25 Provocative Passages from C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces

“Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss,” by Antonio Canova (1757–1822)

Hi folks! I recently read a fascinating book called Till We Have Faces (1956) by C.S. Lewis with a book club I’m involved in, and while I’m not usually a huge fan of C.S. Lewis, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It’s the last piece of fiction he wrote, and was apparently his own favorite from among his works.

It’s a liberal retelling of the Psyche and Cupid myth—but focusing on the experience of one of the myth’s side-characters, Psyche’s older sister Orual. Like much of Lewis’ work, it has lots of overt moral/religious themes—on some level, the whole story works as a kind of allegory of an adult conversion—but it’s also an excellent read. If you’ve not read much Lewis and are interested in trying out one of his works, I’d have to recommend this one. Here are 25 fascinating and provocative passages from the novel that might pique your interest:

Of the Philosopher’s Guilty Pleasure:

It was always like that with the Fox; he was ashamed of loving poetry (“All folly, child”) and I had to work much at my reading and writing and what he called philosophy in order to get a poem out of him. But thus, little by little, he taught me many. (8)

Of Psyche’s Beauty:

[T]here were no two opinions about it, from man or woman, once she had been seen. It was beauty that did not astonish you till afterwards when you had gone out of sight of her and reflected on it. While she was with you, you were not astonished. It seemed the most natural thing in the world. […] She made beauty all round her. When she trod on mud, the mud was beautiful; when she ran in the rain, the rain was silver. When she picked up a toad—she had the strangest and, I thought, unchanciest love for all manner of brutes—the toad became beautiful. (22)

Of the Wisdom of the Greeks:

“It is very subtle. But it brings no rain and grows no corn […]. It does not even give them boldness to die. […] Much less does it give them understanding of holy things. They demand to see such things clearly, as if the gods were no more than letters written in a book. I, King, have dealt with the gods for three generations of men, and I know that they dazzle our eyes and flow in and out of one another like eddies on a river, and nothing that is said clearly can be said truly about them. Holy places are dark places. It is life and strength, not knowledge and words, that we get in them. Holy wisdom is not clear and thin like water, but thick and dark like blood.” (50)

Of Marriage to a God:

“And if I am to go to the god, of course it must be through death. That way, even what is strangest in the holy sayings might be true. To be eaten and to be married to the god might not be so different.” (72)

Of the Sweetness of Longing:

“I have always—at least, ever since I can remember—had a kind of longing for death.”

“Ah, Psyche,” I said, “have I made you so little happy as that?”

“No, no, no,” she said. “You don’t understand. Not that kind of longing. It was when I was happiest that I longed most. It was on happy days when we were up there on the hills, the three of us, with the wind and the sunshine […]. Do you remember? The color and the smell, and looking across at the Grey Mountain in the distance? And because it was so beautiful, it set me longing, always longing. Somewhere else there must be more of it. Everything seemed to be saying, ‘Psyche come!’ But I couldn’t (not yet) and I didn’t know where I was to come to. It almost hurt me. I felt like a bird in a cage when the other birds of its kind are flying home. […]

The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing—to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from— […] the place where I ought to have been born. Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back. All my life the god of the Mountain has been wooing me. Oh, look up once at least before the end and wish me joy. I am going to my lover.” (74-6)

Of the Best Defense Against the Gods:

Now mark yet again the cruelty of the gods. There is no escape from them into sleep or madness, for they can pursue you into them with dreams. Indeed you are then most at their mercy. The nearest thing we have to a defense against them (but there is no real defense) is to be very wide awake and sober and hard at work, to hear no music, never to look at earth or sky, and (above all) to love no one. (80-1)

Of the Delights of the Heart:

Now, flung at me like frolic or insolence, there came as if it were a voice—no words—but if you made it into words it would be, “Why should your heart not dance?” It’s the measure of my folly that my heart almost answered, “Why not?” I had to tell myself over like a lesson the infinite reasons it had not to dance. My heart to dance? Mine whose love was taken from me, I, the ugly princess who must never look for other love, the drudge of the King […]? And yet, it was a lesson I could hardly keep in my mind. The sight of the huge world put mad ideas into me, as if I could wander away, wander forever, see strange and beautiful things, one after the other to the world’s end. The freshness and wetness all about me […] made me feel that I had misjudged the world; it seemed kind, and laughing, as if its heart also danced. Even my ugliness I could not quite believe in. Who can feel ugly when the heart meets delight? It is as if, somewhere inside, within the hideous face and bony limbs, one is soft, fresh, lissom, and desirable. (95-6)

Of the Things We’re Most Ashamed Of:

“Don’t you think the things people are most ashamed of are the things they can’t help?” (111)

Of Divine Mockery:

Then as I rose […] the whole thing was vanished. There was a tiny space of time in which I thought I could see how some swirlings of the mist had looked, for the moment, like towers and walls. But very soon, no likeness at all. I was staring simply into fog, and my eyes smarting with it.

And now, you who read, give judgement. That moment when I either saw or thought I saw the House—does it tell against the gods or against me? Would they (if they answered) make it a part of their defense? Say it was a sign, a hint, beckoning me to answer the riddle one way rather than the other? I’ll not grant them that. What is the use of a sign which is itself only another riddle? It might—I’ll allow so much—it might have been a true seeing; the cloud over my mortal eyes may have been lifted for a moment. It might not; what would be easier than for one distraught and not, maybe, so fully waking as she seemed, gazing at a mist, in a half light, to fancy what had filled her thoughts for so many hours? What easier, even, than for the gods themselves to send the whole ferly for a mockery? Either way, there’s divine mockery in it. They set the riddle and then allow a seeming that can’t be tested and can only quicken and thicken the tormenting whirlpool of your guesswork. If they had an honest intention to guide us, why is their guidance not plain? (133-4)

Of the Impurity of Our Intentions:

“Daughter, daughter. You are transported beyond all reason and nature. Do you know what it is? There’s one part love in your heart, and five parts anger, and seven parts pride.” (148)

Of Selfish, Devouring Love:

“You are indeed teaching me about kinds of love I did not know. It is like looking into a deep pit. I am not sure whether I like your kind better than hatred. Oh, Orual—to take my love for you, because you know it goes down to my very roots and cannot be diminished by any other newer love, and then to make of it a tool, a weapon, a thing of policy and mastery, an instrument of torture—I begin to think I never knew you.” (165)

Of Mortal Salutes:

The great voice, which rose up from somewhere close to the light, went through my whole body in such a swift wave of terror that it blotted out even the pain in my arm. It was no ugly sound; even in its implacable sternness it was golden. My terror was the salute that mortal flesh gives to immortal things. (171)

Of Letting Friends Keep Secrets:

“Well. You have a secret from me,” he said in the end. “No, don’t turn away from me. Did you think I would try to press or conjure it out of you? Never that. Friends must be free. My tormenting you to find it would build a worse barrier between us than your hiding it. Some day—but you must obey the god within you, not the god within me. There, do not weep. I shall not cease to love you if you have a hundred secrets.” (180)

Of the King’s Death:

“Peace be upon him,” said Bardia. “We’ll be done here very shortly. Then the women can come and wash the body.” And we turned again at once to settle the matter of the hauberks.

And so the thing that I had thought of for so many years at last slipped by in a huddle of business which was, at that moment, of more consequence. An hour later, when I looked back, it astonished me. Yet I have often noticed since how much less stir nearly everyone’s death makes than you might expect. Men better loved and more worth loving than my father go down making only a small eddy. (214)

Of the Power of Wine:

But now I discovered the wonderful power of wine. I understand why men become drunkards. For the way it worked on me was—not at all that it blotted out these sorrows—but that it made them seem glorious and noble, like sad music, and I somehow great and reverend for feeling them. I was a great, sad queen in a song. I did not check the big tears that rose in my eyes. I enjoyed them. (224)

Of the Noxiousness of the Gods:

Now, you who read, judge between the gods and me. They gave me nothing in the world to love but Psyche and then took her from me. But that was not enough. They then brought me to her at such a place and time that it hung on my word whether she should continue in bliss or be cast out into misery. They would not tell me whether she was the bride of a god, or mad, or a brute’s or villain’s spoil. They would give no clear sign, though I begged for it. I had to guess. And because I guessed wrong they punished me—what’s worse, punished me through her. […]

I say the gods deal very unrightly with us. For they will neither (which would be best of all) go away and leave us to live our own short days to ourselves, nor will they show themselves openly and tell us what they would have us do. For that too would be endurable. But to hint and hover, to draw near us in dreams and oracles, or in a waking vision that vanishes as soon as seen, to be dead silent when we question them and then glide back and whisper (words we cannot understand) in our ears when we most wish to be free of them, and to show to one what they hide from another; what is all this but cat-and-mouse play, blindman’s buff, and mere jugglery? Why must holy places be dark places?

I say, therefore, that there is no creature (toad, scorpion, or serpent) so noxious to man as the gods. (248-49)

Of Grieving with Our Enemies:

“You loved him. You’ve suffered too. We both . . .”

She was weeping; and I. Next moment we were in each other’s arms. It was the strangest thing that our hatred should die out at the very moment she first knew her husband was the man I loved. It would have been far otherwise if he were still alive; but on that desolate island […] we were the only two castaways. We spoke a language, so to call it, which no one else in the huge heedless world could understand. Yet it was a language only of sobs. We could not even begin to speak of him in words; that would have unsheathed both daggers at once. (263)

Of Truth Breaking In:

And now those divine Surgeons had me tied down and were at work. My anger protected me only for a short time; anger wearies itself out and truth comes in. For it was all true—truer than Ansit could know. (266)

Of Recognizing the Voice of a God:

Instantly—I had been freezing cold till now—a wave of fire passed over me, even down to my numb feet. It was the voice of a god. Who should know better than I? A god’s voice had once shattered my whole life. (279)

Of the Futility of Suicide:

“You cannot escape [God] by going to the deadlands, for she is there also. Die before you die. There is no chance after.” (279)

Of the Futility of Self-Help:

Then the gods left me for some days to chew the strange bread they had given me. […] I was as ugly in soul as she; greedy, blood-gorged. But if I practiced true philosophy, as Socrates meant it, I should change my ugly soul into a fair one. And this, the gods helping me, I would do. I would set about it at once.

The gods helping . . . but would they help? Nevertheless I must begin. And it seemed to me they would not help. I would set out boldly each morning to be just and calm and wise in all my thoughts and acts; but before they had finished dressing me I would find that I was back (and knew not how long I had been back) in some old rage, resentment, gnawing fantasy, or sullen bitterness. I could not hold out half an hour. And a horrible memory crept into my mind of those days when I had tried to mend the ugliness of my body with new devices in the way I did my hair or the colors I wore. I’d a cold fear that I was at the same work again. I could mend my soul no more than my face. Unless the gods helped. (281-2)

Of Effort and Leisure:

Then I saw that there was another mortal woman with me in the field. She did not seem to see me. She was walking slowly, carefully, along the hedge which bordered that grassland, scanning it like a gleaner, picking something out of it. Then I saw what. Bright gold hung in flecks upon the thorns. Of course! The rams had left some of their golden wool on them as they raced past. This she was gleaning, handful after handful, a rich harvest. What I had sought in vain by meeting the joyous and terrible brutes, she took at her leisure. She won without effort what utmost effort would not win for me. (284)

Of Saying What You Mean:

The complaint was the answer. To have heard myself making it was to be answered. Lightly men talk of saying what they mean. Often when he was teaching me to write in Greek the Fox would say, “Child, to say the very thing you really mean, the whole of it, nothing more or less or other than what you really mean; that’s the whole art and joy of words.” A glib saying. When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces? (294)

Of Facing the Judgment of the Gods:

“The gods have been accused by you. Now’s their turn.”

“I cannot hope for mercy.”

“Infinite hopes—and fears—may both be yours. Be sure that, whatever else you get, you will not get justice.”

“Are the gods not just?”

“Oh no, child. What would become of us if they were? But come and see.” (297)

Of the Insufficiency of Words:

I ended my first book with the words “no answer.” I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice? Only words, words; to be led out to battle against other words. (308)

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