"Are the gods not just?" "Oh no, child. What would become of us if they were?"
Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold is C. S. Lewis's last novel, the one he considered his best and most mature. It relates the myth of Cupid and Psyche (found in Apuleius' Latin novel The Golden Ass) from a very different perspective than the original.It is presented as the record — and the formal complaint against the gods — of Orual, daughter of the King of Glome, a pagan kingdom to the north of ancient Greece. Her father, hot-tempered and prone to violence, has little love for his three daughters, least of all for ugly Orual. Her only friends in the palace are her beautiful half-sister Istra and her tutor, a Greek slave who she only knows as "the Fox".Her happiness, such as it is, ends abruptly: after the people of Glome begin worshiping Istra's beauty, Glome is stricken by famine and plague. The high priest of the goddess Ungit declares that these calamities are divine punishment for blasphemy, and that they will end when Istra is sacrificed to Ungit's son, the god of the mountain, the Shadowbrute. The King agrees, over Orual and the Fox's objections (Istra herself is at peace with this decision). Orual falls sick from despair on the night of the sacrifice, so she is unconscious while Istra is chained to a tree at the edge of the god's country and left for the Shadowbrute.As soon as she is back on her feet, Orual steals away with the soldier Bardia to give her sister a proper burial. Instead, they find Istra herself, alive and well in the valley of the gods. Orual's joy turns to consternation, however, when she realizes Istra has gone mad, believing that she is the bride of a god and that her forest home is actually a divine palace. Orual takes steps to disabuse her sister of her illusions; these end in a disaster that permanently separates the two sisters.Distraught, Orual returns to Glome, where she begins wearing a mask-like veil. She then takes the throne when her father falls ill, and with help from the Fox and Bardia, she rules Glome shrewdly for many years.One day, by chance, Orual hears a myth from a priest in a foreign land; to her surprise, it is her and Istra's story. But the priest's version gets many details wrong; in fact, it makes Orual out to be the villain of the story. Angered, Orual decides to set the record straight: to tell her story, and to make it her accusation against the gods. However, in the process of writing her story down, she is confronted with divine visions and hidden truths about herself, and ultimately she is forced to reinterpret everything she knew.This novel provides examples of:
Abusive Parent: The King, particularly to Orual. He has no problem calling her ugly to her face and beats her several times.
Apocalyptic Log: At the beginning Orual comments that she knows the gods may strike her down at any moment for her accusations against them. At the beginning of the second part, she notes that she must hurry in her writing, because she knows she will die soon. The narrative ends mid-sentence, with a comment by Arnom that he found the queen dead, her head resting on the book.
Blasphemous Praise: It's not made a large plot point in-story, but those familiar with the original myth will know it might not have been the smartest move for the Fox to say Istra is "prettier than Aphrodite herself."
In-universe in the early part of the book, between the Fox's Greek philosophy and the beliefs of Glome, which sanction the occasional human sacrifice, castration of a man who flirts with the King's daughter, among other pleasant things.
Subverted, in that the civilised Greek, the Fox, thinks it "barbarous and scandalous that women in our land [primitive Glome] go about bareface."
Invoked by Istra's acceptance that she should be sacrificed.
Invoked by Orual's behaviour once she becomes queen. All agree - including Orual herself - that she is the most merciful ruler in that part of the world. Yet she quite casually recalls, in among a list of her sensible and humane reforms such as freeing deserving slaves, that she had her old nurse Batta hanged for being a tale-bearer and bully. OK, Batta was a nasty old drunk, but still.
Then subverted in the second part of the book when she looks back on her own actions and comes to see (among more dramatic revelations) that although she generally meant well as a ruler, and did truly love as a friend and sister, that is not enough.
Due to the Dead: Orual goes to the mountain with Bardia to find Istra's body and give it a proper burial. Turns out she's not really dead.
Emotions vs. Stoicism: The Fox's character arc, to an extent. He gets bonus points for being a literal Stoicnote or possibly Cynic philosopher.
Everyone Calls Him Barkeep: The king of Glome is, perhaps understandably, simply the King to everyone, save for at the very beginning when he is introduced by his given name, Trom. Similarly, the elder priest of Ungit is simply the Priest.
External Retcon: Orual writes her book to set the record straight after hearing a priest's false story about Psyche. Eventually, Orual retcons her own story when she comes to realize her true motivations were selfish. (Of course, Till We Have Faces functions as this in real life as well.)
Jerkass Gods: Most of the people of Glome see their gods as petty, self-serving forces of nature and try to avoid attracting their attention as much as possible. Orual wishes the gods were just mindless brutes. The truth is...complicated.
Just So Story: Orual mentions there is a story that explains why pigs are not suitable as sacrifices to Ungit, but does not tell it. Later, she discovers that Istra's rejection by, and eventual reunion with, the God of the Grey Mountain has become one for the seasons changing, which inspires her to write the novel.
Legend Fades to Myth: Orual lives long enough to see her sister's life become the Eros and Psyche myth.
Literary Agent Hypothesis: The book is supposed to have been written by Orual and preserved in the temple of Glome to be taken by a traveler to Greece.
Love Goddess: Glome's two main gods, Ungit and the god of the Grey Mountain, are identified with Aphrodite (Venus) and Eros (Cupid), respectively. At the end of the novel the priest of Ungit even calls himself the priest of Aphrodite.
Love Makes You Evil: Lewis believed that human love — absent divine grace — is selfishness in a pretty mask, which ultimately destroys the object of affection.
To be fair, he believed that every human emotion — absent divine grace — inevitably becomes twisted and evil. It's a consequence of the Fall. Love is stronger, so its effects are greater. (He says elsewhere, "[Love] is a stronger angel, and therefore, when it falls, a fiercer devil.")
Marriage to a God: Istra is offered to the god of the Grey Mountain/the Shadowbrute as a bride. Turns out he really does marry her.
Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: It's kept ambiguous whether the mysterious events attributed to the Gods actually are divine in nature. Up until the moment that Orual sees the God of the Mountain with her own eyes.
Mid-Battle Tea Break: Orual comments how occasionally, in the heat of battle, she would share a few brief seconds of friendship with an enemy soldier if something such as a gust of wind happened to distract them both as they fought, before killing him.
Painting the Medium: The last paragraph of the book is in italics, signifying that it's in a different handwriting from the rest of the book, namely that of Arnom, who found Orual dead, her head resting on the scroll she was writing the story on.
Perspective Flip: The book is a retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, but with Psyche's older sister as the "hero." However, the book ends up inverting this trope.
The Stoic: The Fox, being a philosophic Stoic, aspires to this.
Title Drop: "How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?"
The Un Favourite: Redival. Both the Fox and Orual are content to ignore her in favor of Istra. Even the King, who has no love for any of his daughters, seems to like her the least after she is caught with a young soldier. Orual's realization of this serves as the first chink in her Self-Serving Memory.
What the Hell, Hero?: Orual is called out by the Fox for persuading Istra to look at her husband. The Fox had theorized that the husband was actually a thieving mountain man and Istra could have been killed for disobeying, which Orual had never really thought about. To make matters worse, Orual left out the part where she forced Istra into an unbreakable oath to disobey her husband because she knew the Fox would disapprove.
White Mask of Doom: Orual's veil is described as white, and the illustrations portray it as a white mask, featureless save for two eye holes. Both her enemies and her subjects find it creepy.
Wicked Stepmother: Discussed and subverted with Istra's mother. Batta, the nurse, claims she will be this to Orual and Redival, but the stepmother is quite pleasant for the short time they know her.