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Literature / Till We Have Faces

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"I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, 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?"

"Are the gods not just?"
"Oh no, child. What would become of us if they were?"

Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold (1956) is C. S. Lewis's last novel, and 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 Istra seems to have 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.

Till We Have Faces includes the following tropes:

  • Abusive Parent: The King has no problem calling his daughter ugly to her face and beats her several times for speaking out of turn. He has to fake concern when one of his children is doomed to die because he's too relieved that his own hide is saved. Orual fits this to an extent as well.
  • All Take and No Give: How Orual describes the goddess Ungit and by extension all gods, who seem to demand sacrifice from humans while giving nothing in return. Much later, she realizes that she is the one who demands love and gives none back, completely devouring Bardia and trying to do the same to Istra.
  • Always Second Best: Redival is beautiful, but not nearly as beautiful as Istra, which is a major source of bitterness for her. Towards the end, it's revealed that Redival felt abandoned by Orual and the Fox after Istra was born. Orual realizes it's a valid grievance, even if Redival was bratty about it.
  • Ambiguous Situation: Who the hell are the gods?! Are they pagan gods through a Christian lens, or the Christian God through a pagan lens? If so, why would the Christian God have physical intercourse with a mortal? Did Istra and Orual literally become gods, like in the myth, or were they simply welcomed into Heaven?
  • Anachronism Stew: Characters make reference to chess despite it not existing at the time the story is supposed to be set.
  • Angelic Beauty: Psyche's beauty leads the common-folk of Glome to worship her as a goddess. Her cult grows to the point that the local priest comes to believe she is the Blessed of their myths and plans to sacrifice her to their god, the Shadowbrute, so she can be his bride in the darkness. Once she meets and marries the god, she becomes prettier than ever and soon after has her own temples where she is worshiped.
  • 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.
  • Beauty Equals Goodness, subverted
  • Becoming the Mask: In Orual's case, both figuratively and literally. She dons a veil to conceal her ugliness and realizes that the mystery of what she truly looks like beneath it gives her additional power and authority, which she soon grows into.
  • The Blank: The Queen's favorite In-Universe bit of Wild Mass Guessing about her veil is that she wears it to hide the emptiness where her face would be. This theory in particular helps her intimidate wily politicians and brave soldiers into ceding to her demands.
  • Blasphemous Boast: Used indirectly, when the Fox claims that Istra is "prettier than Aphrodite herself". Orual is concerned that the gods will punish him for this compliment, but the Fox dismisses her concern as foolish superstition. Turns out the gods are not amused.
  • 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."
  • Blonde, Brunette, Redhead: Hinted at. Even though none of the sisters' hair colors are specifically stated, Istra is constantly described as "golden" and "fair," Orual describes herself as dark, and Redival's name may be indicative of her hair color (as well as her temper and promiscuity).
  • Body Motifs: Faces and masks are a recurring theme.
  • Celibate Hero: Orual never gets married, appropriately enough, given her antagonism to the local love deities.
  • Challenging the Chief: A complicated bit of international politics leads to Orual fighting as the champion of a foreign prince against his brother in a duel to decide which of the two should be king of their country. The whole dueling bit was wholly Orual's idea as a way to prove her worth to the other kingdom, to establish herself as the queen, and to distract herself from her all-consuming guilt.
  • Closer to Earth: Bardia, as opposed to the Fox.
  • Combat by Champion: Argan, prince of Phars, versus Orual, over the freedom of Argan's brother and rival, Trunia.
  • Costume-Test Montage: The first (and most difficult) preparation for Orual's royal duel is to try to find an outfit that the old man Fox will look decent in without rejecting it for looking "barbarous." He settles on wearing his rotting old Greek gown after Orual gives up on making him look good.
  • Crossover Cosmology: The novel retells a story from Classical Mythology involving the gods Aphrodite and Eros from the perspective of a girl who worships them as members of a foreign, fictional pantheon. The story also offers some hints that some of the gods are also the God of Christianity, his angels, or the demons of Hell.
  • Cunning Like a Fox: The Fox is so called for his cunning. As Orual puts it, he can twist his words to make a "no" seem an excited affirmation and to make an enemy's "yes" look like a declaration of war. (Well, and his red hair.)
  • Dark Fantasy: The work can be considered a low fantasy, taking place in a fictional barbarian society that exists alongside real world history, where war, sacrifice, brutality, and distant merciless gods are part of everyday life.
  • Dark Is Not Evil: The god of the Grey Mountain is known as the Shadowbrute, may be a Living Shadow, hides its face in darkness, and can only be encountered in the depths of lightless caves and foggy mountains. Everything indicates it is either a sinister lie or an evil specter, except the Shadow saves Istra's life and makes her happier as its bride than ever before. Its affinity for darkness seems to be more a result of humans inability or refusal to understand it. In actuality, the Shadowbrute is an example of God Is Good that is heavily implied to become Jesus.
  • Death by Childbirth: The king's second wife, largely due to being so tiny and fragile, dies giving birth to his third daughter, leaving him without an heir. Although enraged by this, the daughter reflects the sacrificial love of her mother in her complete humility and divine beauty.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Omnipresent.
    • In the early part of the book, between the Fox's Greek philosophy and the beliefs of Glome, which sanction the occasional human sacrifice and castration of a man who flirts with the King's daughter, among other things.
    • The civilised Greek, the Fox, thinks it "barbarous and scandalous that women in our land [primitive Glome] go about bareface."
    • Istra's acceptance that she should be sacrificed.
    • 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.
  • Demythification:
    • Despite what the old myths would indicate, Aphrodite here seems to just be an obsidian rock instead of a divine woman. Similarly, her son Cupid isn't an angelic archer, but a living shadow that Fox believes is just a shadow. While all this sounds more mundane, over time it becomes clear that the gods aren't less mythic than in the old stories, it's just that they're scarier and more obscure in reality.
    • Happens to Orual in real life. Over the years, her people forget what she looks like behind her veil and now believe that she's either so beautiful or so hideous that to gaze on her face would drive you mad (or, alternatively, that she doesn't have a face.) When she tears off her veil in front of Bardia's wife after he dies, Bardia's wife is stunned to realize that the Queen is none of these things: she's merely an ugly, ordinary woman.
  • Dissonant Serenity: The sweet voice of the god of the Grey Mountain lacks any hint of anger as it announces that forces beyond control will torment his wife and that Orual will meet the same horrible fate. Orual compares it to "a bird singing on the branch above a hanged man."
  • The Ditz: Orual's other sister, Redival, is unable to focus on the Fox's classes and at times misunderstands his teachings. She ends up lacking the foresight to see her gossip and slander against her sister will do great harm to her family.
  • Dramatic Irony: In trying to stop Orual from engaging in a duel to the death, the Fox resorts to emotional blackmail, using his love for her as a bargaining chip. Later he apologizes for his behavior, explicitly saying it's wrong to use love as leverage. Readers can immediately see a parallel with Orual's forcing Psyche to break her vow, but Orual doesn't think of it at all.
  • 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  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.)
  • Face Death with Dignity: As befitting his philosophical school, the Fox attempts this when it looks like he's going to be sentenced to the silver mines. He encourages it in his charges as well, and Istra cites his teaching when she's trying to stay calm about being sacrificed. Orual badgers her out of it during her last night in Glome, but it turns out she doesn't die after all.
  • The Faceless: The narration emphasizes the importance of faces, but almost never mentions her own. Outside of a traumatic incident with a mirror, the narrator's face goes largely undescribed and spends most of the book hidden behind a veil. Plot-wise, the narrator does this because she's ugly; thematically, the hiddenness of her face reflects her inability to honestly assess her motivations and character, especially she has a divine encounter.
  • Fairest of Them All: Aphrodite's jealousy of Psyche.
  • Flying Dutchman: Istra, after disobeying her husband, is exiled to wander the earth until she can be reunited with the God of the Mountain.
  • God: While the people of Glome are polytheistic, The Divine Nature is thought by Greek intellectuals (like Fox) to be a single, all-powerful, and unemotional power who created all things and assigns their destinies. While Fox's logical proofs and scholarly arguments suit the needs of priests and politicians, the old Priest of Ungit maintains that gods must be found in mystery and sacrifice rather than writing and navel-gazing. Every worshiper in the novel affirms the Priest's criticism of Fox.
  • Go Mad from the Isolation: What Orual assumes has happened to Istra after being abandoned in the wilderness for months.
  • The Glorious War of Sisterly Rivalry: Redival is the pretty but ditzy one; Orual is the clever but unattractive one. Orual's feelings for Istra are more complicated.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: Ungit demands Istra be sacrificed for being more beautiful than her. Orual herself was one of these, as she realizes at the end.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: Upon her first victory in combat, Orual enjoys the proceeding celebrations much more than she thought she would, and she finally feels joy from something she accomplished.
    Orual: Now, for the first time in all my life (and the last) I was gay. A new world, very bright, seemed to be opening all round me.
  • Healing Hands: The people of Glome believe that Istra's touch can cure a plague; it's not made clear how true this belief is. The plague victims do in fact recover after Istra lays hands on them, but The Fox points out it could just be coincidence; Istra herself contracts the plague and nearly dies.
  • Heel Realization: Throughout the last stretch of the book, Orual is confronted again and again by how she had mistreated the people around her. She freed the Fox, but never allowed him to go home. She loved Bardia, but she hated his relationship with his own wife, so she'd go out of her way to make things difficult for him if she felt slighted. Finally, of course, her treatment of Psyche was purely selfish, and it takes her till near the end of the book to realize this.
  • Heir Club for Men: The King's anger at having no male heirs is a source of much tension.
  • Heroic Self-Deprecation: Played with. By the end of the book, Orual realizes she has done awful things to the people she cared about, and is appropriately chastened. However, it gets to the point where she's puzzled her subjects grieve her impending death. The priest Arnom appends her book once he discovers it and declares her the most just and merciful ruler Glome had ever known.
  • Honorary Uncle: Orual calls the Fox "Grandfather," since the old man taught the three sisters everything they know and shows them more love than their blood father ever would.
  • Human Sacrifice: Istra, for drawing worship away from Ungit/Aphrodite. Turns out she's not really dead, and married to the god of the Gray Mountain, Eros/Cupid.
  • I Just Want to Be Loved: Arguably Redival; almost all named characters hold her in contempt, and her flirtatiousness could be seen as a desperate attempt to find somebody who likes her. Hammered home close to the end.
  • Impressed by the Civilian: the soldier Bardia is impressed by the untrained Orual attacking him in a rage at her sister being about to be sacrificed, thinking she would be a good fighter if she was ever trained. He later ends up being inspired by this moment to actually train her.
  • Innocently Insensitive: Bardia is genuinely fond of Orual, and very impressed with her proficiency at swordplay. Unfortunately, he expresses the latter to her by saying "It's a thousand pities [the gods] didn't make you a man."
    Orual: He spoke it as kindly and heartily as could be; as if a man dashed a gallon of cold water in your broth and never doubted you'd like it all the better.
  • This then zigzags back to Orual herself, when she realizes that if she had an ounce of trust or love for other people, then what little signs she received from the gods should have been enough.
  • It Gets Easier: Bardia has Orual slaughter a pig in order to prepare her for killing Argan.
  • It's All About Me: The king complains that Orual is making too much of a fuss over her sister being sacrificed when she should be thinking about his reputation. Everyone in the palace knows that he believes the world revolves around him.
    • Once she became queen, Orual freed the slaves of Glome and gave them freedom, which in turn made them loyal to her, and from her point of view she gained a small army at no extra cost. She worked Bardia ragged to keep him away from his wife, and she never let the Fox return to Greece. From the outside, she seemed like a breath of fresh air compared to her father, but internally she was no better. To her credit however, Orual comes to realize just how selfish she was.
  • Jerkass Gods: Most of the people of Glome see their gods as scary, 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 what happened between Psyche and the Brute has become a myth to explain the changing seasons, which inspires her to write the novel.
  • King on His Deathbed: When the King of Glome falls and breaks his leg, the severity of the injury and his ensuing sickness has the palace and the temple convinced that he'll never recover. Without a son, the crown will go to the oldest princess, Orual. Bardia, Fox, and even the newest head priest of Ungit all recognize her authority and pledge to work with her. Orual takes over the management of the kingdom while her father is bedridden and dying, even navigating the country through a tricky little political crisis with the neighboring country of Phars when she duels a claimant to the throne as the old king's body is cooling.
  • Lady of War: Orual, as queen, becomes a successful commander of Glome's armies and a formidable warrior.
  • Legend Fades to Myth: Orual lives long enough to see her sister's life become some form of the Eros and Psyche myth.
  • Love at First Note: Downplayed, the beauty of Orual's voice persuades Trunia, a shameless flirt, that she's beautiful and he's quick to tell her.
  • 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: Orual, our protagonist and narrator, has confused her own affections and selfish impulses as actions of love, and she is extremely clingy. Any eagle-eyed reader will clearly see the irony as she blackmails her sister, keeps her mentor from returning to his home country, and works her crush to death so they won't leave her, and all the while telling us how much she loves them.
    "Did I hate him, then? Indeed, I believe so. A love like that can grow to be nine-tenths hatred and still call itself love."
  • Low Fantasy: The setting is fantastic, being a fictional city-state in Greek times, but is very grounded in reality. There are kings and princesses, but there's also bloody human sacrifice, cruelty, and violence. No one other than Orual actually sees a god, and their worship is bizarre and pagan, and we don't even know if the sacrifices accomplish anything.
  • 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. This is one of Orual's chief complaints throughout the narrative: the gods expect us to believe in them but refuse to provide any clear evidence.
  • Mid-Battle Tea Break: Discussed. Orual comments how occasionally, in the heat of battle, she would share a few brief seconds of friendship with an enemy soldier over some trivial thing, before she inevitably killed him.
  • Mind Screw: Orual initially believes that Istra is only playing a childhood game of pretend with her when she shows Orual around her mountain "palace," before concluding that her sister has gone insane. Then she has a double-mindscrew when she realizes the palace was real and she simply lacked the ability to see it.
  • My Beloved Smother: Orual takes on the role of Istra's dead mother, but as a young girl, lacks the maturity or honesty to realize that she doesn't always know what's best for her. In fact, what Orual most wants is often the worst thing for Istra and herself, like when she stabs her arm and threatens to commit suicide in order to force Istra to betray her divine husband.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Orual, after Istra is exiled from the Mountain.
  • Mysterious Veil: Orual's most noticeable wardrobe piece is a veil that covers her entire face, starting a number of rumors as to what she looks like underneath.
  • One of the Boys: Orual becomes this. She's not trying to appear more masculine, but her ugliness makes it hard for Glomish men to perceive her as a woman, and so they treat her more like a man. When she takes her veil people at least start to acknowledge her as a queen, but old acquaintances like Bardia still treat her more like they would a younger male relative than a woman. Orual has... mixed feelings about all this.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: The Fox is simply the Fox for nearly the entire novel, and is only once referred to by his real name, Lysias.
  • Our Gods Are Different: The novels presents the theologies of Greece and Glome before hinting at the truth about the gods:
    • In the Greeklands, the people recognize a single, abstract Divine Nature who controls providence and exists outside of physical reality. This makes the Divine Nature impersonal, so the Greek known as Fox scoffs at intercessory prayer and idol worship as baseless superstitions. Some of Glome's priests come around to Fox's views, but non-intellectuals have no need for such a safe and uninvolved god.
    • In Glome, the people worship and fear an obsidian rock that they call Ungit, a Love Goddess and mother of the divine Shadowbrute. The gods are associated with darkness, the rotting smell of their sacrificial lambs, and the plagues they send to punish blasphemous mortals they know as the Accursed. This person is devoured and/or married to the Brute in a ritual like a Human Sacrifice. Bardia and most of the characters find these gods real as air, far more than any type of "Divine Nature."
    • If she isn't an Unreliable Narrator, Orual has a personal encounter with the god of the Grey Mountain. As a pagan of Glome would know, the god is violent enough to flatten a forest and so radically present as to make everything else in reality seem like a dream. Yet, he (or maybe He) may be the God known to Greek philosophy, as the god is benevolent enough to love Psyche more than her foster mother, metaphysical enough that Orual cannot see if he has a shape, and omnipotent enough to change the past at will.
  • Outgrown Such Silly Superstitions: The Fox paints Greek society as the Classical Era equivalent, and makes it a point that the Greek philosophers of his time have a much less mystical understanding of the gods than the people of Glome. He doesn't exactly disbelieve, but he equates the gods with natural forces, and discourages Orual from anthropomorphizing them. Subverted in the end.
  • Out-of-Clothes Experience: Orual is stripped naked when she appears before the tribunal of gods to read her complaint, since the gods see her true self and she can have nothing to hide behind.
  • Overly Narrow Superlative: When listing her achievements as queen, Orual takes pride in having built the library of Glome, "what was, for a barbarous land, a noble library—eighteen works in all."
  • Painting the Medium: The last paragraph of the book is in italics, signifying that it's written in a different hand than the rest of the book, namely that of Arnom. He 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 Philosopher: The Fox, literally.
  • Plucky Girl: Istra.
  • Promotion to Parent: Istra's mother died in childbirth, and their father does not care for any of his daughters, so Orual comes to see herself as Istra's mother.
  • Rage Against the Heavens: Orual's intent in writing the book.
  • Reality Warper: Orual realizes that the gods are so far above humanity that to behold them is to see them as the only real, true thing, while their presence makes the rest of reality looks like a dream.
  • Right for the Wrong Reasons: The people from a neighboring country describe Orual as ruining her sister’s life out of envy. They turn out to be right, but they believe that Orual was envious of her sister due to her good fortune when in reality Orual was jealous of the God of the Mountain for enjoying her sister’s love.
  • Scary Amoral Religion: The cult of Ungit.
  • Scary Scarecrows: The Queen's battle-veil covers her whole face and makes her look like a walking scarecrow with human eyes and a sword. Even her best soldiers are put off-guard when they see the veil at first and it gives her an edge when dueling with a cowardly prince.
  • Scary Shadow Fakeout: Discussed. The high priests of Ungit believe the Shadowbrute has come to the kingdom because a shepherd reported seeing an enormous shadow on the mountain in the light of his torch. The Fox points out that if the shepherd was shining a torch at night, then well of course there would be a shadow behind it, so it's not reasonable to believe it was divine interference.
  • Secretly Selfish: Orual convinces herself she is trying to separate Psyche from her husband for her own good out of love, but realizes over time how self-serving her love could be for her as well as other people like Bardia.
  • Self-Serving Memory: By the time we get to part two of her book, Orual sees that the book up till that point was incredibly biased. It was by recounting these events that she was able to admit it.
  • Slave Liberation: Orual did quite a bit, starting with the Fox. Appropriately for her time, she never regards slavery as a bad thing; rather, she thinks it's just (and prudent) for a good mistress to give freedom as a reward to faithful and hard-working slaves, and she expects (and receives) gratitude in return.
  • Smite Me, O Mighty Smiter: The Book.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: Orual and the married Bardia, though Bardia only really sees Orual as a comrade-in-arms.
  • Stay in the Kitchen: The King of Glome hits Orual during an argument. Later he feels remorseful about it, but he puts the blame on his daughter, stating she should refrain herself from meddling in masculine matters such as politics. Ironically, Orual ends inheriting the throne of Glome.
  • The Stoic: The Fox, being a philosophic Stoic, aspires to this.
  • Take That!: When she realizes she has been portrayed as a jealous villain in the legend of Psyche and Cupid, Orual sets down the true story to show the world that she did everything out of love. Writing her version of events makes her examine her true motives.
  • Tempting Fate: When the Fox declares Istra is "prettier than Andromeda, prettier than Helen, prettier than Aphrodite herself", Orual warily reminds him that, according his own legends, that kind of language is very unwise. The Fox disregards it as silly tales, but Orual feels a sudden chill.
  • Time Master: Orual's experience makes her suspect the poets were lying when they said the gods couldn't change the past. It may be her own wishful thinking, but Orual believes the god of the Grey Mountain changed her history so that she always knew he was a true god.
  • Title Drop: "How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?" The title was chosen from this passage after the fact. Lewis originally wanted to call the book Bareface, but this was vetoed by his publisher on the grounds that it sounded too much like a Western. note 
  • Tough Leader Façade: Orual, both literally and figuratively. She hides her face to conceal her ugliness, which has the unintended side-effect of making her seem mysterious and powerful, which gives her greater authority as queen. But she also feels that underneath her queenly persona, she's still the same ugly, sad, greedy, and desperately lonely person she was when she was growing up.
  • 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.
  • Tragic Mistake: Convincing Istra to disobey her husband.
  • Underestimating Badassery: Prince Argan begins his battle with the Queen by lazily flailing his sword at her, assuming a veiled woman would fall quickly in combat. His estimation allows the Queen to cut the skin clean off his knuckles and press the offensive against him, which hurts him enough to take the duel seriously.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Orual realizes she is one after finishing the first half of the book, when she realizes she's been blinded by her grief and jealousy to the point that she can't even admit the truth to herself.
  • The Victim Must Be Confused: Istra/Psyche claims to have been rescued from her intended Human Sacrifice by the god of the mountain and lives in a palace with him, but her sister Orual, who is unable to see the supposed palace at all, is convinced she is delusional and being manipulated by some unscrupulous person - or else under the thrall of an evil god rather than a good one. Orual realizes far too late that a lot of her motivation to rescue her sister was about wanting to keep her for herself and seeing her as a child without autonomy.
  • Virgin Sacrifice: Istra, the embodiment of beauty and purity, must be sacrificed to the goddess Ungit.
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: Orual comes to realize that the Fox and Bardia are actually this.
  • Warrior Princess: The Queen of Glome is a sword-fighting prodigy who trains ceaselessly with her top guard to become a master. She makes a show of her expertise when she kills a warrior king in a duel for the throne. She continues to lead her men on the front line, and despite not doing many great deeds after her first duel, the people of Glome exaggerate her deeds so that she is known as one of the greatest warriors in the country's history.
  • 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.

  • World's Most Beautiful Woman: Istra/Psyche starts off as the most beautiful infant in the world and is described as "at every age the perfect beauty of that age," implying that no matter how old she is, she is the most perfect example of that stage of development. This causes problems when she receives praise as "prettier than Aphrodite herself."
  • You Can't Go Home Again: Invoked by the Fox as he chooses to stay with Orual rather than return to the Greeklands, claiming things would be too changed there since he was taken as a slave. What he wanted was for Orual to explicitly permit him to leave. She never does, and he dies in Glome.