Till We Have Faces

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Till We Have Faces Part 1: Chapter 1 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The narrator says that she is old and alone and does not fear what the gods can do to her. Her nephew is the heir to her throne. Since all is secure, she plans to write an accusation against the gods, telling the story of everything they have done to her. However, she expects no answer from them. She is writing in Greek so that someday a traveler from the “Greeklands” might bring the story to his people, who could have some insight into it.
From the outset, Orual speaks bitterly of the gods, setting up a relationship of mutual dislike. She feels that she has nothing left to lose at this point in her life. Even though she doesn’t expect that the gods will answer her complaint, she seems to anticipate some sense of justice simply from the act of writing her story. Furthermore, she implies that she rules as queen in her land.
Themes
Earthly vs. Divine Theme Icon
Justice Theme Icon
The writer is Orual, the daughter of the King of Glome. The city of Glome lies on the river Shennit, and near the city is the temple of Ungit. Beyond the temple rises the Grey Mountain. The god of the Grey Mountain is the son of Ungit, and he hates Orual (so Orual says). Ungit, a goddess represented by a faceless black stone, lives in her temple. Orual’s old teacher, the Fox, told her that Ungit was the same goddess as the Greeks’ Aphrodite.
Orual’s description of Glome establishes it as a fantastical world with connections to ancient Greece. The Fox’s equation of Ungit with Aphrodite might lead readers to expect a beautiful, seductive goddess of love, but ironically, Ungit is nothing more than a chunk of uncut rock. The reader might also wonder what leads Orual to claim the hatred of a god in such certain terms.
Themes
Love and Devouring Theme Icon
Earthly vs. Divine Theme Icon
Beauty vs. Ugliness Theme Icon
Orual begins her story with the day her mother died. According to custom, Orual’s nurse, Batta, cuts off Orual’s hair as well as her sister Redival’s. They are outside the palace, and slave women stand around, mourning the Queen and talking. They regret that Redival’s beautiful hair must be cut, but make no such remark about Orual’s. Orual likes the feel of her bare head as she and Redival play that afternoon.
The story begins with a sorrowful occasion, setting the tone for the rest of the book. Even as a young child, Orual feels the effects of her ugliness and notices that people treat her beautiful sister differently. However, she isn’t yet aware that she’s ugly or that she has reason to be sad; instead, she can take pleasure in the same physical change that marks her mourning.
Themes
Jealousy Theme Icon
Beauty vs. Ugliness Theme Icon
The princesses’ nurse, Batta, is a rough slave woman. She warns that as soon as the King marries a stepmother for Orual and Redival, their lives will become much harder. One day, the girls are trying to slide on ice in the yard of the palace when Batta calls them inside to the King. She won’t tell them who’s come, but promises them lots of beatings and hard work in the future.
Between the death of Orual’s mother and the cruel temperament of their nurse, it becomes clear that Orual and Redival’s childhood has not been particularly pleasant up to this point. Batta seems to take pleasure in imagining the girls’ potential pain, even though she has little reason to believe it will come.
Themes
Love and Devouring Theme Icon
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In the King’s Pillar Room, Orual finds traders just packing up. They’ve sold the King a slave, a red-haired Greek man. The King tells him that once he has a prince, this man will teach him, and in the meantime, he can practice his teaching on Orual and Redival. The King says that the man should make Orual wise, since she won’t be good for anything else. Orual doesn’t understand, but she’s heard many similar things said about her.
This initial view of the King confirms Orual’s unpleasant family life and gives a good sense of his overall personality. He doesn’t value Orual and Redival highly enough to educate them for their own benefit—the slave is really intended to teach the son that the King so confidently anticipates despite the fact that he isn’t even married at the moment. Furthermore, the King never hesitates to insult Orual’s appearance.
Themes
Love and Devouring Theme Icon
Beauty vs. Ugliness Theme Icon
Before long, Orual loves her teacher, known as the Fox, more than anyone else in her life. Considering that he was captured and sold as a slave, he stays far more cheerful than Orual expected. He keeps himself happy with wise sayings and curiosity, and he learns all about the land of Glome. Orual tells him about Ungit and the sacrifices that the people make to her, including human sacrifices in bad years. The Fox tells Orual that Ungit corresponds to Aphrodite.
The Fox acts as the loving family that Orual doesn’t have. He also seems to understand something of the cruelty of love, as he recognizes human sacrifice as a necessary offering to both Ungit and Aphrodite. Since Orual’s description of Ungit makes her seem a frightening goddess, her supposed similarity to Aphrodite may come as unexpected to readers who know Aphrodite only as the goddess of love.
Themes
Love and Devouring Theme Icon
Earthly vs. Divine Theme Icon
The Fox tells a Greek story of Aphrodite. The goddess fell in love with the prince Anchises, a shepherd. As she approached him, animals came to Aphrodite and left in pairs to mate. She made herself appear like a mortal woman and seduced Anchises. When Anchises woke and saw Aphrodite in her true form, he asked her to kill him. The Fox assures Orual that the story isn’t real, but even so, Orual perceives that the Greeks’ Aphrodite is just as terrible as Glome’s Ungit.
The Fox’s story illuminates the dangerous power of the gods, and of love. Aphrodite doesn’t hesitate to trick Anchises for her own benefit. Furthermore, Anchises’ reaction upon realizing what’s happened is telling. He knows that humans often run into awful trouble when they get too involved with the affairs of the gods. He’d rather die immediately than suffer the consequences of sleeping with Aphrodite.
Themes
Love and Devouring Theme Icon
Earthly vs. Divine Theme Icon
The Fox is ashamed that he loves poetry, thinking it foolishness, but Orual works hard at philosophy to get the Fox to teach her poetry. He likes her more than he likes Redival, who is unkind and not interested in studying.
Poetry and philosophy come to represent an acceptance of the mysteries of religious life versus a stoic atheism that relies on the facts of nature. The Fox isn’t inclined to teach Orual about emotions or anything similarly vague, which he will later regret.
Themes
Earthly vs. Divine Theme Icon
The sisters and the Fox usually work behind some pear trees. One day the King finds them there and announces that there will soon be a prince for the Fox to teach. He congratulates the Fox on having the chance to influence such an important person and insults the Greeklings. The Fox suggests that people are equal across lands, but the King rejects this idea.
At this point, all seems to be going well for the King. He’s quite powerful and has no reason to accept any philosophy, such as the Fox’s Greek Stoicism, that says other people are equal to him. The Fox’s cosmopolitanism seems far too radical for barbaric Glome.
Themes
Justice Theme Icon
The King has become engaged to a princess of Caphad, a powerful kingdom. The fact that the king of Caphad seeks a marriage with a poor kingdom such as Glome shows that Caphad is in trouble, but the King ignores this. There are grand preparations for the wedding, including a new royal bed that is supposed to bring about male heirs. As the day approaches, animals are slaughtered and cooking begins.
It begins to become evident that the King isn’t a great ruler, since he ignores the warning signs of problems in order to satisfy his burning desire for a wife and a son. His need for a son seems almost obsessive, as he’s willing to try anything to get one. This preoccupation undoubtedly influences Orual’s sense of self-worth, since she’s not good enough for her father.
Themes
Love and Devouring Theme Icon
The King decides that the Fox must teach Orual, Redival, and other noble girls to sing a Greek bridal hymn, even though none of them speak Greek. As they’re learning, the King brings the Priest of Ungit to hear the song. Orual is frightened by the smell of the Priest, a holy smell of the bodily fluids involved in sacrifice. She associates the smell with Ungit. The Priest also wears an alarming bird’s head mask on his chest. The Priest asks whether the girls will wear veils, and the King assures him that they will, particularly to hide Orual’s face. Finally, Orual understands that she is ugly.
Beginning with this description of the priest, Orual consistently uses the word “holy” to describe the disgusting smells, shadowy darkness, and frightening mysteries that she associates with the gods. As “holy” is usually seen as a positive word, her negative take on it represents the stark differences between Glome’s barbaric religion and modern Christianity. Additionally, this scene marks the beginning of Orual’s consciousness of her ugliness, which makes her feel she will never be loved.
Themes
Love and Devouring Theme Icon
Self-understanding Theme Icon
Earthly vs. Divine Theme Icon
Beauty vs. Ugliness Theme Icon
Orual worries that her stepmother will be particularly cruel to her because of her ugliness. When the wedding comes and she’s singing the Greek hymn, she can only think of all the stories she’s been told of evil stepmothers. The bride is small and veiled. When the wedding party enters the wedding chamber and the bride takes off the veil, Orual sees that the new queen is terrified. She realizes how frightening her father looks. The girls take off the new Queen’s clothing and leave her in the bed.
As soon as Orual becomes aware of her ugliness, she begins to fear others’ hatred of her as a result, showing that her appearance affects her deeply. Orual first sees the power of a veil here. As long as her stepmother is veiled, she seems forbidding, but Orual learns that the veil conceals only the woman’s own terror. Furthermore, this wedding night can only leave Orual a negative impression of sexual relations, which might make her fear more for Psyche when she goes to the Mountain.
Themes
Love and Devouring Theme Icon
Beauty vs. Ugliness Theme Icon