It’s almost a sure bet that if people have heard of C.S. Lewis, then they’ve read The Chronicles of Narnia. Occasionally they haven’t, but such cases are rare enough that people generally assume others know the stories. When conversations about him start up the question that’s usually asked is “Have you read the Cosmic Trilogy?” Answers to that can be more varied, at least in my experience. The discussion may possibly turn at that point to Mere Christianity or The Screwtape Letters. But there is a way to recognize the truly discerning reader of Lewis: they’re the ones who bring up Till We Have Faces.
Lewis’ last novel is one of his most subtle, most daring, and most profound books. Sadly, this may also be why it is one of his least read. It isn’t easily translated into sermon illustrations, so it gets less attention than others; or perhaps because it gets less attention, it can’t be easily referenced in a preaching context. Even when it was first published in 1956, it was a surprising flop both critically and commercially. The years have been kind; those who have read Till We Have Faces usually believe that it’s Lewis’ finest work.
His fiction usually has a very particular undercurrent, even if it comes in a variety of flavours. The stories generally paint a picture of the Christian imagination; that is, how Christian faith envisions the world. He had done that through medieval allegory, science fiction, fairy tale, and now he set out to do it through ancient myth. Descriptions of the plot normally start by saying it is a retelling of the myth of Cupid (or Eros) and Psyche, though that only means anything to people who know the myth in the first place. For those who don’t, Lewis provides a summary in an afterword while also pointing out how his own version differs, thus helpfully illuminating the key theme for understanding the novel. In short, it is a story about a woman who marries a god, told by one of her sisters, the one who loves her most.
That at least is the barest introduction to the plot. Along the way, Lewis touches on how people respond to both beauty and ugliness, the kind of gods we prefer to worship, and the lives of women in a society that largely values only their ability to bear children. But truly it’s a novel about love—and all that we think is love: desire, envy, possession. It’s about how love turns to hatred while still believing that it loves. Love instead must learn to let go even though it longs to embrace. Love is only love when we eventually find that our beloved can only be called beloved when they are perfectly free and perfectly not ours.
There is much more I could say, about love, about the gods, about the title, but it would seem meaningless—at least to me—outside of the book itself. Till We Have Faces is one of those novels whose true magic is in the reading, a novel that says all it needs to say, making further words pointless. Go, read, and discover it for yourself.