Basics of the Lawcourt for Writers (Part I): Why You Should Care About Lawcourt Imagery

Our first parents prematurely bit off the knowledge of good and evil.  As a consequence their children have been quarreling ever since.  Adam and Eve begat a brood of lawyers.

Yet the essential unity of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the fact that the tree was a good gift of God, appears in that, in nearly all quarrels, the disputants will appeal to an at least roughly agreed-upon standard in making their arguments.  This is what gives the vast majority of quarrels the shape of a case at law.  (The fact that the parties may – and in almost all cases will – resolve disputes between themselves doesn’t alter that.  It means their case settled.)

It follows that a good writer really can’t write a good story without entering, on some level, the world of legal disputation.  Even if you’ve no intention of following in the footsteps of John Grisham, Judge John D. Voelker,[1] or the writers of Matlock or Legally Blond, you’re going to be borrowing language and images from the lawcourt.  The only question is whether you’ll do it well or poorly.

The importance of a good grasp of legal images and categories in a story

Does that sound overstated?  Do you think a working knowledge of the lawcourt and its images and modes of discourse is useful or necessary only if you’re writing a story about a court case?

Consider the Old Testament book of Job and C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces.  These two stories operate entirely within a lawcourt framework.  The sophistication of the legal imagery in these two stories is quite extraordinary, as the writers develop and exploit (by turns for ironic, comedic, or dramatic effect) various confusions about who the parties to the proceedings are, what the cases are actually about, and who might be competent to hear them.

In Job, for instance, the author brilliantly creates a disjunction between the readers’ knowledge and the characters’ ignorance of the heavenly court proceedings in the prologue.  As a result, Job’s three friends spend the middle of the book prosecuting Job for imagined transgressions, absolutely different in kind from the offense alleged in Satan’s indictment.  Job, meanwhile, mostly ignores his three friends and takes his case directly to God – agonizing, though, that he doesn’t have his adversary’s indictment and that there is no arbiter (how could there be?) between himself and his God.  These confusions have to be resolved before final judgment can be rendered.

In Till We Have Faces, the heroine Orual faces similar difficulties in accusing the gods – “especially the god who lives of the Grey Mountain” – of treating her unjustly.  But she also thinks “there is no judge between gods and men,” and rues the fact that “the god of the mountain will not answer me” – before adding, bitterly: “Terrors and plagues are not an answer.”[2]

In truth, brilliant as the two books are, neither Job nor Till We Have Faces is particularly unusual in operating within the framework of the lawcourt.  Magnificent courtroom scenes abound all through Moses, the Psalms and the Prophets.  Throughout the four gospels Jesus appears as a bold, imaginative, and daring advocate, putting down the kinds of pedantic and fussy bean counters who give lawyers a bad name. And St Paul’s epistle to the Romans is an extraordinarily complex legal argument in which God appears at various turns, now on the bench, now in the dock.

And the pervasiveness of lawcourt language remains pretty unaffected when you move from literature to everyday conversation.  Take the following quotes, which you might hear anywhere, in Lynchburg or London, Archenland or Bree:

“Ow, that hurt!”

“But you agreed.”

“But Ron, I relied on what you’d told me! I can’t believe you’d take me in like that.”

“You can’t sit there. That’s my seat.”

“Jack, you owe me ten bucks.”

The first is a cause of action for battery; the second, for breach of contract; the third, for fraud; the fourth, for trespass; and the fifth is an action on an account.

And hardly anyone responding to the foregoing would likely reply with a shrug and a blasé “whatever.”  More likely the responses would be more like these:

“Well, you pushed me first!”  (Self-defense)

“I can’t believe you’re bringing that up. That was two years ago!” (Statute of limitations)

Mr. Kettle said, “Oh, you’re one to talk, Mr. Pot.” (Unclean hands)

“That would have been a good point – then. But now things are different old boy.” (Laches)

“Honey, we’ve already fully discussed this, and decided that . . .” (Res judicata)

“You told me five quid would cover it. I gave you the five quid.” (Accord and satisfaction)

“So you say – now. But on Monday you said the exact opposite.” (Judicial estoppel)

“I don’t see any reason we should talk about this with Dad.” (Plea of lack of jurisdiction)

All of that is introduction, to establish the importance and the pervasiveness of lawcourt language in literature and life.  But this raises a question: If lawcourt language and images are this common, how do we as storytellers reflect this and make good use of it?  That’s the focus of the rest of this series, which will take two further installments.  And the next will focus on three important questions that come into play in any legal dispute:

(1) Who are the parties?

(2) What are they saying?

(3) Who has the authority to decide the dispute?


[1] Author of Anatomy of a Murder (1958), whose 1959 screen adaptation of the same name is one of the greatest courtroom films ever made.

[2] C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces

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Posted on July 15, 2011, in C. S. Lewis, Christianity, David Mitchel, Educational Resources, Guest Bloggers, Lawcourt, Literary Criticism, Writing Hints and Helps and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I’ve always been rather fond of books that take a direct address of the author to the readers and try to justify his or her actions throughout the course of the book, as if presenting a case as well as telling a tale. I read one particular series of books about a girl who was being forced to write down her experiences at the supposedly benign “request” of the government and she was none too thrilled, which made for many snarky passive aggressive comments directed toward said officials, as well as countless justifications of herself as the books went along. It adds a great flavor to a narrative.

  2. Melissa: Yes. There is a close relationship between point of view and who ends up playing what roles in the lawcourt that the author sets up. The narrator arguing her case to the reader does add great flavor — and it also offers particular depth of insight into character. The facts that the character includes in such a narrative — and especially facts that they *exclude*, but which eventually come out anyway — speak volumes. That is, by the way, exactly the way C. S. Lewis structured _Till We Have Faces_.

  3. Great points, David! You’re very right that lawcourt language comes up in even common conversation, and can be used consciously for great effect in a story.

    I was confused for a moment, however, with your first set of examples- I was reading it as a dialogue! It sort of makes sense, one seemingly leading into the other, and so I was sitting here trying to understand it.

  1. Pingback: The Lawcourt for Writers (Part 2): Parties, Pleadings, Jurisdiction « While We're Paused

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