I am old now and have not much to fear from the anger of gods. I have no husband nor child, nor hardly a friend, through whom they can hurt me. My body, this lean carrion that still has to be washed and fed and have clothes hung about it daily with so many changes, they may kill as soon as they please. The succession is provided for. My crown passes to my nephew.
Being, for all these reasons, free from fear, I will write in this book what no one who has happiness would dare to write. I will accuse the gods, especially the god who lives on the Grey Mountain. That is, I will tell all that he has done to me from the very beginning, as if I were making my complaint of him before a judge. But there is no judge between gods and men, and the god of the mountain will not answer me. Terrors and plagues are not an answer....
Summary: Till We Have Faces is the story of Orual, given the name Maia by her Greek tutor, whose name is Lysias but who is known as the Fox, and Istra, who is given the Greek name Psyche. They and their sister Redival are the daughters of a king in the small barbarian kingdom of Glome. (I suspect that Lewis got the name 'Glome' from Anglo-Saxon glom, 'twilight', which gives us the modern word 'gloam', but this is mere speculation.) Orual and Psyche love each other deeply, although they are very different: Orual is ugly, while Psyche is beautiful. Indeed, Psyche is dangerously beautiful, and some of the people begin to worship her. When Glome falls on terrible times of war, plague, and famine, however, the people turn and, partly through the troublemaking of jealous Redival, she is regarded as the cause of their suffering. The only way to undo the curse that has fallen on Glome is to sacrifice the Princess Istra to Ungit.
Ungit could perhaps be considered the third major female character of the book, since the book is structured entirely by the relation between Orual and Psyche to Ungit. Ungit is the fertility goddess of Glome. She is identified by the Fox as Aphrodite, although more like the Babylonian Aphrodite than the Greek, and when Orual, who later becomes Queen, brings in Greek ways, a statue of Aphrodite is set up in the House of Ungit. But she is a very barbarian goddess, represented by a lump of stone in the House of Ungit on which the priests make sacrifices, and when the people think she needs to be appeased, they sacrifice a man or a woman to her. Ungit in the myths of Glome has a son (sometimes represented instead as a husband), the Shadowbrute, or Brute, and Psyche is to be taken up on the Grey Mountain and sacrificed to the Brute, to become his wife. Orual, of course, is unable to do anything about it, but she goes afterward in the hope of burying Psyche's body. Instead she finds something else entirely, the foundation of her complaint against the gods. But what occasions her to write is a journey years later when she comes upon a little shrine dedicated to a goddess, and, asking the priest whose shrine it was learns that it was dedicated to the goddess Istra. When he tells the sacred story associated with the goddess Istra, however, Orual is furious: because it is a story of Orual and Psyche, but it is not her story. She resolves to write the true story and throw the lies and half-truths of the sacred stories back in the face of the gods, making her complaint against their injustice. And this is the book we have.
Glome is a fictional land supposedly well north of Greece, in an area in which there are many barbarian kingdoms. However, and very interestingly, the story can be dated with a fair degree of probability, allowing for literary license. The upper limit for it Apuleius's Metamorphoses. It is clearly implied that the Cupid and Psyche story in the Metamorphoses is based indirectly on Orual's book; she is writing for an unknown Greek, and the novel ends with arrangments to send the book to Greece. We don't know at what stage in life Apuleius wrote the Metamorphoses, but he died about AD 180. Apuleius wrote in Latin, but claimed to be adapting an earlier Greek text by someone named Lucian, and so Orual's book somehow is adapted by Lucian and then by Apuleius. This puts things more or less around the end of the first century at the latest. This can be confirmed in other ways. The Fox, who becomes the tutor of Orual and Psyche, is a Stoic philosopher who has been captured in war and sold into slavery and by that means come to Glome. He is very definitely Stoic, because almost everything he says is standard Stoicism -- this book would be a fairly easy way to introduce the topic of Stoic philosophy. And at one point, Psyche, in the course of describing the Fox's teaching, gives what is in fact a close paraphrase of the opening of Book II of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. Marcus Aurelius is a nearly exact contemporary of Apuleius, since he also died in AD 180 and we know that the Meditations were more or less composed in the last decade of his life. It is not, of course, plausible that Lewis is suggesting Marcus Aurelius as the source of the Fox's teaching, but it is entirely plausible to suggest a common influence. The Emperor was only writing a sort of philosophical notebook for himself, and often quotes and borrows from other authors in various ways. If one assumed that Marcus Aurelius was quoting or alluding to someone, then, one would take the Fox and the Emperor as having a common link somewhere.
In any case, while details do not matter, this is actually somewhat relevant, for in the Roman Empire, too, there was in this period a contrast like that which we find in Glome: the rationalist Stoics looking down on pagan sacrifices, and it was the Stoics who first came into sharp conflict with Christianity. (Both Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius criticize the Christians as fanatics, and Marcus Aurelius launched one of the major persecutions of Christians.) Like any good Stoic, the Fox understands the importance of civil religion; but he has no grasp of the sheer power of Ungit, and this is a severe defect in his otherwise excellent teaching. One of the more notable scenes in the book occurs when Orual is waiting in the House of Ungit to preside over a festival and she watches a peasant woman praying to the bloody stone that represents Ungit. Orual asks her whether she always prays to that Ungit rather than the Aphrodite-Ungit done in beautiful Greek style. And the woman replies that she does, because the other Ungit, the Greek one, wouldn't understand her speech, since she is the goddess only of scholars and the upper class of Glome society. It is an irony; the cosmopolitan goddess of the Stoics does not speak at so fundamental a level as the barbarian goddess who is worshipped with blood and sex, because sex and death are the matter of human life, and a goddess who can speak to ordinary people, and who can understand their speech, must be a goddess who understands sex and death. One can have both, but the people of Glome have no way of unifying them, only of putting them side by side; and part of Orual's difficulty is that she straddles both sides of the divide.
Orual herself is an interesting figure, a barbarian student of Greek philosophy. She begins to veil herself, and finds that hiding her face gives her power. She consolidates her throne by killing a man in sword combat. She rules wisely and well, bringing great peace, but her rule is her own way of running from a past she does not want to face. She hates Ungit, but comes to realize in the end that she is a sort of Ungit herself. And she is you and me. For we too hide our faces behind veils, and we too do not speak our hearts, but justify ourselves with half-truths, seeking to do good and yet somehow devouring others. And we too are constantly failing to understand that we cannot see the gods until we are able to live barefaced.
...Now I knew that she was a goddess indeed. Her hands burned me (a painless burning) when they met mine. The air that came from her clothes and limbs and hair was wild and sweet; youth seemed to come into my breast as I breathed it in. And yet (this is hard to say) with all this, even because of all this, she was the old Psyche still; a thousand times more her very self than she had been before the Offering. For all that had then but flashed out in a glance or a gesture, all that one meant most when one spoke her name, was now wholly present, not to be gathered up from hints nor in shreds, not some of it in one moment and some in another. Goddess? I had never seen a real woman before.
Recommendation: It takes a particular taste, but it sails deep waters without being a murky book. Highly recommended.