Some of Mark Twain's literary outlay may be seen as quintessentially Dionysian antagonistic to Christianity, the Dionysian being a quality of humanism. Outgrowing its Christian but not necessarily its classical roots, surging forward in the Enlightenment, rationalism/humanism reached its apex in the modern era, the 20th-century. C.S. Lewis, his literary complement as I have configured them here, was influenced by the same elements but emerged an imaginative yet highly rational Christian apologist, bringing the discipline of logic to bear on his arguments and in his imaginative literature. I bring in Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), who formulated laws of planetary motion, as representative of an emergent rationalism coupled with devout Christian belief, and because he was the author of a fragment, Somnium, the West's first science fiction.
In the main, the two stories under consideration here begin with their "backward" settings: Mark Twain's Mysterious Stranger in the nostalgic mist that age showers upon its youth; Till We Have Faces, C.S. Lewis's mythical fusion of imagination and reason, also looking back from the vantage of old age, but without the dreaming gaze upon the setting. In both are rivers and mountains, forests and fields; but they share as well a quality of the remoteness of backward peoples on the margins of significance, on the verge of more complex cultures, and larger or more compelling ideas. The aura of superstition continually threatens the emerging rationalism (and, sometimes, vice versa) of these creative works. As in all great works, things are not always what they seem either to their first-person narrators or their readers, we who try to look upon but, in turn, become gazingstocks of the gods. As readers we may need these remote quasi-mythical settings to draw us, for surely we would not go to such confounding places as these tales would bring us if we were not properly called.
For casting and keeping the spell of the narrative these two works are about evenly matched, but Twain's is the inferior for its slight unevenness of tone and its often-confusing logos. Characterizations (just enough to let us imagine), rhythm, pacing, and presentation of pattern, all coupled with the interest of the argument, keep our attention and bring us back to reconsider again once we have set the books down. The settings are well evoked in each, but this is more initial in Twain's Mysterious Stranger which is, at last, allowed to deteriorate into mere abstraction. Other than this, all is well expressed and we are off into the fine literary experience of "Story" as we read. When we are in the midst of the visionary scenes of C.S. Lewis the quality is pastoral, pictorial, bright, mythopoeic, and Greek. In Twain's visionary scenes the quality is biting, more abstract (for the title character's satirical force); but here too we may feel his settings: India, medieval France, or the illusory gateways of time and place.
Lewis's first-person narrator is Orual, Queen of Glome, whose complaint against the gods, especially the god of the Grey Mountain to whom her sister Psyche was a sacrifice, is as powerful and frenetic as anything of Mark Twain's--of his own complaint against the God of the Old and New Testaments, the God of the dominant but fast-waning culture of his place and day. The two authors were themselves not young but looking back with strength enough, and grit, to wrestle with the central questions, not of their time, but of any time and of their own troubled hearts. Each personal age--childhood, youth, middle and old age--has its viewpoint, but when we are young we may be said to hold, if we're blessed with a normal and nurturing home, the great truths of any age. A child's moral understanding, at least, will seldom slip into error. As children we will enjoy this circumstance perhaps for a far more sustained period than we will ever know again in life. But this clarity must be tried, and so become muddied and unfocused as the years advance through time, dragging us willy-nilly after. …