Classical Mythology and the Role of Women: More Musings on Till We Have Faces

Many of you may remember my many musings over myth and Lewis’s novel Till We Have Faces.  Well, for the sake of nostalgia and because some topics will never be old for me, I’d like to continue to look at the different aspects of woman in classical literature and myth…

I wanted to be a wife so that I could have been her real mother. I wanted to be a boy so that she could be in love with me.  I wanted her to be my full sister instead of my half sister.  I wanted her to be a slave so that I could set her free and make her rich (Lewis, Till We Have Faces 23).

Orual’s wish sounds strange at first glance, but in a larger context, Orual is expressing her desire to be something other than who and what she is.  She is feeling the constraint of being a woman.  Orual has not felt comfortable being who she is.  She is not beautiful, she is not strong, she is not a man, she cannot be a true ruler in the eyes of her father, and she cannot be what she wants to be for Psyche.  It is a question of perception and understanding.  Orual does not appreciate where she belongs or how she fits into a world dominated by men.

The classical world appears to be all about men with only trophy women thrown in to add contention and flavor. However, Homer gives women a higher place in society than is first perceived when one reads the Iliad or the Odyssey.  He is subtle in expressing the proper place and role of a woman in the household and in her community.  In the Iliad, the most notable women are Helen and Andromache.  In a world of war and death, Helen is seen as the cause, since her household has been defiled.  Andromache, though her role is small, paints the smallest picture of what the woman ought to be like. But the Iliad is a poem about war and the glory of men; it is in the Odyssey that Homer gives a fuller picture of the domestic life, and therefore the proper place of the woman in the classical Greek perspective. Once again Homer portrays Helen as the bad example; whereas he gives Odysseus’s wife, Penelope, as the shining example of a woman doing her duty for husband and household.   Lewis, in Till We Have Faces: a Myth Retold, picks up on these subtleties of the role of women in classical culture.  He explores them in the character and nature of Orual and Psyche; thus, making Orual’s desire a poignant declaration for the reader to consider throughout Till We Have Faces.  There are three major aspects of the classical role of women as observed first in the Odyssey and later in Till We Have Faces: how she is to relate to other women, her place in the court or counsel of men, and fidelity to the husband which is the household.

The idea of how the women in the classical world actual relate to one another is not pronounced in the Odyssey; in fact, there are very few scenes in which women interact with one another, while Lewis paints several beautiful scenes with the women in his story interacting in very real and believable way.  Homer does understand the intricacies of women to women relationships with in the household; however, he does not focus on this aspect.  Lewis, on the other hand, is tackling the problem of self awareness of those roles and he is doing it not from the man’s perspective, but the woman’s.  One of the first things that must be remembered is both Homer and Lewis are dealing primarily with women of the ruling class.  These women’s positions in life are not only domestic but have a certain degree of elevation. Penelope is the wife of a king, Nausikaa the daughter of a king; Orual is a daughter of a king, and Psyche is the wife of a god. Their social status not only dictates how they are to present themselves to men and society, but to other women as well.

I’ll continue this discussion next week…


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