C.S. Lewis' 'masterpiece', Till We Have Faces is extraordinarily illusive. I swear to god there is literally no online help on it whatsoever. Therefore, seeing as it's one of my A-Level texts, that puts me in a wee bit of a pickle. So, in order to save others the 6 hours of work that it took me to write my two essays, feel free to take a look. Aren't I nice...
By the way, if anyone plagiarises my work, I will cry. You have been warned.
How Does Lewis Simultaneously Release All The Information We Need To Us Whilst Maintaining The Illusion That Orual Is Writing For Her Own Period?
Till We Have Faces opens with our protagonist, Orual, who is seen through two sets of eyes. At the beginning of the book, Orual, in a way, has two faces: that of the naïve child of her past and the bitter, twisted old woman she has become. This is most prominent in the line: ‘that was the first time I realised that I am ugly.’ The change of tense simultaneously represents Orual’s childhood realisation-this was-; and how this has haunted her throughout her life-I am-. Orual is writing for a very specific purpose: she is retelling the story of her life ‘to accuse the gods… as if I were making my complaint before a judge’ with the hope that it may be read in the Greeklands, where they can decide whether or not the gods have been just towards her. In this way, Orual is writing for her own period and time- she is registering her complaint concerning the gods. However, this is also a tool used by Lewis in order to slowly reveal to us the information that we need. This manifests itself in three different ways throughout the text: foreshadowing, the unreliable narrator, and the language of the text.
Firstly, foreshadowing. The entire book is littered with foreshadowing. Future events are constantly hinted at; for example, the book starts with the lines: ‘I am old now and have not much to fear from the anger of gods. I have no husband nor child, nor hardly a friend through whom they can hurt me.’ Though merely the opening passage to Till We Have Faces, we can ascertain from this so much: firstly, we are told that she has 'not much to fear from the anger of gods'. This implies that she may have done or be about to do something the gods may not approve of. Secondly, we can assume that she is lonely. 'I have no husband nor child, nor hardly a friend'. From this we can ascertain conclusions about how her life has played out because, thirdly, she says: ‘I am old now.' All this information we pick up on, and we recognise. Foreshadowing is a technique here used throughout the book to ready us for events to come. For example: ‘the god of the Grey Mountain, who hates me, is the son of Ungit.’ This prepares us for events concerning the god of the Grey Mountain, letting us know of future interaction and bad feeling between them. Another example would be when Orual says ‘I do not know that I have ever (to speak of things merely mortal) been in such dread’. This readies us for things not strictly mortal, readies us to step outside the boundaries of the natural world and into a world where things may not be as they seem. Throughout the book, Lewis uses Orual to forewarn and prepare us for what is to come. Maintaining the pretext that Orual is writing to complain, to report, Lewis uses her to work to hint of things to come; so that when these events do occur, we are more than ready.
Secondly, the unreliable narrator. Orual is an unreliable narrator for a number of different reasons. Firstly, in the beginning of the book, she is a child. She has a child’s mind and understanding, and thus our understanding, through her, may be limited. Secondly, she is ‘old now’ and her memories and recollections may have become faded through time; finally, and perhaps most importantly, Orual is angry, and resentful: ‘I will accuse the gods, especially the god who lives on the Grey Mountain’. These emotions do not facilitate impartiality. The book is related to us from Orual’s point of view, which considering her aims, may be biased. However what does this allow Lewis to do? The technique of the unreliable narrator allows Lewis to release the information we need, but in a form that cannot be trusted. Orual fails to understand many things about herself and those around her. In her reportage, she may aim to present an unbiased, evaluation of the events that have passed, but her interpretation and understanding of what is happening to other characters cannot be fully relied upon. Lewis guides us through the book in this manner, so that to the alert reader, the revelations at the end are no surprise: they have already seen through the mistakes and self-deceptions Orual has made along the way. In this manner, Lewis releases the information that we need to us, allowing us to foresee the path that the book will take; however throughout the book, we retain the illusion that Orual is writing for her own period: at first to register her complaint with the people of her time, and then to retract it.
Finally, the language of the book. Language is what reveals the events of the story to us- through it the story is told. The language used to tell this story is chosen very carefully and specifically. We see this in several different ways, the most important of which is its alienness. Phrases occur throughout the book which we are perfectly capable of understanding, but jar in our consciousness: ‘shore me’; ‘we were booted’; ‘greyed the last red hair’; ‘the Ungit-smell’; ‘a small rain beginning’; for all of these phrases, our understanding of the concepts expressed is the same, but they give us a foreign feeling, an alien feeling. It separates us from the body of the text, making it feel like Orual is writing for a different time, almost a different world. This allows us to stand at a distance from the book and observe. By preventing us from becoming lost in the plot, Lewis allows us to become observers, not readers. Till We Have Faces, Lewis’ masterpiece, is not just a story, it has a moral. It does not merely tell of events that have occurred to Orual, but is a record of Orual’s self-realisation and awareness. By using the phrases referenced above ('shore me', 'a small rain beginning'), Lewis makes us stop, think and consider; which in turn helps us to understand what he is trying to convey. Lewis uses language to hold us at a distance from the story, hiding this behind the pretext of a culture which is alien and different to ours in so many ways.
In conclusion, Lewis uses a variety of techniques to maintain the illusion that Orual’s intent when writing Till We Have Faces is at first to register her complaint, and then to retract it. He also employs these techniques to release information to us in a variety of methods throughout the book: His use of foreshadowing prepares us for what is to come through Orual’s simple, first-person narration. His second technique of the unreliable narrator allows us to experience not only the plot development of Till We Have Faces, but also the character development of Orual as she awakens to this self-realisation throughout the book. Finally, Lewis uses language masterfully to deceive our minds into believing not only that Orual is writing for her own time period, through the construction of grammar in ways less familiar to us, therefore creating an alien feel to the text; but he also uses this feeling of alienation to separate us from the text, allowing us to stand at a distance, and in some ways, be the audience she wanted so desperately at the beginning of the book- to reassure herself that it was not she who was wrong, but she who had been wronged: ‘Perhaps their wise men will know whether my complaint is right or whether the god could have defended himself if he had made an answer.’
What Are The Key Things That We Need To Know/Carry Forward For The Rest of the Story? What Has, In Some Way, Been Highlighted?
Throughout the first few chapters of C.S. Lewis' Till We Have Faces, certain elements are highlighted which then go on to appear again and again throughout the story. These recurring themes or ideas form the ideology of the novel, each coming to its own separate conclusion. The main themes of Till We Have Faces include: Barbarianism, Death, Misogyny, and Love.
Firstly, barbarianism. Highlighted especially strongly throughout Orual's childhood, we are constantly shown how in Glome, life can be both barbaric and cruel. Our first example of this is seen in interaction between the Fox and Orual: 'we sometimes, in a bad year, have to cut someone's throat and pour the blood over [Ungit]'. Animal and human sacrifice are integral to the cult of the Goddess Ungit; however the barbarianism of this practice, even for the age in which the book is set, is highlighted by Fox's reaction to Orual's words: 'He shuddered when I said that and muttered something under his breath.' The stark differences between the Greek culture and Glome's culture is thus shown- highlighting for us the barbarianism of Glome as a whole. The theme of barbarianism continues throughout the first chapters of the book: King Trom, in grief and anger, stabs a wine steward to death and threatens to send the Fox to the mines- a certain death sentence. Orual encourages her tutor to flee, but he prefers honourable suicide. He will be 'resolved into our elements'; however despite this belief, he still trembles. Again, barbarianism is highlighted within this passage- the Fox asks Orual 'are you still a barbarian?' when she reminds him of the doctrines of the worship of Ungit- that those who commit suicide 'lie wallowing in filth- down there in the land of the dead.' The contrast between the faiths of the Greek Culture and Glome's culture is again strong here, with Orual's faith presented as barbaric, and the Fox's as noble and 'according to nature'. This theme continues and develops throughout the novel, and in a way, Orual's development of self-awareness at the end of the book can be seen as her passage from the barbaric way of thinking that she upholds before, to the civilised understanding she develops.
The theme of barbarianism within the novel links in strongly with the theme of death. Life is cheap in Till We Have Faces, with instances of premature, natural death; sacrifice; murder; certain death sentences; and discussion of suicide occurring within the first two chapters alone. This theme, highlighted in such concentration at the beginning of the book, continues throughout. The people of Glome worship Psyche for her 'healing touch', however upon the Priest of Ungit's announcement that Psyche must be offered as expiation, they soon turn on her. Drought and plague disappear following Psyche's death, which the Fox interprets as a coincidence, but denies that Psyche's death was in vain for she died 'full of … courage and patience' and 'to love, and to lose what we love are equally things appointed for our nature'. This quote displays the Fox's belief that Psyche's death has not been for nothing, as both love and loss are given to us by the gods to help us grow and become stronger. This theme of death continues throughout the novel, but is initially highlighted to us in the very beginning: we are first presented with with abstract concepts of death through sacrifice, then natural death, then the murder of the wine steward, the famine and plagues of the masses, building up to the apparent death of a character we have come to love- Psyche, a character who makes 'beauty all around her'. Thus, as we navigate the beginning of the book, the theme of death is slowly introduced to us, with each occurrence of the theme growing in gravity and seriousness, until it reaches a crescendo with the supposed death of Psyche. In this way, the theme of death is highlighted to us gradually, but powerfully.
The third theme we see within the book is that of misogyny. King Trom, Orual's father is openly contemptuous of his three daughters, assigning them to the care of slaves. His eldest two daughters receive an education only because Trom wants his educated Greek slave, the Fox, to hone his skills for his future sons: 'if a man can teach a girl, he can teach anything.' This theme is even present in the normally educated and wise Fox, who is offended by women who do not cover their faces with a veil; however as a slave, he must remain silent. The matter of succession is also an issue within the text, as with no male heirs, Orual inherits Trom's throne. Despite the suggestion of a hasty match with some royal from a neighbouring kingdom, Orual decides that as she has grown up with the derision of her father for being a girl (and an ugly girl at that), she will rule alone. Orual laments that the only crime the gods consider unforgivable is one that cannot be remedied- that of being born female. Misogyny is a theme present throughout the book, and is the driving force behind many pivotal moments of the book, for example, where Orual comes to a realisation that 'this is where men, even the trustiest, fail us' and that she is the only one who truly cares for Psyche: 'She lives at the very outskirts of their thoughts... You are alone Orual... No help will come.' From this she makes the decision to embark upon the disastrous second trip up the Grey Mountain. Misogyny is present throughout the book, but is highlighted to aid our awareness and understanding of the novel from the very beginning.
The final and most important theme is that of love. The characters in Till We Have Faces display complex examples of love- both platonic and sexual. As a child, Orual loves her half-sister Psyche above all. The love that Orual has for her sister is unhealthy- it takes rather than gives. Orual's love for Psyche is such that she desires her for her own happiness, not for Psyche's happiness. Evidence for this can be seen where Orual claims her half-sister as her possession: 'she was mine. Mine. Do you not know what the words mean? Mine!' This idea of possessive, destructive love is displayed from the very beginning of the novel. Orual's attachment to Psyche, the pleasure she receives from her presence and her protective, possessive dominance over her all foreshadow the love that is to develop and fester between them. However, Lewis also contrasts Orual's inability to love truly and freely with examples of real, giving, sacrificing love. The Fox realises he shouldn't use his love to beg Orual to refrain from fighting Argon, and says: 'I was wrong to weep and beg and try to force you by your love', here showing his understanding of how the power that love gives you over a person should not be exploited. Orual displays her unawareness of this concept where she says to Unsit that she could have forced Bardia to stay home. Unsit replies with indignation, saying: 'keep him to myself at all cost? Make him so mine that he was no longer his?… Queen Orual, I begin to think you know nothing of love.' Through this theme, Lewis not only deconstructs false love, but also shows by contrast, the beauty of true, pure, giving, sacrificial love. Orual's misconceptions about love are highlighted at the start of the novel, and we follow them through to the very end, where Orual realises, understands and repents of the errors of her ways.
In conclusion, the themes that we see at the beginning of the novel, including Barbarianism, Death, Misogyny, and Love, play crucial roles within the novel as a whole. Lewis highlights ideas to us for very specific reasons, namely so that we can follow them throughout the course of the novel, watching them develop, change, and at the end, conclude.
© Izzy Garratt 2012