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In Mere Christianity Chapter 7 ("Let's Pretend") Book IV, Lewis writes that there is a story

about someone who had to wear a mask; a mask which made him look much nicer than he really was. He had to wear it for year. and when he took it off he found his own face had grown to fit it. He was now really beautiful.

Does anyone know what this story is?

Thanks

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  • Would this help you? litcharts.com/lit/mere-christianity/…
    – Lesley
    Aug 6, 2020 at 9:56
  • Thanks. I was just wondering if this story about the mask is an actual story, in the same sense that "Beauty and the Beast" is an actual story. Aug 6, 2020 at 11:48
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    Beuty and the Beast is a story about fictional characters. The story you attribute to C.S. Lewis might be the same thing - a story about a fictional character. The purpose of the story is to illustrate a point.
    – Lesley
    Aug 6, 2020 at 13:24
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    I mean does the story have a name/author? For example, Beauty and the Beast was written in 1740 by de Villeneuve, Hansel and Gretel was written in 1812 by the Brothers Grimm, etc. Aug 6, 2020 at 16:20

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The story that Mr. Lewis alluded to in Mere Christianity is The Happy Hypocrite: a fairy tale for tired men by Sir Max Beerbohm (an English essayist, 1872-1956). It was first published in 1896, thus around the time when CS Lewis was born (1898). The 1918 edition (with color illustrations by George Sheringham) was republished in 2012 by Michael Walmer, an Australian publisher (see an archive.org scan here).

According to Steven Lloyd, the story was identified as the allusion by Frederich Buechner (d. 2022) in his 1977 book Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy-Tale (see an archive.org scan here). Mr. Buechner is called the American C.S. Lewis by many of his fans.

His summary (page 80):

In “The Happy Hypocrite” Max Beerbohm tells about a regency rake named Lord George Hell, debauched and profligate, who falls in love with a saintly girl, and in order to win her love, covers his bloated features with the mask of a saint. The girl is deceived and becomes his bride, and they live hapily until a wicked lady from Lord George Hell’s wicked past turns up to expose him for the scoundrel she knows him to be and challenges him to take off his mask. So sadly, having no choice, he takes it off, and lo and behold beneath the saint’s mask is the face of the saint he has become by wearing it in love.

Steven Lloyd, now director of Southwest School of Bible Studies, pointed us to Mr. Buechner's book and provided a commentary on how C.S. Lewis used the story:

The moral of the story, and Mr. Lewis’ reason for making reference to it is this: we are not yet who we pretend to be (Christ like), but the more we act like Christ the more inclined we are to become like Christ. Virtue, by definition is the habit of right desire. Habitually acting like Christ will eventually form Him in us.

Some readers may be wondering what the difference is between acting like Christ when we are not yet like him and hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is acting in a way one never intends to become. The man in The Happy Hypocrite was a corrupt man who pretended to be a saint and became a good man. Thus the “Happy” in the title. (The book is worth hunting down and reading.)

Is this not the way it is for all of us? We begin our life in Christ acting like Christ while not yet being Christ like and as we continue to act like Him, He is formed in us. “What had began as disguise [has] become a reality.”

Source: a 2012 Preacher's Blog church article by Steven Lloyd archived at the Wayback Machine.


P.S. I need to give due credit of my accidental finding to Joel Edmund Anderson's response to a commenter in his blog. C.S. Lewis is one of Joel's favorite authors.

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C.S. Lewis won a triple first (the highest honours in three areas of study – Classics, Philosophy and English) at Oxford. He then taught as a fellow of Magdalen College for nearly 30 years. Later, he was the first Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English at Cambridge University. Much of his academic work concentrated on the later Middle Ages, especially its use of allegory. His book “The Allegory of Love” (1963) helped reinvigorate the serious study of late medieval narratives. His last academic work was “The Discarded Image, An introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature” (1964). In his book “Fern-seed and Elephants” Lewis picks a statement from a liberal commentary where John’s Gospel is called a ‘spiritual romance’, ‘a poem not history’. He retorts: “I have been reading poems, romances, vision literature, legends, myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know that not one of them is like this.”

I would suppose that this second story about a person having to wear a mask for years, comes from that wealth of late Medieval literature with which he was so conversant. It is hardly necessary to track it down; he knew of that story and incorporated it into chapter 7 of his book as an illustration of what he was going to explain:

“What had begun as disguise had become a reality. I think both these stories may (in a fanciful way, or course) help to illustrate what I have to say in this chapter.”

That story might have been, basically, just what he said it was, in his first paragraph of chapter 7. If the original tale had been more elaborate, Lewis would have expertly condensed it to its salient points. He was just using it (and the summary of Beauty and the Beast) as a spring-board from which to launch into application of knowing theology. If you could find the original story, it would not have anything further in it that would improve its application in Lewis’s chapter. I’m not so sure that his application is sound, but I have no doubt that his condensed version of that un-cited story is a neat summary which helps in his explanation of applying theology in order to become more Christ-like.

His conclusion is important, for he says there has been something very misleading in his language up till that point.

“I have been talking as if it were we who did everything. In reality, of course, it is God who does everything. We, at most, allow it to be done to us. In a sense you might even say it is God who does the pretending. The Three-Personal God, so to speak, sees before Him in fact a self-centred, greedy, grumbling, rebellious human animal” and acts as “the higher thing” which “always raises the lower. A mother teaches her baby to talk by talking to it as if it understood long before it really does.”

That ties the opening illustration (of wearing a mask for years) with the conclusion, that God can transform a horrible person into a Christ-like one.

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  • Thank you for the thoughtful reply. I agree that it is not necessary to track down the story to understand what Lewis was getting at. I was just wondering if it could be tracked down in the same way that "Beauty and the Beast" can be tracked down. Based on your reply, that might be difficult to do. Aug 18, 2020 at 16:09
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This isn't exactly the same, but Lewis might be talking about another book he wrote based on a very old story (Cupid and Psyche). The book was Till We Have Faces. It's about a guy (maybe a guy) and a lady where the guy couldn't be seen by the lady or else something bad would happen to her. But the guy who had to remain unseen was turned out to be nicer than he seemed. I think he could see the lady once a year too, so that's fitting - he's just using parts of the story to fit his point very vaguely, like I just did.

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    The ugly princess Orual in Till We Have Faces wore a veil to cover her ugly face, and the face never got any better as she aged. I think Lewis here is referring to something else. Aug 6, 2020 at 16:22
  • Oh I meant the monster or prince or whoever he was supposed to be was the one who grew into his face. He was hidden by darkness (not masked), but same difference. There was a story in italian folktales that is VERY similar. but it's an old story, probably one of the most basic ideas for a story.
    – Peter Turner
    Aug 6, 2020 at 18:44

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