Friday, 07 August 2009

Till We Have Faces

It's been a while since I last read something by C. S. Lewis for the very first time. I had forgotten quite how much I appreciate his writing. Over the last few days I've read Till We Have Faces: A myth retold and have been reminded of quite how awesome Lewis is. One of the things that I particularly like is that he captures the imperfection of humanity without condemnation.

One of the places I found this was in Orual, the narrator and protagonist of Till We Have Faces. Orual is ugly. She's sufficiently ugly that she's repeatedly insulted about her looks and finally chooses to spend her whole life behind a veil. This in itself is unusual, since most storybook heroines fall somewhere between passably pretty and ravishingly beautiful. The majority of the remainder are plain, but very rarely is a heroine so shockingly ugly that she resents her own reflection. That is the first part of Orual's ugliness.

The second part is that while Orual's lack of beauty is recognised and continually influences her, it is not central to the plot. I expected that her ugliness would fade away and be forgotten or else that it would become a sort of fixation. I was impressed and delighted that it was neither. Lewis shapes Orual's character by the responses she gets to her appearance, but he also shows us her intelligence, her compassion and her righteous-seeming bitterness. There are things she doesn't know or understand that one imagines might be the result of her ugliness (or people's reactions to it), but at the forefront is the lack of understanding, not the ugliness. Being ugly is an explanation, but not a justification. Despite this, Orual's life is much , much more than her ugliness.

I don't think it's streching things too far to see her ugliness as symbolising human imperfection. It can't be ignored or forgotten, but it's not the centre of our stories either.


  1. Interesting thought on the symbolism of ugliness.

  2. Thanks. I certainly don't mean to imply that ugliness always - or even throughout the book - symbolises sin (think of Redival). I think it works for Orual especially, though, because in the presence of the gods she became as beautiful as Psyche.