Welcome to Week 7 of our discussion of C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces! As we consider the events of Chapters 16-18, I’m looking forward to another opportunity to hear your insights into this unfolding drama.
Once again, Orual creeps back into the palace unseen, but after this catastrophic encounter with Psyche, it is The Fox she is avoiding, as well as her father the King, for she is ashamed of her dealings with her sister. When questioned by the Fox, she tries to reframe the wrath of the god of Grey Mountain as a natural disaster — rather than the supernatural disaster that it actually was.
Orual’s life begins to be lived on two levels: on the one, a dogged determination to anesthetize all thoughts and reminders of her lost sister; and on the other, a realization that she has been “doomed to live,” but has the displeasure of the gods hanging over her along with her grief and loss.
When the King is fatally injured in a fall, Orual suddenly becomes Queen, mostly out of political expediency and practical collusion between the palace and the House of Ungit to keep the peace, but she finds that she can “queen it with the best of them.” To establish her position on the throne and in the hearts of her people — and to fix a very tangled foreign policy issue — Orual challenges Argan, the sitting ruler of Glome’s long-time enemy nation of Phars, to a duel of swords.
As I read Orual’s progressive absorption (and disappearance) into the role of The Queen, two major themes kept surfacing:
The Nature of Love
We’ve already begun to get a glimpse of Orual’s definition of love in her dealings with Psyche on the bank of the River. Coercion, emotional blackmail, and insistence on complete agreement are all part of the sick package, and upon her return to the palace, Orual learns that The Fox, with all his rational talk, is more equipped to demonstrate true love than she. When it becomes apparent that she is withholding information about her dealings with Psyche, he refuses to jeopardize their relationship by forcing her to divulge her secret. Later, he apologizes for his own emotional outburst that accompanied his efforts to convince her not to challenge Argan, and, then, ironically, succumbs to Orual’s pressure to remain in Glome even after she has freed him from slavery. It appears that C.S. Lewis is holding The Fox up as a mirror to Orual in order to put her true self on display — but she is blind to it. She demonstrates her complete inability to comprehend The Fox’s capacity for love when she sees him seated by her father’s death bed:
“It was not possible he should love his old master.”
She’s forgetting, or course, that her hatred for The King is not necessarily universal, and that her own relationship with The Fox may feel very different from his perspective. This complete inability to enter into the emotions of another person is clear again when she feels only her own joy (and none of his sorrow or ambivalence) when The Fox agrees to stay in Glome rather than returning, free, to his homeland.
Lewis scholar Gilbert Meilaender cites one of Lewis’s poems to demonstrate Lewis’s scorn for those who make others miserable in the guise of “loving” them:
“Erected by her sorrowing brothers
In memory of Martha Clay:
Here lies one who lived for others;
Now she has peace. And so have they.”
In a 1957 letter to Clyde Kilby (another Lewis scholar and professor of English at Wheaton), Lewis said that Orual is an example of “human affection in its natural condition, true, tender, suffering, but in the long run tyrannically possessive and ready to turn to hatred when the beloved ceases to be its possession.”
The Purpose of the Veil
It is not until page 180 that Orual confesses her resolve to go through life wearing a veil, but, to the reader, it is apparent that Orual has been in hiding for some time. There is evidence for this in her actions and reactions:
- Her attempt to avoid contact with The Fox (177) and the fact that she never does actually disclose the entire story to him (and even less to Bardia). Her barriers of secrecy and silence cost her the comfort she had formerly found in the relationship with her old tutor.
- Her literal closing of the door to Psyche’s room and the figurative closing of her mind behind an equally well-sealed door that refused to think of Psyche or to hear her name.
- All the grief of her loss of Psyche is barricaded behind a dam, a barrier that serves her well as long as nothing triggers the anguish, but which has to be carefully maintained by the distraction of work and then meticulously rebuilt after every episode of “weeping and writhing.” (184, 189) Joe R. Christopher writes about a difference in tone in this section of the story. Orual has “no religious visions” and she “works without hope . . . so that she may forget what she has done to Psyche and may forget the god which appeared to her then.”
Orual first wears the veil when she traveled to the Holy Tree so that she would not be recognized. Her decision to be perpetually veiled is symbolic of her desire to be continually hidden, to be swallowed up in the duties and the identity of The Queen, presenting an outward appearance of decisive composure while grieving and bitter behind the mask.
Without pressing the point or making more of it than Lewis intended or the text supports, I think of Orual whenever I read Paul’s discourse on Moses’ veil in II Corinthians 3. Moses’ understanding of the ultimate significance of the Old Covenant was, at best, veiled and shadowy (I Peter 1:10, 11), and the Israelites’ veiled hearts were a symbol of unbelief. The believer, on the other hand, is privileged with unimpaired spiritual perception: the ability to see the glory of God revealed in Christ, an unobstructed view. Eugene Peterson masterfully describes this in the Message:
“With that kind of hope to excite us, nothing holds us back. Unlike Moses, we have nothing to hide. Everything is out in the open with us.”
. . . or, at least it can be if we are willing to take the risk.
Whether or not Moses’ veil proves to be a helpful metaphor, Orual reminds me that the believer comes before God unveiled, and she warns me of the dangers of damming up emotions, slamming the door on things I’d rather not deal with, and working hard to project an image that does not line up the the “me” that lives and breathes (and fails and falters) on this broken ground.
Some Issues to Ponder
If the lover is not healthy, neither is the love.
Orual’s story is a cautionary tale for all of us, but particularly, I think, for those of us who are mothers. Open-handed love is so hard to practice when those precious people begin to make decisions on their own.
When Bardia describes Orual’s decision to challenge Argan as “something out of an old song,” did anyone else think of Peter’s challenge of Miraz in Prince Caspian? I love the “old songs” that I remember from the land of Narnia.
How are you feeling about Orual these days? She is such a bundle of strengths and weakness, leveraging the psychological value of her veil to appear powerful, and yet reduced to a puddle of grief at the mere sound of the chains on a well blowing in the wind — because they sound like Psyche’s wails.
Be sure to share your insights on these and ANY topics that have come to mind in your reading so far. Again, I’ll remind you that you are welcome to share links to entire blog posts if you have the time and inclination to write them — we’d all love to know what you’re thinking, and I know that my understanding and appreciation for the text is enhanced each week when I read the thoughts of other readers.
Next Thursday (February 23rd), I’ll be here having read Chapters 19-21. That will take us to the end of Section I!
Thank you for making this experience so fruitful and fun!
Bright Shadow of Reality: C.S. Lewis and the Feeling Intellect. Corbin Scott
The Longing for a Form. Essays on the Fiction of C.S. Lewis. Peter J. Schakel, editor.
The Taste for the Other. The Social and Ethical Thoughts of C.S. Lewis. Gilbert Meilaender.
In case you missed last week’s post, click here to catch up!
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