The Mirror and the Veil: C. S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces –Part 1

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The Mirror and the Veil: C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces –Part 1
“See yourself in the mirror, you're separate from yourself. See the world in the mirror, you're separate from the world. I don't want that separation anymore.” –Joy Davidman
“Child, if you will, it is mythology. It is but truth, not fact: an image, not the very real. But then it is My mythology. The words of Wisdom are also myth and metaphor: but since they do not know themselves for what they are, in them the hidden myth is master, where it should be servant: and it is but of man’s inventing. But this is My inventing, this is the veil under which I have chosen to appear even from the first until now. For this end I have made your senses and for this end your imagination, that you might see my face and live. What would you have? Have you not heard among the Pagans the story of Semele? Or was there any age in any land when men did not know that corn and wine were the blood and body of a dying and yet living God? ”—The Pilgrim’s Regress

“For boyhood is very like the ‘dark ages’ not as they were but as they are represented in bad, short histories. The dreams of childhood and those of adolescence may have much in common; between them, often, boyhood stretches like an alien territory in which everything (ourselves included) has been greedy, cruel, noisy, and prosaic, in which, the imagination has slept and the most un-ideal senses and ambitions have been restlessly, even maniacally, awake.”—Surprised by Joy

“Such, then, was the state of my imaginative life; over against it stood the life of my intellect. The two hemispheres of my mind were in the sharpest contrast. On the one side a many-islanded sea of poetry and myth; on the other a glib and shallow ‘rationalism.’ Nearly all that I loved I believed to be imaginary; nearly all that I believed to be real I thought grim and meaningless.”—Surprised by Joy

The Historical Novel

C. S. Lewis’ last novel, Till We Have Faces (1956) is arguably both the culmination of his fictional explorations and a work striking new ground. Like his science fiction novels and his Narnian Chronicles, Lewis brings together myth and history, pagan story and Christian mysticism. At the same time, Lewis fashions a novel of historical realism that offers the supposed real events behind a classic myth. Set in the 3rd century B.C. during the Hellenistic period before the rise of Rome as a Mediterranean power, the story takes place in the fictional kingdom of Glome, somewhere in “barbarian” Scythia, either in South Russia or near the Danube and the Balkans. Lewis expects his readers to have some knowledge of the basic outline of the myth of Cupid and Psyche and some overall sense of classical Greek culture, though perhaps only enough to have common stereotypes overturned. He also expects his readers to read according to the genre of the historical novel. In Narnia, magic is real, and in the science fiction books, the distance between the mythic and science fiction is conflated. Unlike these stories, fantastic events in Till We Have Faces always leave open the possibility of a naturalistic explanation. How much of this, after all, is simply in the mind of the narrator, Orual?

The novel also practices another kind of historical correlation. In Narnia, the basic Christian truths of Creation-Fall-Redemption inform the stories’ fairy tale structures. In the Ransom Trilogy, Christian truths are reimagined in a cosmic world. Till We Have Faces, on the other hand, is more typological. Pagan religion and Greek Stoic philosophy echo the concerns of the Jewish and Christian faiths. They subtly suggest a world on the cusp of readiness for the Christian message, but not one able to yet receive it. The novel does not offer an easy Christian allegory, and Lewis was concerned that readers not interpret it in that manner. Nonetheless, Till We Have Faces may come closer than any of his other fiction to embodying what he meant by the pagan myths preparing the way for Christ, the myth become fact.

Discussion Questions

  1. Characterize the following: the King, Redival, Batta, the Fox, the Priest of Ungit, and Bardia.

  2. What sets apart Orual as a character?

  3. What sets apart Psyche (Ishtar)? How well do we know her as readers?

  4. Compare and contrast the priest’s pagan religion with the Fox’s Stoic philosophy.

  5. What does Orual mean by the smell of the holy?

  6. Why does Psyche think that the Fox doesn’t have the whole truth?

  7. Describe Orual’s love for Psyche.

  8. What effect does beauty and ugliness have on the characters? How does it define their responses?

  9. Why does Psyche have to be the Accursed? Is there more than one reason?

  10. Why are “holy places” “dark places”? Do you agree?

  11. How have Psyche’s dreams and expectations defined her place as the supposed wife of a god?

  12. Why do the Fox and Bardia have different explanations for what has happened to Pscyhe?

  13. How does Orual’s inability to see the castle define her struggle with Psyche?

  14. Why can Orual only see Psyche’s conjugal relationship with her husband as dirty?

  15. Why does Orual not tell the Fox or Bardia about her brief vision of the castle?

  16. Why does Orual see herself as two halves divided?

The Idea of the Holy

In The Idea of the Holy (1917), Rudolf Otto developed a nomenclature for the experience of the Divine; the numinous, in particular, signaled that non-rational part of the response. He characterized the response of religious emotions to God in three broad categories: tremendum, mysterium, and augustus:

  1. Tremendum involves a feeling of being overwhelmed, even threatened, by the active power and the plentitude of God’s being.

  2. Mysterium, on the other hand, rather than being repulsed is a sense of attraction, even stupor, before the fascinans of God’s wholly otherness, the totaliter aliter.

  3. Augustus amounts to a sense of profaneness and sinfulness before the holiness of God.

Lewis listed Otto’s book as one of the works that most deeply influenced his conception of God. He encountered it fairly early in life, and it would continue to shape his thought throughout his career. In his essay “Is Theism Important?” (1962) he insisted on the continued importance of Otto’s definitions:

I still think Otto’s account of the Numinous is the best analysis . . . we have. I believe it is a mistake to regard the Numinous as merely an affair of “feeling.” Admittedly, Otto can describe it only by referring to the emotions it arouses in us; but then nothing can be described except in terms of its effects in consciousness. We have in English an exact name for the emotion aroused by the numinous, which Otto, writing in German, lacked; we have the word Awe—an emotion very like fear, with the important difference that it need imply no estimate of danger. . . . In ancient times I think experience of the Numinous developed into the Holy only in so far as the Numinous (not in itself moral) came to be connected with the morally good.”

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