Monday 17 September 2018

Till We Have Faces - is it CS Lewis's best or worst book?

This is a real question - in the sense that some people - including his best friend Owen Barfield - say that the 1956 novel Till we have faces (TWHF) is Lewis's best fiction book, and Lewis himself sometimes said it was his best book! On the other hand it has never been very popular among the majority of Lewis devotees. I myself don't care for it*.

But this is also something of a trick question, in the sense that, uniquely in the entirely of Lewis's prose writings (novels, essays, theology, literary criticism, letters, journals) TWHF does not read as if it was written by Lewis.

So, those who enjoy Lewis's writing style would not be likely to enjoy TWHF. Indeed, they might - like me - actually dislike it because it appears under Lewis's name and with Lewisian expectations; even though, taken in and of itself, TWHF is a good quality novel.

The reason why TWHF reads differently is that it was, in effect, co-written by Lewis and his wife Joy Davidman - who was a professional writer and editor. To my eye and ear, TWHF is an edited book - that is, a book subjected to line-by-line editing; and this is unique to Lewis's oeuvre.

Lewis, in fact, wrote many of his most loved books in a single, 'first' draft, merely requiring correction. His personal letters are thus just as good as the Screwtape Letters! His journals are as good as The Allegory of Love. His journalistic essays, his sermons, his devotional books share a style and a spirit.

So why did Lewis think it was his best book? Perhaps because he wrote it with his wife, who soon after died. Perhaps because he laboured over it, and achieved something different from anything he had managed before. Perhaps because authors nearly always favour their least popular book - their beloved but unpopular child!

Why, then, did Barfield like TWHF best? I think perhaps because - and this comes across in many of OB's reflections on Lewis, Barfield had reservations about Lewis's normal, natural style. He recognised that Lewis was accessible and effective, and in a sense what was needed in his time and place - but Barfield's own taste in literature was more highbrow; and TWHF is Lewis's most highbrow novel, by some margin.

*Note: I do, however, love the title! One of the best ever, I would say. 


Nathaniel said...

Thanks, that is very interesting. I listened to it in audiobook and did not especially like it, but never really thought how it is really quite different from his other works. Thank you for the insight!

John Fitzgerald said...

I found it forgettable. Well crafted but one-dimensional and uninspiring. Quite the reverse of That Hideous Strength, which for me is his best book followed by The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Screwtaoe Letters. I also struggled with Reflections on the Psalms and Letters to Malcolm which I believe were written around the same time as TWHF. He doesn't sound at all like CSL in those books in my view. They could have been written be any run of the mill clergyman.

Chiu ChunLing said...

I didn't encounter any really notable stylistic difficulty with Till We Have Faces. Overall I think you may be right, it is a style that is actually more accessible to the refined literary palette, and because of this I was drawn in readily to the story as it unfolded with a willing suspension of judgment.

But in the hours after reading the story I was essentially revolted by the moral content of the narrative, embittered and disappointed with both sisters' acceptance of the 'justice' and 'mercy' of the supposed (clearly utterly false) deities that had presumed to meddle in their lives.

I reread the book, especially the last chapters in which Orual is forced to distort her soul and trample all her virtue as the price of being permitted to see her (corrupted and debased) sister again, and felt I was able to derive some idea of what Lewis was trying to do, but without any least alteration in my perception of the story he actually ended up telling.

It is a beautifully written book, but the ending is utterly despicable. And yet I can imagine the story being told differently, such that the gods are worthy, or at least less irredeemably psychopathic and evil.

My reaction may be all the more severe because I had really been led to believe that the two gods primarily treated in the narrative would turn out to be better, rather than worse, than Orual had been led to believe. The manner in which Lewis paints her early judgments of the gods as unreliable is quite skillful, without being overbearing or tending at all to imagination that she is motivated by pure virtue rather than childish or selfish notions of what 'ought' to be. So I was expecting the gods to turn out to be far from the monsters she perceived.

My disappointment at finding them to be even worse than she had ever imagined was thus magnified considerably.

I exorcised my bitterness by imagining an entirely different ending, in which the gods merely turn out to be the lesser 'monsters' Orual imagined. The husband of her sister turns out to be a vagabond, but wiser and more holy than depraved and lustful. The earth-mother goddess is mysterious and indifferent to specifically human concerns like the fate of kingdoms, but benevolent to the ordinary concerns of fertility and survival in a harsh world. Istra is delusional...but not wholly insane, and the 'gods' between them work to allow her the time and respite for her eventual recovery.

I wavered whether I preferred my alternate 'Eros' (the supposed god/beast of the mountain) to be entirely mortal and simply an enlightened hermit or have some really familial connection with Ungit. In the end I think I preferred him as a sort of itinerant lapsed cleric rather than actually being directly related to the mysterious god.

Not that I ever really wrote my alternate ending. I simply couldn't bear that horrific story as it was, so I made up a happier one in my head. In which the suffering of life is not simply because the gods find it amusing to torment innocent people for trying to be good and decent.

Bruce Charlton said...

@John - I too found the Psalms book to be pretty weak, or - at least - I found a lot to disagree with - and I can't recall much about Letters to Malcolm - indeed I think I need to re-read it.

In some ways I prefer Lewis's essays to his non-fiction books. The letters are astonishingly good; I have the three big volumes and have read them all twice and individual favourites several times. But - as the years go by - I suspect that we get more of Lewis's hidden heart and his deepest convictions in the Narnia stories: his *real* theology.

Zach said...

I love TWHF. If I were pinned down, I'd say it's my favorite Lewis book, though it's very close with The Great Divorce. (I'd put Perelandra in third. The Silver Chair is probably in fourth place, and it's definitely my favorite of the Narnia books. I also like Letters to Malcom very much, so calibrate your expectations from that.)

TWHF makes me think of The Death of Ivan Ilyich for some reason. Maybe it's the existentialist encounter with the absurd and the "universal", if I can borrow from Kierkegaard. I think that very notion of becoming a self (thinking about Kierkegaard in The Sickness Unto Death) is behind the question: "how can [the Gods] meet us face to face till we have faces?" There's more to it than that; thoughts about atonement (and Atonement), and sharing in the suffering of others (and of our Lord.) I'm sure Lewis was thinking about this if the timing coincided with Joy's illness. I think I also identify with the feeling that coming to know God is a struggle and a heartbreak. He shatters all masks. Maybe it's that struggle, so well realized in The Great Divorce, that also makes TWHF so compelling. It's a thread in The Silver Chair as well, and maybe less so in Perelandra.

I feel like Istra's faith is like Abraham's, in the context (if you'll forgive me again) of Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling. Istra's faithfulness transcends the ethical, as Abraham's sacrifice does. The ethical (Orual) can't comprehend the Knight of Faith (Istra), because the religious exists beyond the ethical. Only by encountering the Universal and making the leap to faith can Orual begin to have a face of her own.

But I think I'm rambling. I recognize that I'm not a very typical reader. I'm not very scholarly, but at the same time my tastes run more to the obscure. I think I agree with Bruce that some of the draw is that it's more "highbrow", not that I have any issues with Lewis's usual style. TWHF is very different, though, I agree. It's very existential, which also appeals to me. In addition to Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky and Camus are among my favorites, and Gene Wolfe is my favorite living author. TWHF is striking and strange, but I'm grateful we've got it. It remains one of my favorite books.

Philip Neal said...

I have not read Till We Have Faces for years, but it was certainly never my favourite. A lot of the mannered English (I recall 'unchancy') seems to derivefrom Housman and came between this reader and the meaning of the myth.

As for best and worst, I have always thought The Abolition of Man his most overrated book. The discussion of evolution is not really about Darwin or Darwinism but the dated philosophising of people like Bernard Shaw. In general, Lewis was scientifically ignorant and he did not get to the heart of that or the other matters he discusses.

On the other hand, I think I would rate That Hideous Strength as, if not his best book, then his best fiction. I disliked it when I first read it, but it grows on you as the years teach you how far estranged from goodness worldliness really is.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Zach - Well done - you make a good case.

pyrrhus said...

The Narnia stories and That Hideous Strength are by far my favorites. C.S. Lewis is best when he just lets the story flow.

Anonymous said...

My favorite book of Lewis's is That Hideous Strength. It has everything: suspense in the first part, while Jane and Mark are begin led into their respective worlds, Lewis's depiction of goodness in the Saint Anne's group, a convincing depiction of evil dressed up in a distinctly modern fashion in the NICE group, and the fascinating imagining of angels in the Descent of the Gods chapter.

My favorite parts of Till We Have Faces were the descriptions of Glome and its culture: Lewis's (and Davidman's) attempt to imagine the classical world.
I wish Lewis had written a second book: a historical fiction or fantasy novel in a similar setting, a "rehabilitation" of the ancient world without sacrificing realism; with Lewis's education in Greats, such a novel could have been excellent.

A said...

Agreed, I had that feeling "I don't like it", but it was not the book, but the uncovering of the world's deceptions and evilness which is disturbing.

Chiu ChunLing said...

I think that one of the deep problems with the book is how it ends up ignoring the fundamental unity of the different kinds of love. Of course, the failure is far from complete, the conversation between Orual and her captain Bardia's wife about his love for each is a brilliant highlight in a book that has many wonderful parts.

But the disjunction is complete in the case of the Mountain God/Beast himself, who is supposedly Eros himself.

This turns the supposed divine castle/marriage of Istra into a lie, albeit one that is skillfully supported by a magical illusion (which Orual can't see precisely because it isn't real). In the story, Eros only likes having sex with Istra, he doesn't like helping her conceive, bear, rear, and support a child. But while the Greeks did distinguish between eros and other kinds of love, they didn't draw the dividing line where we tend to, between sinful indulgence in lust and righteous pursuit of marriage. For the Greeks, consciously wanting to get married and have a family was part of the 'madness' of erotic love.

Which it is and always will be as long as the human race endures. You can't drive men into marriage with lust alone, and without the felt commitment of a full erotic love that delights in the idea of a shared posterity, you can't produce a functionally human next generation. An 'eros' that is nothing more than sinful lust cannot give rise to any of the other kinds of love, the basic material must be present in the initial form of the loving emotion.

Which is why I prefer 'Eros' to be a mortal man dealing with a delusional 'bride'. Because then he has a chance to show that he loves Istra in the sense of doing what is best to help her actually have children, the main point of her dream of marriage. That also gives meaning (whether sacred or merely practical) to the command that she cannot see his face (which Orual fails to understand). As a 'god' with a magic invisible castle, Eros can't do that. Or at least, he completely fails to in the story as written.

Duke said...

I loved "Till We Have Faces." It very well may be that his wife participated, and this accounts for the different style. I liked it because I think the "dream sequence" between the first and second part is a preview of the particular judgment, and how all our half-lies and self-deceptions will be exploded.

I also think the description of the arrival of "the God" is very powerful, perhaps the best two or three pages of narrative description Lewis ever wrote. But I am no literary critic. I imagine Lewis thinking of it as a pre-Incarnation theophany. I thought the characterization was good too.

Worst book? The fiction book I least liked is "A Pilgrim's Regress." I think Lewis himself even thought it was too didactic. He wrote so much non-fiction, and was such a fine writer, I can't really single out a book as being particularly bad. Some of his works on language and literary criticism are of a very technical, narrow focus and of limited appeal.

Chiu ChunLing said...

Pilgrim's Regress is pretty poorly composed compared to C.S. Lewis' other narrative works, the character of John is rather uninteresting and reactive, a stand-in who has no really personal evolution. Of course, that is rather the point of the story, John has to react to what he encounters the way "anyone would". But it does make the overarching story rather dull, it is instead a series of vignettes that could just as well have each had a different protagonist.

Really, thinking of it, I rather feel that would have made the book more interesting, at least it would have allowed for more literary variety.

But it didn't ever really outrage my sense of justice the way Till We Have Faces did.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad we have Pilgrim's Regress - it's not only a vivid satirical work in its own right, but it's interesting to have Lewis writing a full length allegory himself in the midst of his years of work on what was finally published as The Allegory of Love. Dorothy Sayers saw a lot of humour in Dante's Comedy, Lewis seems a bit more cautious about that - but it gets me wondering, is there anything in allegorical tradition quite - or even, much - like Pilgrim's Regress for sharp humour?

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

I'd agree that Pilgrim's Regress lacks the fluency and punchiness of Lewis's later style, although I do find it interesting. I've recently ordered a copy of the new annotated version. But it seems that every one of CSL's works is a favourite for someone.

JI Packer (eminent Anglican Evangelical theologian) loves PR - saying he 'has always been entranced by it, experiencing it as head-clearing and at the same time heart-grabbing...'

But Packer pointed out that PR was (uniquely) written in a 'very Oxford' whimsical style, for a 'donnish' university audience - 'blending whimsy and wit with maturity, sophistication and adolescence' - e.g. its original/ intended/ deleted subtitle 'Pseudo-Bunyan's Purpulus' (Purpulus is Greek for a circular voyage).

Chiu ChunLing said...

Lewis himself regretted the uncharitable tone (i.e. sharp humour), I find it amusing at several levels but mostly regret that it is obscure as a result of changing intellectual fashions and factions. The wit could have been as sharp without seeming so narrow if there had been more different protagonists, I think. Having a single character trace all the lands in sequence is autobiographical despite not being intended to seem so, an error of youth Lewis later recognized as making the book less relevant to a general audience. A set of stories in which different heroes make their particular escapes from the various regions of error to become companions in seeking the truth would have had more literary merit from several vantages, one of which is that the satire could have been cutting but allowing for a proper display of charity among those who abandoned their disparate sins.

I'd be hard pressed to pick a favorite book, but there are certainly ones that I like more than others.

One thing I like in Lewis is when he deals with "Joy", or the inarticulable longing combined with sorrow that is thematic in much of his work, in a way that makes it more clear to those of us (and perhaps it is only myself) who have never felt it. I think Lewis must be right that this is more common than not, the project of salvation would make little sense if few people really preferred Heaven to Hell, life to death. This also raises the conundrum (also dealt with in several of his books) of Heaven being a kind of bribe, the temptation to obey God so as to get into Heaven (or at least escape Hell) rather than simply because it is proper to do so. I'm not so sure there is any real problem here, it seems like an excuse to accuse the good of not having 'pure' motives. But I've never been so concerned with whether anyone in particular (least of all myself) went to Heaven or Hell so long as it was just. This makes it hard to evaluate whether there is a real difficulty in Heaven (or the community of true saints) being something that can be 'too' desirable.

I think of it as something that God desires more than anyone else really could.