Let me introduce you to Orual. Queen Orual. Orual daughter of Glome, Orual the Virgin Queen, Orual the Ugly. Have you met her?
She is C. S. Lewis’s creation (or re-imagining), the hero (or is it villain?) of his superb novel, Till We Have Faces. And what follows is by no means an adequate treatment of her character or of the book.
Let’s just open by saying this is the best story of a maiden woman every told by a bachelor man. Then again, is there any other story so often told, but by the lover in honor of his beloved? Often not written down, of course, but plastered upon the ears of anyone nearby. But I digress into my own opinion on matters not worth opining…
What sort of queen was she? Tormented. Yet her inner struggle interestingly resulted in an outer strength. And a compassion. Yes, I believe it is her strength in the midst of her torment that I most admire. That she continues on and makes her prison a garden for her subjects.
She makes a great character study, in my amateur opinion, but her context must be grasped first, or conjunction, with understanding her. No one would learn much at all of Elizabeth Bennett’s fortitude if one had not know the pressures upon her to marry “well” with the backdrop of her parents’ frivolity.
Queen Orual’s life is no ivory tower. It is real and it is raw. The dirt of Glome slides off the page and the foul stupor of slain sacrifices clogs your nostrils. Two guiding forces flow into the complex well of ideas and feeling that she strives to float in.
A Greek tutor, the Fox, brings to this beyond-Greek small country the thoughts of the rationals. Logic first and foremost. But the blood of the land runs deep, and the call for sacrifice will not be gainsaid. We see this voiced through the priest of Ungit, the fickle mob, and the understated soldier Bardia.
What is the nature of the gods? And what is our nature? Is it all clear waters like the Greek says? Or is blood thicker than water, and the thoughts of the gods unfathomable? These are the crosscurrents that this Queen must navigate.
Can there be a wisdom higher than the philosophers’? A myth deeper than blood calling for blood? Could the true nature of things be not one of these, but a synthesis, over-matching each?
And when we look this quintessence in morning’s light, can we stand bareface?
What does this queen teach us? That even our best deeds, our best days, are nothing but stronger imprints of our own self upon those around us. That loving and devouring is the the same.
Come again? You have a measure of influence. Not using it… is using it. There is no neutral ground. Who you are is inescapable, and no amount of pretty deeds can change it, no more than paint can hide an ill-proportioned face. The solution is not in us…
…yet, it is not far from us.
I had better stop here. My analyses can no more sum up the elemental wonder and subterranean fire that courses through this story than a series of physics vectors cause us to feel the power of a rushing Niagara or chemical equations give us the burn of a match held too long. But if you, like me, have been touched by this book, I have hopes that you will understand.