As a homeschooling father, I have been called upon to teach a literature class from time to time. I always assign Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis to my students, not only because of the value it provides to them but also because it gives me a chance to read it one more time.
I read it recently for the fifth time, and it blew me away again. In some ways the story feels quirky and cumbersome, discomforting and awkward, but as the reader becomes immersed in the story those feelings become natural. Why? Because our main character, Orual, is all of these things. Her brutal mistreatment at the hands of her father, the king, is normal for her, as is her understanding of her own ugliness.
The ignorant ways of her family and people are realized by the reader through Orual’s Greek teacher, “the Fox,” but to Orual such revelation becomes no more than another addition to a confusing mix of competing ideas–the natural versus the supernatural, philosophy versus superstition.
Mr. Lewis brilliantly clashes ideas of faith, through Psyche (Orual’s half-sister), intellectualism (through the Fox), and superstition and cultural prejudice (through Bardia and Orual’s father). The reader is led down heady roads that incite pondering of the real world. What are we to think when we see supernatural works in this life that perhaps conflict with previous understanding? When does love turn into obsession? Why do people brush away evidence that doesn’t conform to preconceived notions?
The reader comes face to face with these and dozens of other questions as Mr. Lewis weaves this powerful story. Parents, younger readers, even teenagers, might not appreciate this book. The reader should be accustomed to and enjoy mining great questions and pondering them thoughtfully. Otherwise, with the lack of frequent intense action, he or she might find the book boring.
For example, when my homeschool class gathered, I asked how they enjoyed the book. They all gave me a “ho-hum” kind of response. But as I unwrapped the book during our discussion time, I could see the lights come on in their minds. They began to get into the discussion, frequently adding their insights as the story elements brought up question after question. By the end of our session it was clear that the students appreciated the book on a much deeper level.
I highly recommend Till We Have Faces for all adults as well as mature teenagers. Read it, soak it in, ponder, and wonder. I’m glad I picked it up for the fifth time, and I’m sure a sixth read lies somewhere in the future.