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C. S. Lewis' 1956 novel Till We Have Faces is set about two hundred years before the birth of Christ in a gloomy and barbaric country called Glome. Orual, its narrator and central figure, is the homely daughter of Glome's fierce and moody king. Orual is intelligent, well tutored, and—by training—a skeptic; she is also extremely fond of her sister Psyche, who is unusually beautiful, unfailingly kind. Orual is therefore devastated when—during a period of drought and pestilence—the priests of Glome successfully demand that Psyche be hauled to a mountaintop where, chained to a tree, she could be devoured by presumably appeasable gods. Later, Orual is stunned when she climbs the mountain in search of Psyche's bones and finds that Psyche is very much alive and claiming to be married to "the god of the wind; West-wind himself" and living happily in his palace. But Orual cannot see the palace that Psyche insists is well within view. In fact, after conferring with the Fox, her thoroughly rationalistic tutor, Orual decides—quite incorrectly—that Psyche is suffering from delusions; that this "West-wind" is, if anything, a wily vagabond posing cynically as a god. Accordingly, Orual forces Psyche to shine a lamp upon her husband's face—a face Psyche insists she has been forbidden to see. That act provokes the wrath of Psyche's very real wind-god; he stirs up an earth-shattering storm and casts Psyche into what proves to be a long, hard exile. In time, Orual understands that it was her own obtuseness, her possessiveness, and jealousy that kept her from recognizing the reality of another, more perfect world, and from experiencing—with Psyche—the joy that can accompany an assent to faith.
As this rather sketchy summary suggests, Till We Have Faces draws upon the myth of Cupid and Psyche that first occurs in the Metamorphoses of Lucius Apuleius. Like Lewis' other novels, it is rather ponderously paced and a bit too portentous in tone; its characters are as stiff as the mannequins at Macy's. But it is also filled with provocative ethical and theological speculations; indeed, as Peter J. Schakel suggests in his fine study Reason and Imagination in C. S. Lewis, the symbol-laden and allusive Till We Have Faces is, ideationally, the most mature work in the Lewis canon—and the most complex. "Many readers who enjoy Lewis' other apologetic and fictional works are perplexed and dismayed [End Page 380] by Till We Have Faces," writes Schakel. "Because of these difficulties, many readers are denied access to the motif which is most helpful in pulling together the diverse threads of Lewis' thought and work."
That motif, according to Schakel, involves "the tension between reason and imagination"—a tension that Schakel also finds close to the core of Lewis' Dymer (1926), The Pilgrim's Regress (1933), The Great Divorce (1946), Surprised by Joy (1955), and Letters to Malcolm (1964). Lewis, Schakel observes, was much given to "romantic and imaginative tendencies": he was a particularly attentive observer of the beauties of nature and—beginning in his youth—a great reader of romances and fantasies. Simultaneously, he was pulled in the opposite direction by strong "rationalist tendencies" that were developed in him by his parents and, more importantly, by his boyhood tutor W. T. Kirkpatrick—a Thomas Huxley devotee who "dismissed entirely matters of 'belief and 'opinion.'" As Schakel notes, it is widely assumed that the Fox owes much to Kirkpatrick. Schakel argues—and convincingly—that Orual owes much to Lewis himself. For like Orual, Lewis spent many years "seeking wholeness." Orual "needed to fit the rationalism of the Fox together with the longing and vision and Psyche." Lewis also needed to achieve "a unity of reason and imagination": he was convinced that he required, for "salvation," a true synthesis of...