Review: Till We Have Faces

I was asked why TILL WE HAVE FACES is my least favorite book by C.S. Lewis.

I agree that it is an extraordinary book. In terms of craftsmanship of writing, and the ambition of the central conceit — telling a myth by the quotidian events which may have spawned it — is unparalleled. I can recommend the book strongly to anyone who does not share my personal taste.

So, while I see no fault in it from a writer’s point of view, as a reader, I was not entertained, not interested, not educated by reading it, which I have done two and half times now.

My objections are to the setting, the descriptive imagery, the characters, and the plot.

The setting is a cheat. The tale is set in classical Greece, but nothing of the particulars of Greek lore is present. No Arcadian hillsides are described, we see neither nymph nor satyr, nor any hoplites, heroes, no lady wives weaving and unweaving a burial shroud to stave off unruly suitors. Neither the brutal militaristic glory of Sparta nor the gilded cleverness of Athens was on stage. Fox, the one representative of Athenian brilliance, was a slight exception of this, but not enough to save the story.

I fully understand it was the author’s purpose to show the everyday, ordinary side of ancient Greece, and that, technically, the tale is set in a small, grim, ugly little kingdom outside Greece, in Scythia or somesuch, but that purpose is contrarian.

For a story about the classical gods, there is no wonder, no beauty, no charm, no physical description of any kind. The beauty of Olympus is absent, as is the charm of Narnia. There is no scenery like the description of space travel through Deep Heaven in SILENT PLANET, nor the description of the first view of Mars, nothing like the ironic dialog with the Eldil.

There is not a single image as memorable as a lamppost in the midst of a snowy forest.

The character development is workaday, but flat. Compare and contrast anyone in FACES with the Green Lady of Perelandra — who does not, at first, know how to hold a conversation with two people at once — or Merlin from HIDEOUS STRENGTH — to whom whipping a woman seems a normal punishment, or appealing to the Emperor of Byzantium a reasonable political move.

By way of contrast, no one in FACES has anything memorable about them, aside from the ugly main character, who is memorable only in how unpleasant she is.

As for the plot, the story of the suffering and triumph of Psyche, a tale of mythical stature and depth, is not on stage. The plot here consists of her wicked sister fretting and scheming. At one point she meets a soldier on the field of honor and bests him. Later, she is queen. There are no acts of heroism on stage, nothing aspirational. It is a case study in sin, but without the sly humor and sarcasm of SCREWTAPE LETTERS.

And the sin is not one that tempts me or interests me. The temptations afflicting the “patient” in SCREWTAPE were more interesting to me because I suffer them and know them, and I know the author knew whereof he speaks. Not being (thanks be to heaven) afflicted by the particular jealousies that afflict Psyche’s wicked sister, a detailed examination of them holds no interest for me.

The final vision of confronting the gods is flat, overlong, and dull, in sharpest possible contrast to the celestial scenery in GREAT DIVORSE, the ironic cleverness (and horror) of the debate with the The Lady of the Green Kirtle in SILVER CHAIR, or the numinous wonder of the crowning vision in PERELANDRA, or even the cleverness of dialog between Weston and the Eldil at the climax of SILENT PLANET, where all the falsehoods of modern political economy, if sated in unfallen language, are laid bare.

Since, intellectually, I can see that this is a masterwork, and since the theme and author are ones I know and love, I have made more than one attempt to get through this grindingly dull and unpleasant book about an unpleasant drudge of a woman.

On my third re-read getting to a scene where she defeats a man in a swordfight was too much for me. I have read too many well done tales of ancient Greece to believe the scene was possible.

So, to me, the book is a failure on every level. I rather regret that fact, since I know the book is CS Lewis’ favorite, but it is also his most modern book, told in the modern way, hence least to my taste.