The Lawcourt for Writers (Part 3B): Judgment in Lewis

Having set forth parties and pleadings, and dispensed with some preliminaries regarding judgments, I turn now to the consideration of how judgments are actually worked out in literary lawcourts.  Here I consider one representative example: C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces.  In my next post (this series is like a set of Matryoshka dolls – whenever I think I’ve seen the last one I find yet another) I’ll take up J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion.

A.            God in the Dock

I mentioned in my previous post that, at least as late as 1958,[1] C. S. Lewis didn’t really understand the big picture of the biblical lawcourt.  So in chapter one of his Reflections on the Psalms, we read that the covenant people of God may appear in the heavenly court as righteous plaintiffs, or as unrighteous defendants.  That that the covenant people are unrighteous plaintiffs, without standing to sue but in desperate need of judgment against oppressing nations, does not appear in his works.

That doesn’t dispense with Lewis on judgments, though; far from it.  For although standing before God and pleading with the heavenly court for redress of earthly wrongs are manifestly related issues, they are also distinct issues.  Jesus’s two parables on prayer which appear at the top of St Luke 18, for example, take them up distinctly (in reverse order).  You’ll recall that in the second parable, the Pharisee and the Publican present petitions to God, and only the Publican is justified.[2]  That isn’t the end of the story for either the Publican or Pharisee, but it is a sufficiently crucial part of the story that Jesus ends his parable there, to place this one issue of the individual’s standing before God in the spotlight.  And in various works – notably in The Great Divorce and, supremely, in Till We Have Faces – Lewis explores the distinct issue of the individual’s standing before God as deeply as anyone ever has.  Many of his observations along the way burn like Isaiah’s live coal.[3]

To begin with, Lewis rightly notes the characteristic violence the modern world does to the architecture of the heavenly court: taking God off the bench and putting Him in the dock.  This rearranging of the heavenly court isn’t new – it goes all the way back to the Garden.  But it is more characteristic of our era than most.  As Lewis writes in his essay God in the Dock:

The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man the roles are reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock.

The manner in which Lewis sets up the courtroom in Till We Have Faces first sets up and then goes after this reversal.  Not directly – as I noted earlier, while Orual is perfectly comfortable placing the gods (especially the god who lives on the grey mountain) in the dock, she is reticent to take the bench herself, and appears rather as party plaintiff.  Her reticence to judge is particularly noteworthy, given the number of cases she would have judged as Queen of Glome.  So, being psychologically incapable of presuming to judge the gods herself, she writes her complaint (part one of the book) with the expectation that some fool will rush in where royalty fears to tread.

Thus, by the way Lewis sets up the courtroom, he places his readers precisely where they would be inclined to sit: on the bench, with the gods in the dock.  By a series of judgments he will, by the end of the book, have displaced the reader from the bench and straightened out the heavenly courtroom.

B.            The judgment of getting what you ask for

The hard bitten, like Orual, are often in danger of expressing desires glibly because they assume their desires are vain, and that there’s no danger of getting what they ask for.  So it’s noteworthy that Lewis starts straightening out the heavenly courtroom by actually giving Orual what she’d asked for, incautiously, on the assumption it wouldn’t come to pass: she is brought to a judge who will judge her cause.

Once there, Orual reads her complaint against the gods.  Only it isn’t the complaint she thought she’d written:

I looked at the roll in my hand and saw at once that it was not the book I had written. It couldn’t be; it was far too small.  And too old – a little, shabby, crumpled thing, nothing like my great book that I had worked on all day, day after day, while Bardia was dying. I thought I would fling it down and trample on it. I’d tell them someone had stolen my complaint and slipped this thing into my hand instead. Yet I found myself unrolling it. It was written all over inside, but the hand was not like mine.  It was all vile scribble . . . I said to myself, “Whatever they do to me, I will never read out this stuff. Give me back my Book.”[4]

But she reads it.  And in the reading she realizes something:

I would have read it forever, quick as I could, starting the first word again almost before the last was out of my mouth, if the judge had not stopped me. And the voice I read it in was strange to my ears. There was given to me a certainty that this, at last, was my real voice.[5]

So it is that Orual gets what she’d asked. And, without the judge’s merciful interruption, she knows she would keep getting it, forever.  So with her complaint read, and with the horrible realization that finally, in the complaint she’d thought a thing “slipped into her hand”, she’d heard her real voice, Orual is asked by the Judge whether she is answered.  She answers in the affirmative – for “the complaint was the answer. To have heard myself making it was to be answered.”[6]  This judgment for the defendant gods is so shattering that after it is announced, Orual’s venerable Greek tutor, the Fox, appears on Orual’s behalf and starts defending her.  The Fox is told, though, that his defense of Orual is not necessary; Orual had appeared as plaintiff, not defendant, and her accusations against the gods had been heard and decided.[7]

In thus disposing of Orual’s complaint upon her mere reading of it, Lewis accomplishes two moves in restoring order in the heavenly courtroom.  First, he displaces the reader as judge – not simply by the insertion of another judge, but by making the reader realize his incompetence to judge.  Second, he removes the gods from the dock, not by fiat, but by giving Orual (and the reader) the satisfaction of a hearing, and judging justly according to the testimony given at the hearing.

The only question remaining at this point is whether the gods will now have their counterclaims[8] against Orual heard.  And they will.

C.            “You who would be justified by your works . . .”

Before her appearance in the heavenly court, a series of events had already shaken Orual sufficiently to make her rethink the various allegations made in her complaint.  So, for example, with respect to her chief counselor Bardia, she realizes that her love to him, expressed over many years in royal courts and on battlefields, was mostly hatred: “A love like that can grow to be nine-tenths hatred and still call itself love . . . It stank; a gnawing greed for one to whom I could give nothing, of whom I craved all.”[9]   On one point, however – a point she calls the “one comfort left me” – she was adamant: she had loved Psyche her sister.

I had at least loved Psyche truly. There, if nowhere else, I had the right of it and the gods were in the wrong. And as a prisoner in a dungeon or a sick man on his bed makes much of any little shred of pleasure he still has, so I made much of this.[10]

So it is on this point, the last remaining thing upon which Orual relies to justify herself, that the gods focus when it is Orual’s turn to answer charges against her.  I won’t go into detail about the closing proceedings – for the testimony comes in the form of a series of pictures rather than the form of testimony, and there is no substitute for reading Lewis’s word-pictures.  Here two of Lewis’s greatest strengths as a writer – his ability to paint vivid word-pictures and his ability to unmask imposters that call themselves “love” – converge, and the results are by turns horrifying and glorious.  Orual sees her love for Psyche in places where she never would have thought to find it – remember that sickly love may still be one-tenth the real thing, and we can never be sure exactly which tenth is the real thing – and she sees it accomplishing for Psyche things that Psyche could not have accomplished on her own.  But Orual also sees the horrible things she did to Psyche, and Psyche’s heroism in bearing them, as they truly were, until she is left with no pretenses: she cannot justify herself.  If she gets her rights she will be condemned; her only hope is mercy, if she can hope for it.

Near the end of his essay God in the Dock, Lewis had written that the modern man’s rearranging of the heavenly court presented a problem to which he was “very far from believing [he had] found the solution.”  In his apologetic and expositional works — which, like the Fox, he might have called thin, like water — perhaps he never found a satisfying solution.  But if Till We Have Faces is any indication, in the thick blood of myth Lewis found a medium in which he could restore the courtroom to its proper order.

[1] The year he wrote Reflections on the Psalms.  In 1958 Lewis would have been going on sixty; he would live another five years, until 1963.

[2] St Luke 18:9-14

[3] Isaiah 6

[4] C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces 289-90 (Harcourt Brace 1980)(1956).

[5] Id. at 292.

[6] Id. at 294.

[7] Id. at 295-96.

[8] Since I didn’t define the term in my post on pleadings, a counterclaim is a civil cause of action brought by a defendant against a plaintiff.

[9] Id. at 266-67.

[10] Id. at 285.


Posted on September 17, 2011, in C. S. Lewis, David Mitchel, Lawcourt, Myth, Story, Theology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. David, would you be interested in working this series up as an article for The Lamp-Post?

    • Don,

      It would need a significant amount, both of working up (the structure of the series is pretty stream-of-consciousness, so the earlier posts ask certain questions and the later posts answer different ones) and cutting down. But yes, I would be interested, and thank you for asking.


  1. Pingback: The Lawcourt for Writers (Part 3C): Judgment in Tolkien « While We're Paused

  2. Pingback: Christmas Eve: Naughty much? | Lantern Hollow Press

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