Sunday, July 12, 2009

Bringing the book to Greece: some thoughts on Till We Have Faces, for anyone who likes the book

(Warning: spoilers involved.)

Last Friday, a book club friend and I met to discuss our latest book, C. S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces. During our conversation, I mentioned something about the book that had just occurred to me that day.

I first read Faces the year I was going into 8th grade. I immediately loved it, and was able to understand the basic themes of the story, but there were a few places, here and there, where I realized that I was not quite grasping all of what Lewis was saying. One of these places is at the very end of the novel.

As we know, Orual’s account of her reading her book before the judges, her “face-to-face” encounter with the God on the Grey Mountain, her ultimate conversion, etc., is interrupted mid-sentence by her death. Following in parentheses is a note by Arnom - the priest of Glome – part of which says: “If any stranger who intends the journey to Greece finds this book let him take it to Greece with him, for that is what she seems mostly to have desired. The Priest who comes after me has it in charge to give up the book to any stranger who will take an oath to bring it into Greece.” (pg. 309).

Lewis would never end a book with something less than highly significant. So for a long time, I wondered: why the emphasis on Greece? Why must the book go to Greece?

Of course, one of the most important contrasts throughout the entire book is between the land of Glome – ritualistic, near-barbaric, and sunken in ancient traditions; and Greece – the center of progress, enlightenment, and knowledge in general. The Priest of Ungit, and the temple of Ungit in general, probably best represent these characteristics of Glome. On the other hand, it is the Fox, Orual’s elderly, Greek tutor, who represents the land of Greece.

From early on in the story, it is clear that these two, conflicting forces – those of Glome and Greece – have the most influence over Orual’s childhood and growth into adulthood. The unattractive, foreboding, and often downright horrifying qualities of Glome’s native religion is the perfect setting for her hatred of the gods. The Fox, on the other hand, provides a fountain of knowledge - a window into a world of movement and life.

At the climax of the book – Orual’s epiphany and resulting conversion – she is not forced to pick between Glome and Greece; but rather realizes the Truth. She doesn’t find a happy medium, mind you. Rather, she transcends both: she rises above the superstition of her homeland for a real, profound mysticism. She abandons the skepticism of Greece (at least, that’s how Greece is presented in the book) for a healthy appreciation of human Reason. She realizes that Faith and Reason can – and should – coexist and complement one another.

At the end of the book, her writings and revelations have already touched the people of Glome. Unlike her father, Orual was well loved and deeply trusted by her people; even more, she felt, than she deserved. We can assume that, after reading Orual’s book, Glome will take a turn for the better. As the book ends, her words have still to touch the land of the Greeks; but I think we can also assume that this will happen – we have only to wait until “the next stranger who intends to journey to Greece” passes through.

And so, that is the note on which the book ends – and a highly significant note it is. Lewis is telling us that all the Truth and Beauty there is to discover can only come to life if we share it with others. It’s about evangelization. Yes, one queen; one individual has come to know what she needs to know. But there is another country - larger than her own - made of up of those who do not yet know the Truth. For a long while, I thought it was strange that Till We Have Faces ends with Orual’s death. It doesn’t seem like the sort of book that would end in death. Now I realize that it doesn’t – it ends looking up and forward - it ends in life. Actually, it doesn’t end at all; the ending is a great beginning. It’s hopeful, and exciting. Isn’t it beautiful?

Cited in this post: Till We Have Faces. C. S. Lewis. Harcourt, Inc. (1980). 313 pgs. $14.00.

1 comment:

  1. It is amazingly beautiful. I am in awe of writers who can convey what they are saying in a story -- C.S. Lewis is a magician!

    I need to reread the book; you've brought up very good, interesting thoughts that are getting the summer wheels cranking. =]