The Lawcourt for Writers (Part 2): Parties, Pleadings, Jurisdiction

The Lawcourt for Writers (Part 2): Parties, Pleadings, Jurisdiction

Guest Post Contributed by David Mitchel
Having briefly explored the significance and pervasiveness of lawcourt imagery in literature, I may now begin to explore how it works in actual practice.

Take the following passage, from the first chapter of one of the great novels of the twentieth century:

                . . . 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, will tell all 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. I write in Greek as my old master taught it to me. It may some day happen that a traveller from the Greeklands will again lodge in this palace and read the book. Then he will talk of it among the Greeks, where there is great freedom of speech even about the gods themselves. Perhaps their wise men will know whether my complaint is right or whether the god could have defended himself if he had made an answer.[1]

Thus C. S. Lewis begins Till We Have Faces.  In the opening he sets in place the entire structure for the book – and in structure it is a lawcourt proceeding. So let’s take it apart a bit.

I.  Parties: In the beginning was the plaintiff.  And the plaintiff said, “May it please the Court, the defendant is a scoundrel . . .”

Foundational to any legal proceeding are the parties. In a basic proceeding these will be two: the plaintiff[2] and the defendant.

In Till We Have Faces the narrator – Orual, Queen of Glome – is the plaintiff. A plaintiff is someone who has suffered some discrete injury or set of injuries, and initiates the lawcourt proceeding by making a complaint.

The alleged wrongdoers – i.e., the defendants – in Till We Have Faces are the gods, “especially the god who lives on the Grey Mountain.”  The nature of Orual’s alleged injuries at the gods’ hands will follow, in considerable detail.

So the parties to Orual’s case are clear enough, at the outset at least. The identity of the judge to whom Orual is presenting her cause, though – even in Orual’s summary introduction – is hazy.  After hemming and hawing about there being no judges between gods and men, Orual finally names the judges to whom she’d like to present her case: the Greeks. While the introduction to her complaint does not say (as it ought) that the Greeks would properly have jurisdiction over the gods, she at least thinks the Greeks might be impudent enough to judge the gods, without jurisdiction.  The way Orual describes the Greeks – they speak freely enough to pass judgment on gods – presents an interesting temptation to the reader.  Since it is into the reader’s hands, after all, that the book has fallen, it is the reader upon whom Orual calls to judge her cause.  Will the reader be bold enough to don the judge’s robe and put the gods in the dock for her?

II.  Pleadings: “And the defendant answered and said unto the judge . . .”

If the parties are the who of the lawcourt, the pleadings are the what.  That is, the pleadings set forth the substance of the parties’ dispute to the judge.  Again, in a simple proceeding these will be two; their most common names appear in Orual’s introduction. The plaintiff initiates proceedings by stating a complaint, and the defendant’s response is the answer.

a.  The Complaint

The plaintiff’s complaint identifies the people who injured her, states the manner in which they injured her, and asks either that the wrongdoers be made to do something which undoes her injuries, or that the wrongdoers compensate her for the injuries.  The complaint will usually include facts that establish the plaintiff’s standing to sue – for example, that her injury is a distinct injury, not a grievance shared by the world in general, and that she is truly an innocent victim.

In Orual’s case, note how the above elements of the complaint appear:

Now, you who read, judge between the gods and me [identification of parties; invocation of the reader’s jurisdiction]. They gave me nothing in the world to love but Psyche and then took her from me [description of distinct injury]. But that was not enough. They then brought me to her at such a place and time that it hung on my word whether she should continue in bliss or be cast out into misery. They would not tell me whether she was the bride of a god, or mad, or a brute’s or villain’s spoil [description of connection between injury and gods’ wrongdoing]. They would give no clear sign, though I begged for it. I had to guess [establishing Orual’s innocence and, hence, her standing].  And because I guessed wrong they punished me–what’s worse, punished me through her. And even that was not enough; they have now sent out a lying story in which I was given no riddle to guess, but knew and saw that she was the god’s bride, and of my own will destroyed her, and that for jealousy [another alleged injury: defamation of character]. As if I were another Redival [on standing; Orual’s injury is distinct, and she suffered it in innocence, unlike some others]. I say the gods deal very unrightly with us. For they will neither (which would be best of all) go away and leave us to live our own short days to ourselves, nor will they show themselves openly and tell us what they would have us do. For that too would be endurable. But to hint and hover, to draw near us in dreams and oracles, or in a waking vision that vanishes as soon as seen, to be dead silent when we question them and then glide back and whisper (words we cannot understand) in our ears when we most wish to be free of them, and to show to one what they hide from another; what is all this but cat-and-mouse play, blindman’s buff, and mere jugglery [on the gods being culpably wanton and reckless in their dealings with mortals]?[3]

b.  The Answer

The defendant’s answer may take several different tacks. The defendant may deny, straight up, that the plaintiff has suffered the injuries set forth in her complaint. He may concede the injury but deny causing it. He may admit causing it but deny that he caused it either maliciously or negligently – “it was all an unfortunate accident, or misunderstanding; you can’t find fault with someone just because something bad happened.” He may demur[4] to the plaintiff’s complaint, saying, “Judge, even if everything the plaintiff says is true, she still isn’t entitled to what she’s asking you for.” Or he may attack the plaintiff’s standing – “she wasn’t innocent in this connection, you know.” Or he may attack the judge’s jurisdiction – “it isn’t proper for you to hear this dispute.”

Or he may answer nothing at all.  In real lawcourt proceedings, that’d usually put him on the fast track to having a big default judgment hung around his neck, but in literary lawcourts a defendant’s silence in the face of a complaint can be a massively effective response.  It is, in fact, the defendants’ response in Till We Have Faces – and Orual, having begun by hating the gods’ silence, eventually finds herself convicted by it and, ultimately, complacent in it.  Silence in the face of complaints may appear also in the guise of speech about something else.  Again, the defendant who responds to a complaint with “Once upon a time, in a land far, far away . . .” in an actual court of law is usually going to have his answer stricken and suffer the pains of judgment and (probably) contempt of court.  But Sunday’s response to the complaints of the Council of Days at the end of G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday is something like this.  It isn’t silence, but it is in no respect a substantive response to the councilmen’s complaints; he does not engage with them on their grounds.[5]  And ditto for God’s responses to Satan[6] and Job, respectively, in Job.  God does not respond to Satan’s charge that He gets friends only through bribes, nor does He offer any kind of explanation to Job as to why he suffered.

III.  Jurisdiction: And the Judge said unto the plaintiff and the defendant, “Why are you telling me this?”

So, with the parties having appeared and pleaded their cause, the matter gets thrown to the Judge.

But why this Judge?  That’s the question of jurisdiction.

Again, if you’re appearing in court as plaintiff, and either the judge or the defendant asks this, you’d better have a crystal clear answer to that question – unless you’re an atypical plaintiff who enjoys having his complaint dismissed.   But if you’re writing about a mythical, fantastic, or divine lawcourt, the jurisdictional question is probably the best place for you to raise seemingly impenetrable opacities and vexing dilemmas.

So, as we saw earlier, Orual notes a jurisdictional problem immediately in her complaint: “There is no judge between gods and men” – at least not in primitive, pious Glome. In glorious, skeptical Greece there may be hope of finding someone impertinent enough to claim jurisdiction to judge gods – though even Orual doesn’t seem really to believe they have such authority. So when it finally comes time to submit her complaint, Orual glosses over the jurisdictional question entirely, commencing her summary with an imperative – “you who read, judge between the gods and me” – that begs but doesn’t begin to answer the question.  Because she can’t.

Job sees the same unsolvable problem, the same unanswerable question, in his lawcourt:

If I say, ‘I will forget my complaint,

I will put off my sad face, and be of good cheer,’

I become afraid of all my suffering,

for I know you will not hold me innocent.

I shall be condemned;

why then do I labor in vain?

If I wash myself with snow

and cleanse my hands with lye,

yet you will plunge me into a pit,

and my own clothes will abhor me.

For he is not a man, as I am, that I might answer him,

                        that we should come to trial together.

        There is no arbiter between us,

                        who might lay his hand on us both.[7]

So how, then, can causes like these – divine party on one side, mortal on the other – be judged?  And when judgment is rendered, what will the shape of the judgment be?  And how, as writer, do you get from problems like these to something like a satisfying resolution?  Those related questions are sufficiently large to provide grist for volumes, so I will here defer them to a future post.

[1] C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold 3 (Harcourt Brace 1980)(1956).

[2] Or, in a criminal proceeding, a prosecutor. The use of a prosecutor rather than a plaintiff substitutes an accuser with no distinct personal stake in the case’s outcome for an accuser whose accusation includes a request for redress of his particular injuries. While today in many quarters prosecutors are thought of as the guys wearing the white hats, personally uninvested accusers come off very badly in many old stories: e.g., the serpent in the Garden, Satan in the book of Job, the Pharisees in the Gospels, Don John in Much Ado, Iago in Othello.

[3] Lewis, Till We Have Faces 248-249.

[4] In real courts of law, a demurrer is a distinct form of pleading, typically filed either before or with the defendant’s answer.

[5] G. K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday 215-20 (Martin Gardner ed., Ignatius Press 2004)(1908).

[6] In the heavenly court, Satan accuses both God and Job; see Job 1-2.

[7] Job 9:27-33 (ESV)(emphasis added).


Posted on September 3, 2011, in Authors, Book Review, C. S. Lewis, David Mitchel, Educational Resources, Guest Bloggers, Lawcourt and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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