CS Lewis: Till We Have Faces

Continuing the discussion from AJ Roberts's Theology of Nature:

With all the rising engagement on theologies of nature and natural theologies, I wanted to put this in to the arena. What are your thoughts on this story by C.S. Lewis. It tells the story of a pagan queen, as the gods reveal to her their true nature, as they uncover her true nature…

This review is helpful though difficult to read in HTML:

Many critics have conflicting ideas and interpretations. Firstly, William Luther White accepts that the story is complex. He simplifies it by dividing it into three major themes.

The first one is the clash of possessive love with selfless love. This is centered around Orual. She discovers that her life was full of hatred, neglect of her younger sister Redival and killed a soldier whom she loved.

The second theme is that of questioning of religious beliefs. Fox deploys philosophy in the interpretation of the gods. Orual questions reality of the gods and Bardia on the other hand represents the simple faith of countrymen. Orual cannot identify with the gods and she cannot see them. She asks for a revelation but receives none.

The third theme according to Luther is that of mystery. This one comes out strongly. The supernatural seem to provide no answer but offer personal encounter. As Luther puts it “divine reality seems better discovered through obedience than through testing,” the end of the book depicts Orual as having the revelation and she wants it sent to Greek after her death. She learns that the words of the philosopher are inane when it comes to relating to the supernatural.

What are your thoughts @AJRoberts, @jongarvey, @AndyWalsh, @dga471, @Philosurfer and @eddie? To the extend you can engage the details of the book, it is helpful. It is really interesting that CS Lewis treats this a true revelation from God the Creator, even though it remains in a pagan system.

Somewhere we will find a quote about how myths are the minds of pagans reaching out for God. It seems this is an image of what he was thinking about.


So, this reading guide is very good:

Lewis believed that the pagan poets were, as Paul says in Act 17, feeling their way to God through the telling of myths. To him, the pagan myths were attempts by the pagan mind to grasp the one true God. His retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche is an attempt to imagine a pagan queen coming to terms with God as he really is.

The Pagan Mind, The Feminine Mind: One of the most impressive aspects of Lewis’s accomplishment in Faces, and the one he was perhaps most proud of, is his ability to capture the voice and inner life of a character who is both pagan and a woman. Either would be tricky enough for a male Christian writer, but to do both and to do them well is nothing short of astounding.

I’ve not read this work of Lewis (yet)… it appears to be available online here


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I really hope some people pick this book and discuss. It is really good, with deep questions everywhere.

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Haven’t read the book but this quote resonates deeply with me. This perfectly encapsulates why the true “supernatural” is not something that you can prove through empirical science. When science studies something, it turns it into an isolated object with no relation to the observer. We can manipulate the object such that it gives us information about itself on our terms. But this is so different from the way God wants to have a relationship with us. God doesn’t always give us what we want on our own terms. God can answer our prayers in ways which are utterly different from what we imagine it to be. Therefore, even if natural theology can show some things, it can only give us rational knowledge of God, which is comparatively superficial to the knowledge that is gained through a personal relationship with God.

This quote also reminds me of Martin Buber’s book I and Thou, which similar touches upon the scientific mindset of “I and it” (where we treat something as an an object to be used and experienced) vs. the spiritual mindset of “I and thou” (where we treat something as someone to have a two-way relationship with). I haven’t read Buber directly, but one of my friends keeps quoting and explaining his thought.


How do you KNOW the mind of God? Are you speculating a bit here?

He’s all but quoting 1 Corinthians 2:15-16, whatever else is the case:

The spiritual man judges all things, but he himself is not subject to anyone’s judgment. “For who has known the mind of the Lord, so as to instruct Him?” But we have the mind of Christ.


Yes, I get it. Everyone’s right in one’s own mind.


It’s been quite a while since I read Till We Have Faces; I’d have to revisit before commenting on it specifically. It occurs to me though that a similar theme is explored in That Hideous Strength. Merlin’s pagan beliefs seem to flow from an encounter with God through the general revelation of creation, even if he lacks the language and practice that come from the special revelation of the Gospels. As a result of that encounter, Merlin is more selfless and less interested in power than the antagonist of the book had hoped. Of course, one might wonder how the timeline of Merlin lines up with Christian missions to the Celts like those of St. Patrick, but then again St. Patrick’s approach to Celtic mythology might find some commonality with Lewis’ as well.


I seem to remember (from reading it only a few months ago) that Merlin was portrayed in That Hideous Strength as the ultimate muscular Christian - uneasily treading a path between using the old magic and serving Christ. The latter cause he thought best defended with the battleaxe!


Yes, it’s a great book. Someone wrote that he originally started it as an atheist, and turned it otherwise when he became a Christian–thus the crying out for the gods to answer. Believe they also said his wife, a poet, helped him finish it–and improved it in some ways, too.

I remain a bit dissatisfied with the conclusion because it doesn’t have all the answers–but that comes back to me with this answer :1) it reminds me of Job, where God himself is the answer (as in the book) and 2) it’s a very deep book, with more messages that I get every time I read it. Thanks for bringing this up.

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Perhaps this is a better summary. I read That Hideous Strength as connecting to the Space Trilogy as follows. Out of the Silent Planet explores the hypothetical of how a culture a relates to God if there were no Fall and Perelandra explores the hypothetical of a de novo culture that developed after Jesus. That Hideous Strength extends that theme to actual Earth cultures and how their relationship to God is intertwined with other cultural elements. Maybe I overemphasized the differences between Merlin’s culture and mid-20th century English culture.



That’s a pretty good synopsis. It was the cultural elements that made me less enthusiastic about That Hideous Strength when I first read it as a Sci-Fi loving teenager. Now I’ve lived in it a bit, though!

Merlin’s an ambiguous figure - there’s a strong theme of Ransom, in particular, telling Merlin that the time for the old ways, which were once acceptable, has passed and they now have to be fully subordinated to Christ.

That I think is the difference between the two cultures: Merlin’s Britain had accepted Christ from a primitive paganism, and not yet fully changed: but Ransom’s Britain has turned against the light deliberately. Lewis thus creates some clear water between “paganism” and “demonism” - as evidenced by the pagan imagery as everything begins to get sorted near the end.

On a different theme arising from that, the naive innocence of Merlin’s paganism is the sort of thing I have in mind for “religion outside the garden of Eden” in the matter of genealogical Adam.


This seems to be very concordant with Till We Have Faces, and is very relevant to the Genealogical Adam for this reason.

It is quite a bit like Job, and the uncertainty with which it leaves us is part of its strength. I’d also add that this uncertainty is a good response to questions that arise even at this moment about hell and apostasy. We know that God is just and merciful, but we do not have the full view to see how this justice and mercy is applied to others outside of Jesus.

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that sounds like a good synopsis. However, I thought that perelandra explained the potential of the Fall as in Mars, the consequences would be a line. in Earth, it would be a square. In Venus, it would be a cube. however, Ransom was able to help the original couple avoid the in Venus. I thought there was an early fall in Mars, where the upper lands were frozen in order to avoid further evil, and God moved his people down to the lowlands. Or maybe I’m getting that wrong.

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That is right. When he first heard the myth in college, as an atheist, he found it puzzling. It did not make sense to her why Psyche’s sister was not happy for her ending up in the castle of a god, so much so as to sabotage their relationship. The book is from the viewpoint of the sister, a pagan queen, untangling her different reasons for opposing Psyche’s relationship with Cupid. In a brilliant move, Lewis obfuscates the pagan queen’s motivations from even herself, putting her on a path of self-discovery that parallels his own inquiry into her motives. She does not even know why she sabotaged Psyche till the gods reveal her true face to her.

@Philosurfer, this reminds me of something @CPArand once taught me. The claim that “God is Righteous” is not a statement made by God’s fiat, as if God declares over himself by tautological definition. Nor is it a putting up righteousness as a standard to which God is obligated. Rather, it is a spontaneous response we would have if we were to see the full picture of what God has done and why in our broken world. To say “God is Righteous” is to say that as we see the full picture we see that God was in the right, and He was good.

The pagan queen does not ever reach the point of seeing God clearly. However, dreams sent in her last days give her complete enough picture to see that the gods were righteous. She hadn’t had a full view of the situation, or even of herself.

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This distinction between paganism and demonism is helpful and demonstrates an insightful intellectual empathy. It does seem to run through Lewis’s work, and is most evidence here in Till We Have Faces.

Is it possible that Lewis came to this as a result of studying pagan myths? How do we align this empathy with the OT prohibitions on idolatry? I have some thoughts, but am wondering what those more theologically inclined might have.

Good point. I’m so thankful you have brought up Lewis. Tim Keller and John Piper discussed his profound empathy (in keeping with his own generous spirit, Keller emphasizes that; apparently Lewis wrote 4 letters to Keller’s wife when she asked him questions, and exhibited kindness and a listening ear) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uqiZJaDeM6Y and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4b5lXt9rqIQ
You see some of this from his book “Surprised By Joy,” I think. In paganism, the “northernness” and joy that he first experienced occurred when he read “Balder the Beautiful is dead, is dead.” He kept trying to find it till he realized that it wasn’t in seeking joy itself, but the source of joy (Christ), was where it was fulfilled (correct me if I’m wrong).

One of the books that strikes me most with his empathy is The Last Battle, where the Dwarfs, who are similar to agnostics and atheists (as he was), and don’t want to be taken in, don’t get any punishment from Aslan–He lets them figure it out on their own. Emeth (truth or faithfulness), the Calormene who worshiped Aslan’s nemesis, Tash, with all his heart, was another. He also wound up in Aslan’s Country because, as Aslan said, they were opposites–all Emeth meant to do in repentance, honor of God and good, went to Aslan; and Tash could take none of it.

Edited to add the last paragraph

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I’m sure that’s the case - it was his day job, after all. But he was also aware of writing fiction - I think he loved the beauty and romance of those myths, but am not sure whether he’d have argued in serious discussion for “good paganism”, except in the sense that he’d have agreed that “God overlooked the former errors” and that there was natural good, “the tao” in his usage, even in paganism.

That might be a classicist’s attitude - look at his friend Tolkein’s fiction, but also the tradition of Greek pagan imagery in English Christian literature from Milton to Dante. There was a balance between seeing paganism as both a “doctrine of demons” AND “noble savagery.” So why not shove it into your fiction to balance the scientism of the corrupt university?


OK - the thread’s old, but at least now I’ve read the book, and a bit of the background.

The interesting thing is how Lewis long wanted to re-tell the Cupid & Psyche myth with more plausible psychology, which in his pre-Christian days would have ended (he says) with the accusation against the gods for their opaque demands on mankind (ie Part 1).

So the pagan content is “inherited” from the original - I like the way he’s imported his own preference for dark northern mythology whilst retaining the sunny Greek influences too.

But his conversion enables him to do something more subtle in Part 2 (though of course its seeds are there in Part 1) - the themes of God’s merciful but painful scrutiny of our motives is quintessentially Christian - and ultimately Cupid is a (rather silent) Christ figure, the heavenly bridegroom. Our motives are, in Christ, shown up for what they are, and salvation comes through supernatural conviction of sin and repentance. The resentment we have against God in our fallen state becomes transformed to an understanding of his love for us, which also transforms the world for us.

Along the way a few other themes - the Queen’s resentment of Psyche is, specifically, because of her commitment to God: the experience of the Christian in being alienated from friends and family simply by coming to know the one who is is true is in there.

Less subtly, Lewis critiques a couple of his customary “enemies” - first, the primitive and crudely religious (in the High Priest), and secondly the urbane and intellectual skeptic (in the Fox).

And there seemed to me to be strong echos of Dante’s Divine Comedy both in the spiritual journey theme, and especially in the more or less faultless figure of Psyche, someone very much like Beatrice. I guess that’s not surprising, as both the theme of spiritual purification and classical mythology are shared by both.

Lastly - Lewis seems to base the heroine’s father on a certain current politician, but that would be absurdly anachronistic…:grinning: