C.S. Lewis, author of the Narnia series, weaves another allegory of faith in his short novel Till We Have Faces. Lewis sets the novel in an engaging first-person narrative through the character of Orual, the warrior Queen of the kingdom of Glome. Orual writes this her memoir as an accusation against the cruelty and silence of the gods.
She relates her childhood as the ugliest princess in Glome and, even, in the entire world. Despite her alienation from her father and the people of Glome, she forms a close friendship with her youngest step-sister, the beautiful Psyche, and her Greek tutor, the Fox. Seemingly endless days of learning and companionship are shared between the three. But after an unrelenting famine, the people of Glome demand that Psyche be given as a sacrifice to win the favor of their god, Ungit. The King readily agrees to the sacrifice. Orual is devastated. To add more pain to her loss, Orual finds that Psyche is glad to be given as a sacrifice to the gods. Interpreting the faith of her step-sister as hatred towards her, Orual curses the gods who have stolen her greatest love. The remainder of Orual’s account recalls the great trials she endured inheriting the throne of Glome and her greater inner sufferings of loneliness and resentment.
Three major themes of the book are worth mentioning here. The first is memory. Writing the novel as a memoir and accusation of an impassioned Queen, Lewis illuminates how our personal and cultural histories are framed within what we can and choose to remember. This theme – not only present in the overall narration – is especially highlighted in Orual’s interaction with a priest of the newly formed cult of Istra, or Psyche, Orual’s apotheosized sister. The priest recounts the story of Istra and her sisters to Orual, but the details have been changed. The oral tradition behind the cult includes divinations and historical facts that Orual claims are false. Regardless of its verity, the cultic tradition has been established and Istra has become the newest member of the pantheon. Personal and collective memory are selective; nonetheless, they shape our understanding of history.
The second theme is faith, which has many sub-themes in this work. Some questions posed by Lewis: What is the relationship between faith and reason? If the gods are so powerful, why do they hide from us and remain silent in our agony? Are the gods just? The theme of faith is intimately tied with the overarching theme of love. Lewis’s characters and relationships portray the spectrum of love. Jealous love in Redival, Orual’s younger sister; love of country in Bardia, the Queen’s advisor; a father’s love of his children in the Fox; and most prominently displayed and developed is Orual’s self-love, a love that eats the life out of those with whom she interacts, of those whom she considers close. In her resentment towards the gods, Orual misuses those around her. When she can find and accept herself – her ugliness, her station in life, her relationships – she can then speak face to face with the gods. Only then will her accusations be answered. Only then will she learn how to love.
Review Submitted by: Edward A. David, Teacher at Trinity School in Meadow View
Rating: Highly Recommended