Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Till We Have Faces 

C. S. Lewis - Till We Have Faces

"Are the gods not just?"
"Oh no, child. What would become of us if they were?"

(*Picture at left by Leo & Diane Dillon, from Bud Plant Catalogue)

This is C. S. Lewis' masterpiece - the book he acknowledged as his finest work - and he was right! It's one of the best books I've ever read! I must admit to being somewhat surprised, given that most of Lewis' work strikes me as didactic and heavy-handed, preachy even. While he's best known for the Narnia series - a series with definite peaks and troughs - I think this book deserves to endure, though it seems sadly little-known and is currently out-of-print.

Set in the ancient kingdom of Glome, Till We Have Faces tells the life story of Orual, the oldest and most unattractive of three sisters, the other two being vain Redival, and the charismatic and noble Istra.

While the structure revolves around what is essentially a retelling of the tale of Psyche and Eros (AKA Cupid) - it may be more powerful as a work in its own right, without prior knowledge of this myth - so I'd recommend not reading prefaces that recount that myth, until after reading the novel itself. Elements of this myth have continued in other traditions, particularly the fairy tale, East of the Sun, West of the Moon (available in two beautifully illustrated versions by P. J. Lynch and Mercer Mayer).

At another level, it is a book about questions of faith, exploring relevant concepts imaginatively within the events of the story, without simple allegory or direct instruction of any sort. I found myself so bound up in the compelling forward trajectory of the tale for most of the time that I may have paid insufficient attention to these depths on a first reading.

The Fox, who teaches the three sisters, is a fascinating character, given over completely to rationalism and strict Greek logic. I can't help but identify him with Odysseus - given the time and his origins and name - though the narrative makes it clear they are not the same person. At the opposite extreme is the sweet and divine character of Istra, who is taught logic, but who walks her own path, which we learn more about as the story unfolds. Orual herself consolidates all The Fox's teachings in all her stances. At a theological level, this basic conflict between faith and logic is a central theme, though I feel this tale has as much to say to atheists as to believers (I'm agnostic).

The prose itself is beautiful and the characters fascinating, if not always particularly sympathetic. After the first third I started to get an uncomfortable feeling about our narrator, Orual, akin to the feel of first person narration in some of Poe's stories (for an extreme comparison). This kind of writing takes great skill and could fail so easily, with the reader losing sympathy for Orual, but it never misses a beat in this book. I fully expected the second half of the book to be unengaging, but it picked up and went right on in an unexpected and interesting direction, quite different in tone and content to the first half.

This isn't meant to be a comprehensive review at all, though I might attempt one at a later date. For anyone who enjoys well-written fantasy/adventure or beautifully constructed prose, along with a little philosophy, I thoroughly recommend seeking it out!

* The Leo and Diane Dillon picture was made with metal and plastic for a 1966 edition. These days a work like this would probably we put together in Photoshop or a similar program, but nothing beats this kind of real artistry.

By the way, Steve Hackett's album of the same name isn't a concept album about this book.

Just finished C. S. Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet. Haven't got it to hand, but I think it was 1936. It was an old Pan paperback, probably a fifties edition, flying saucers on the cover, completely misunderstanding the book.

Or maybe not.

He was good. And he could write.
Thanks, Joe, I reckon I might check out Lewis' "space trilogy" next - I was going to start with Perelandra, as a lot of people think highly of it, but it might be better to start with Out of the Silent Planet.

You're right, Lewis can be a poignant and brilliant writer when he's really disciplined. I don't know why I haven't followed his other work up before now.

Oh yeah, U.S. progressive rock band, Glass Hammer, made a concept album of Perelandra a few years ago, which was one of their better efforts - just thought I'd mention it :).


Ian T.
hey! by profession i am a photographer but i also paint on the side. i really want to get into children books illustrations. you guys seem to be pretty up on it. how do i go about getting started? if you have any info and time maybe you could email me with some tips.
Kate, I couldn't find your email, but I'll search again if I get a chance...

If you've seen my "Acrylic Painting Tips" - http://www.geocities.com/Ian_Thomas_Graphics/
Acrylic.html - page, you'll know I've been trying to get a children's picture together and what happened. I do plan to get back to that...

I definitely recommend the following books! Your library will be the best place to start...

2005 Children's Writers & Illustrator's Market by Alice Pope (Editor), Rebecca Chrysler (Editor) - this one is essential and you're in the U.S., so more use to you than to me, and you can often pick up older editions cheaply!

How to Write & Illustrate Childrens Books and Get Them Published edited by Felicity Trotman and Treld Pelkey Bicknell - fantastic roundup and very inspiring!

Children's book illustration : step by step techniques : a unique guide from the masters by Jill Bossert. ISBN 2880463351 Crans, Switzerland: RotoVision; distributed by Watson-Guptill, 1998) - I love this book! It shows how each illustrator works, step-by-step, in great detail. A beautiful book and worth hunting for!

Writer's & Illustrator's Guide to Children's Book Publishers and Agentsby Ellen R. Shapiro - looks good, but haven't seen it personally.

One tip: never pay someone to look at your work - real agents work on commission!

Best wishes,

Ian T.
(I haven't had a children's book published yet - too distracted with comics lately - but I'll work on it!)
http://www.narniaresources.com/alerter Very cool desktop alerter that has regular updates on the new Narnia movie. Ijust installed and it is VERY cool!
Thank you for the informative blog
Here Is some additional Children's Book resources for
Children's Books if you or your readers are interested
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