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"Are the gods not just?"
Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold is CS 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.
- All Take and No Give: Orual is the Giver.
- 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 Boast: 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."
- Body Motifs: Faces and masks are a recurring theme.
- Beauty Equals Goodness, subverted
- Celibate Hero: Orual, appropriately enough, given her antagonism to the local love deities.
- Combat by Champion: Argan, prince of Phars, versus Orual, over the freedom of Argan's brother and rival, Trunia.
- Crossover Cosmology: Implied in the final chapters. (Not to the characters themselves, it should be noted. Modern readers, however, may be able to discern the connections.)
- Death by Childbirth: Istra/Psyche's mother.
- Demythtification: initially.
- The Ditz: Orual's other sister, Redival.
- 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 Stoic 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.)
- The Faceless: Orual in her mask.
- Fairest of Them All: Aphrodite's jealousy of Psyche.
- Green-Eyed Monster: Ungit demands Istra be sacrificed for being more beautiful than her. Also, Orual herself, as she realizes at the end.
- Groin Attack: A young soldier, Tarin, flirts with Orual's sister Redival, so the King has him made into a eunuch.
- 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.
- Heir Club for Men: The King's anger at having no male heirs is a source of much tension.
- 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.
- It Gets Easier: Bardia has Orual slaughter a pig in order to prepare her for killing Argan.
- 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.
- Lady of War: Orual.
- Legend Fades to Myth: Orual lives long enough to see her sister's life become the Eros and Psyche myth.
- 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 befriend an enemy soldier for a few brief seconds before killing him.
- My Beloved Smother: Orual, to Istra.
- 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.
- Painting the Fourth Wall: 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 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.
- Self-Serving Memory: Pretty much the entire first part of the book.
- Smite Me Oh Mighty Smiter: Ditto.
- Star-Crossed Lovers: Orual and the married Bardia.
- Title Drop: "How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?"
- The Unfavourite: 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.
- Unreliable Narrator: Orual realizes she is one after finishing the first half of the book.
- 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 she's quite pleasant for the short time they know her.
- The Woman Wearing the Queenly Mask: Orual.