thing of policy and mastery, an instrument of torture — I begin to think I never knew you.’ (165)

Letting Friends Keep Secrets:

‘Well. You have a secret from me,’ he said in the end. ‘No, don’t turn away from me. Did you think I would try to press or conjure it out of you? Never that. Friends must be free. My tormenting you to find it would build a worse barrier between us than your hiding it. Some day — but you must obey the god within you, not the god within me. There, do not weep. I shall not cease to love you if you have a hundred secrets.’ (180)

The Noxiousness of the Gods:

Now, you who read, judge between the gods and me. They gave me nothing in the world to love but Psyche and then took her from me. But that was not enough. They then brought me to her at such a place and time that it hung on my word whether she should continue in bliss or be cast out into misery. They would not tell me whether she was the bride of a god, or mad, or a brute’s or villain’s spoil. They would give no clear sign, though I begged for it. I had to guess. And because I guessed wrong they punished me — what’s worse, punished me through her. […]

I say the gods deal very unrightly with us. For they will neither (which would be best of all) go away and leave us to live our own short days to ourselves, nor will they show themselves openly and tell us what they would have us do. For that too would be endurable. But to hint and hover, to draw near us in dreams and oracles, or in a waking vision that vanishes as soon as seen, to be dead silent when we question them and then glide back and whisper (words we cannot understand) in our ears when we most wish to be free of them, and to show to one what they hide from another; what is all this but cat-and-mouse play, blindman’s buff, and mere jugglery? Why must holy places be dark places?

I say, therefore, that there is no creature (toad, scorpion, or serpent) so noxious to man as the gods. (248-49)

Grieving with Our Enemies:

‘You loved him. You’ve suffered too. We both … ‘

She was weeping; and I. Next moment we were in each other’s arms. It was the strangest thing that our hatred should die out at the very moment she first knew her husband was the man I loved. It would have been far otherwise if he were still alive; but on that desolate island […] we were the only two castaways. We spoke a language, so to call it, which no one else in the huge heedless world could understand. Yet it was a language only of sobs. We could not even begin to speak of him in words; that would have unsheathed both daggers at once. (263)

The Futility of Self-Help:

I was as ugly in soul as she; greedy, blood-gorged. But if I practiced true philosophy, as Socrates meant it, I should change my ugly soul into a fair one. And this, the gods helping me, I would do. I would set about it at once.

The gods helping … but would they help? Nevertheless I must begin. And it seemed to me they would not help. I would set out boldly each morning to be just and calm and wise in all my thoughts and acts; but before they had finished dressing me I would find that I was back (and knew not how long I had been back) in some old rage, resentment, gnawing fantasy, or sullen bitterness. I could not hold out half an hour. And a horrible memory crept into my mind of those days when I had tried to mend the ugliness of my body with new devices in the way I did my hair or the colors I wore. I’d a cold fear that I was at the same work again. I could mend my soul no more than my face. Unless the gods helped. (281-2)

Facing the Judgment of the Gods:

‘The gods have been accused by you. Now’s their turn.’

‘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? But come and see.’ (297)

Next month we read Wise Blood, by Flannery O’Connor!