• Devin O'Donnell

About face: What is the meaning of the human countenance?

In our reading of Till We Have Faces, we have finally came to the scene from which the novel takes it name. We began to assimilate the meaning of that line, but as we discussed yesterday, we cannot completely understand its meaning without considering the symbolic vocabulary at work in the novel as a whole. Images of the face, the veil, the calls for truth (alétheia), and how all those things relate to speech are all motifs which build in significance as the story moves toward its final conclusion.

Regarding the face, the events of the last year have perhaps forced us to grapple with what the human countenance means. Consider the following passage from an article at Touchstone:

How can we have self-knowledge, and cultivate it in the young as well, if we have faces covered? Perhaps the most poignant answer to this question lies in C. S. Lewis's final novel, Till We Have Faces. Having gone most of her life hiding her face in a white veil, Orual comes to the end of her life and finds her complaint against the gods answered in a surprising way. She assumes she knows herself and others in her life with an almost infallible knowledge. But she is shocked to find herself in a vision standing before the court of the gods, stripped of both her veil and of the speech for which she had been preparing all her life. "The complaint was the answer," Orual tells us, "To have heard myself making it was to be answered" (305). This is that same reciprocal law that Roger Scruton says operates within the healthy human relationships where true self-knowledge is revealed in the sacred countenance of the other. "I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly," says Orual, "nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?" Aside from this being one of the finest lines in English prose, Lewis is so instructive here. The metonymy of the face stands not merely for that embodied "speech" which lies at the very center of our being but for our very identity. The human face is how we are known and in the gaze of others how we know ourselves. What of that child I observed gazing at her mother? How will this affect her social development, her own psychological well-being, or her emotional competence? "True goodness, simplicity, and kindness cannot so be hidden," says Marcus Aurelius, writing in the second century. "In the very eyes and countenance they will show themselves." And in contemplating the face of her mother, was the child not also contemplating her own being as well? And if the face conveys some knowledge of our identity, then it must also convey some knowledge of the origin from which that identity comes.

Thus, "Covering the face is to obscure the loudest and most communicative aspect of the image of God. It is literally an icon." This means that Orual's own identity, symbolized in her ugliness and in the veil with which she covers her ugliness, is hidden from her and has to "dug" out of her by startling revelations and visions, the "strokes of the gods."


Agenda for Tuesday:

  1. Prayer & Catechism

  2. Finish Reading Journal (11/15): Show Yourself to the Priest

  3. Read Leviticus 13:1-8; read Luke 17:11-20

  4. What is the "literal" reading of this passage?

  5. What is the "allegorical" reading?

  6. What is the "anagogic" reading?

  7. What is the "moral" reading?

  8. Check Questions & Answers for Till We Have Faces

  9. Finish TWHF!

  10. Harkness Monster Truck Rally and Literary Explosion Conference

  11. Dig Deep 2 – Finish book by end of this week

  12. Remember the HW!


  1. Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect. Pray, that you may not stumble.

  2. Questions & Answers for Till We Have Faces – due 11/17

  3. Harkness Monster Truck Rally and Literary Explosion Conference – 11/17

  4. Dig Deep 2 – finish reading Four Loves by end of this week (11/18)

  5. Memorize Poetry Out Loud (POL) selections

  6. POL Recitation 1 – due next week (11/12)

  7. POL Recitation 1 – due next week (11/29)

  8. 12 line Imitation due Wednesday (12/1)


CORRADINI, Antonio Bust of a Veiled Woman (Puritas) 1717-25 Marble Museo del Settecento Veneziano, Ca' Rezzonico, Venice

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