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Till We Have Faces: A Reading Companion

Till We Have Faces: A Reading Companion

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Till We Have Faces: A Reading Companion

5/5 (1 rating)
191 pages
3 hours
Apr 10, 2020


Perfect for beginners, this handy guide is a blend of summary and scholarly commentary.

The second edition includes references to leading commentary from Lewis scholars as well as key parallels from Lewis's other works like Surprised by Joy, The Four Loves, and An Experiment in Criticism. Each chapter includes discussion questions designed for students, teachers, book clubs, and church groups.

Apr 10, 2020

About the author

Christine Norvell is an author, speaker, and longtime educator. She graduated from Faulkner University with a Masters in Humanities and teaches high school literature in an online classical Christian community. A mother of three boys, she reads, writes, and teaches from her home in Oklahoma with the family cat Pippin. If you’d like to read more about her nonfiction and fiction endeavors, sign up for Christine’s monthly newsletter at www.thylyre.com, or follow her on www.facebook.com/thylyre and Twitter @thy_lyre. If you, your book club, church, or class benefitted from using this companion, kindly leave a review on Amazon, Goodreads, or any book retailer site.

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Till We Have Faces - Christine L. Norvell


"Till We Have Faces is one of Lewis’s richest books, but also one of his most challenging. Christine Norvell does readers a great service by offering what is essentially a college course on the novel between two covers. Well researched and smoothly written, Norvell’s study guide offers valuable insights in every chapter and encourages readers to actively participate in the act of informed interpretation." —Dr. David C. Downing, Co-Director of the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College and author of five books on C. S. Lewis, including the novel Looking for the King

In writing and now revising her deeply insightful and very helpful companion, Christine L. Norvell helps readers understand why he thought so, offering excellent guidance to anyone interested in that maddening, magnificent novel. —Andrew Lazo, scholar and speaker on C. S. Lewis, editor and transcriber of Early Prose Joy, Lewis's previously-unknown autobiography, and expert on Till We Have Faces

"Christine Novell's illuminating guide on Till We Have Faces discusses and untangles many of the enigmatic aspects of this magnificent novel. Norvell herself lifts the veil on one of Lewis's best, but most cryptic, works and illustrates the holy purpose beneath the fictional text." —Dr. Crystal Hurd, author of Thirty Days with C.S Lewis: A Women’s Devotional and Reviews Editor for Sehnsucht: The C.S. Lewis Journal

Kudos to Christine Norvell for providing an accessible reading companion that opens up the novel to a wide array of readers. Her analysis and questions zero in on key themes, characters, and symbols in a way that draws out Lewis’s meaning rather than imposing her own. — Dr. Louis Markos, Professor in English and Scholar in Residence, Houston Baptist University; author of Restoring Beauty: The Good, the True, and the Beautiful in the Writings of C. S. Lewis

With a clear vision and a capable hand, Christine Norvell's Reading Companion is a compelling resource inviting readers to draw the mythic beauty of this transformational story into their lives. — Dr. Brenton D.G. Dickieson, Lecturer and Preceptor, Signum University

Norvell includes an explanatory chapter for each of the chapters in Lewis’ book. Each ends with several thought-provoking and open-ended questions helpful for personal reflection as well as group discussion. Her use of scholarship, primary and secondary, is ample and helpful. I recommend this book for classes, book clubs and church groups. It offers scholarship that is both wise and clarifying. —Dr. Nancy Enright, Professor of English, Director of University Core, Seton Hall University, and author of Community: A Reader for Writers and articles in Logos, Commonweal, and The Chesterton Review

To my most precious family of five.

To my heavenly Father for loving me wholly,

for listening to me, for speaking to me in daily bread portions.


Where I am ever a student, I thank Dr. Brenton Dickieson and Andrew Lazo for graciously adding to my knowledge of all things Lewis and for providing needed clarity to the argument of my Introduction. Both men gave generously of their time and experience to help me, an understudy.

With gratitude to the many scholars and thinkers who have gone before me, most especially Peter J. Schakel for his spiritual and academic insights that shaped my thoughts and my classroom discussions.

Without the laboratory of the classroom, my studies, thoughts, and questions would be incomplete. Thank you to Regent Preparatory School for preparing me to write.

"To construct plausible and moving ‘other worlds’

you must draw on the only real ‘other world’ we know,

that of the spirit." —C.S. Lewis, On Stories



Our perspectives do affect the meaning of what we read. If one of my students were to say the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast was about the influence of family, another student might insist that the tale was about how people are monsters. Neither is wrong, but neither is exclusive. Meaning comes to us in many ways.

No reader doubts that our own life experiences create a lens through which we see the world and the words we read. This is the primary way meaning arrives. C.S. Lewis says, Each of us by nature sees the whole world from one point of view with a perspective and a selectiveness peculiar to himself.[1] Our limitation is natural, and it is helpful to be aware of it.

How then do we approach C.S. Lewis’s final novel, Till We Have Faces? Many critics at the time complained that it was too different from his previous fiction, that the story was too dark or ambiguous. T.H. White, for example, said the final section was full of metaphysical mumbo-jumbo.[2] Charles Rolo wrote that A single reading left some of the novel’s meanings obscure.[3] The story invites extremes, and that is our challenge in finding meaning. One approach is to draw from the pool of literary criticism as we consider the types of perspectives readers might share.

Experts who think about the way we read literature also think about different kinds of perspectives. With the Reader-Response theory of literary criticism, for example, the meaning of the story rests with us, the readers. Meaning comes to us as we interact with the text.

When we ask if the sound and shape of word and phrase are important or if the order of the words within a sentence carries meaning, we champion careful reading, but it is also about thoughtful reflection within the reader’s involvement with the words. These are elements of Reader-Response theory and they are strengths to the reader. The implied question of course is whether the interaction between the reader and the text is the only source of meaning.

What if we were to consider New Criticism, most popular after World War I? Its distinct claim is to look at a literary work as a piece of art. Having coined the term New Criticism in 1910, J.E. Spingarn clarifies that the poet’s aim must be judged at the moment of the creative act, that is to say, by the art of the poem itself.[4] Its beauty is in the creation.

Lewis would call this poiema or something made. He explains, "As Poiema, by its aural beauties and also by the balance and contrast and the unified multiplicity of its successive parts, it is an objet d’art, a thing shaped so as to give great satisfaction."[5] Thus, the poet or creator leads us to look at the art he has created.

Under this theory we would then ask what the story’s value is as an independent piece, regardless of the author, genre, or time period. It’s a fascinating and simplifying perspective. I could then look at The Little Prince, for example, as an important picture of childlikeness. I don’t need to identify the genre of the story or analyze the life of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry to see that we should all be sensitive to the beauty around us and be willing to question why things in the world are done the way they are.

But literary theory is only one approach with many labels. According to Lewis, meaning is more than names and labels and models. In The Discarded Image, he asks us to

"regard all Models in the right way, respecting each and idolising none. We are all, very properly, familiar with the idea that in every age the human mind is deeply influenced by the accepted Model of the universe. But there is a two-way traffic; the Model is also influenced by the prevailing temper of mind."[6]

Lewis continues by clarifying that each model reflects the prevalent psychology of an age almost as much as it reflects the state of that age’s knowledge.[7] I wonder if we should think of it this way: what we read affects us and reflects us even when we are not aware of it.

A more broad approach might include Lewis’s concept of poiema and logos. At the same time we see a piece of literature as art, something made, it is also logos or something said. As Logos it tells a story, or expresses an emotion, or exhorts or pleads or describes or rebukes or excites laughter.[8] The two elements of poiema and logos work together.

What then would C.S. Lewis say about how to approach his work?

It’s most fascinating that one of his earliest books, The Personal Heresy (1939), was a series of debates with Dr. E.M.W. Tillyard about how to interpret the poet and their poems. Tillyard had published a book on Paradise Lost in 1930 with the premise that All poetry is about the poet’s state of mind. He argued that we learn who John Milton is by reading his work.

Lewis countered this approach, claiming it was a personal heresy because it alleged to know the person of Milton through his creative words. Lewis felt this biographical approach was too limited and too subjective. Rather, we the readers should share what is common to the poet and to us. We share our human experience, not the author’s personality alone. Lewis later describes the author as a window into something. His person is but a starting point, only one element in an objective approach.

Years later, in An Experiment in Criticism (1961), Lewis moderated his view. He further asks if we should judge literature by the way people read it.[9] Lewis said if someone has a negative attitude (valid or not) toward a book as they begin reading, they will see it negatively. We, on the other hand, have a choice. He tells us to empty our minds and lay ourselves open. There is no work in which holes can’t be picked; no work that can succeed without a preliminary act of good will on the part of the reader.[10]

We must be cautious when we read between the lines, and every reader does. By nature, we bring our own perspectives, and here we can remember the art of something made, poiema, and the expression of something said, the logos. Lewis further reasons,

It matters more to see precisely what sort of poet Homer is than to tell the world how much it ought to like that sort of poet. The best value judgement is that ‘which almost insensibly forms itself in a fair and clear mind, along with fresh knowledge.’[11]

If we the readers must come with a fresh mind, then the value truly lies with us. That’s why Lewis tells us to Find out what the author actually wrote and what the hard words meant and what the allusions were to, and you have done far more for me than a hundred new interpretations or assessments could ever do.[12] The work is upon us the reader, and our end game is to see what the author sees, the same view Lewis advocated for in the 1930s.


Till We Have Faces is a product of decades of thought. In order to understand what Lewis writes, we cannot discount what he brings us or when he does. We can unearth layers of meaning this way as long as we acknowledge they are not the only way to understand a piece of literature, for there are many.

And Lewis would want us to understand. In his Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, he writes that it would be a waste to see the past and the works therein with just our own faces.

So with old literature. You can go beyond the first impression that a poem makes on your modern sensibility. By study of things outside the poem, by comparing it with other poems, by steeping yourself in the vanished period, you can then re-enter the poem with eyes more like those of the natives; now perhaps seeing that the associations you gave to the old words were false, that the real implications were different than you supposed, that what you thought strange was then ordinary and that what seemed to you ordinary was then strange...[14]

Lewis’s lifetime (1898-1963) is far from a vanished period, and this is to our advantage as readers. I say it again, when Lewis wrote might be just as important as what he wrote.

Lewis was enamored of the myth of Cupid and Psyche as early as 1917. By 1922, Lewis attempted to find a form for the myth. He wrote 156 lines of rhyming couplets, rewriting the Psyche story, a fragment preserved in The Lewis Papers collection at the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College.

Diana Pavlac Glyer points out another critical component. When Lewis had first attempted the story, he was an atheist. He even says In my pre-Christian days she [Orual] was to be in the right, and the gods in the wrong.[15] But, writing now as a Christian, Lewis changed the very center of the story, from an angry and justified accusation of the gods to a new awareness that the problem lies with us.[16]

It wasn’t until his later years that Lewis was free to write further about the lingering idea. By 1955, the Inklings were no longer meeting in his rooms at Magdalen College, Oxford, or as regularly at the Eagle and Child pub. In January, he began his lecturing duties at Cambridge as Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature, a position created specifically for him. Without tutorials, Lewis had more leisure to write. In March of that year Joy Davidman described his leisure as

...no pupils, no exams, no college meetings; just a nice quiet room and all the time in the world. So the inevitable happened; he’s dried up. He is quite worried about it, and was relieved to know it’s the usual thing in our trade. I imagine, though, he’ll be turning out fiction soon again.[17]

A week later Joy Davidman writes of Lewis’s quandary again when she visited the Kilns.

"One night he was lamenting that he couldn’t get a good idea for a book. We kicked a few ideas around until one came to life. Then we had another whiskey each and bounced it back and forth between us. The next day, without further planning, he wrote the first chapter! I read it and made

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