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Wordsworth wrote an endless poem in blank verse on” the growth of a poet’s mind.”  I shall attempt a more modest feat for a more distracted age: a blog, “Things which a Lifetime of Trying to Be a Poet has Taught Me.”

Homer’s Odyssey is still inspiring new art—like my little sonnet.

Odysseus

FAITHFUL

The harsh will of the gods was the end of Troy;

Most of the Greeks would never make it back.

The ones who did found Clytemnestra, coy

With ten years brooding vengeance to exact,

Or, like Odysseus, were blown off track

To spend an extra decade wandering.

But he kept his integrity intact:

Calypso could not stay his voyaging;

Tied to the mast, he heard the Siren sing,

But still sailed on toward Penelope.

Lotus, Circe, Cyclops could not bring

Despair, could not erase the memory

Which, after twenty years, still drove him on,

Relentless as the rosy-fingered Dawn.

He still sailed on . . .

Remember: for more poetry like this, go to https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/ and order Stars Through the Clouds! Also look for Inklings of Reality and Reflections from Plato’s Cave, Williams’ newest books from Lantern Hollow Press: Evangelical essays in pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.  And look for Williams’ very latest book, Deeper Magic: The Theology behind the Writings of C. S. Lewis, from Square Halo Books!

Donald T. Williams, PhD

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What is YOUR Quest?

leatherbooks
So many books . . . so little time!

Whether we know it or not, life our lives and the stories we know so well are linked.  A good friend and I were recently discussing how to help a mutual acquaintance whose life seems to have gone off the rails.  We realized that he had taken on a “life narrative” of victimization and betrayal.  Everything that happens to him is interpreted from within the context of this story line; innocent acts by his friends are seen as betrayals because that is the default setting for how he understands his life, not because there is any objective reason to think they actually are.  The results are self-destructive, as you can well imagine.

The conversation moved on to the importance of establishing a healthy life story to live by.  We can only write the story of our own lives up to a point, but a central component of a healthy self-concept is the life narrative we adopt.  It has a powerful influence on how we interpret our life events and on how we make decisions that affect the way our lives actually do unfold.  This realization leads to the importance of exposure to good literature from a young age, powerful stories that model for us who we are and lay out quest trajectories by which we create a vision for understanding our purpose and calling.

JacksonFrodo
What is your quest?

The Bible is of course the most important.  It has the ultimate hero, the ultimate knight in shining armor, Christ.  It has the classic villain, Satan, and the classic damsel in distress, the human race.  The Hero goes on an epic journey, at great personal sacrifice defeats the Villain, and the Hero and the Damsel then ride off into the sunset and live happily ever after.  That metanarrative actually happened, indeed, is happening.  Therefore, if it defines your life story, you live in hope and meaning.  Adopt any other narrative and you will have nothing but arbitrary choices standing between you and futility, nothing but arbitrary values between you and boredom, nothing but lies and false hopes between you and despair.

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Illuminated Manuscript of the Bible. (Yes, it deserves to be treated like this!)

Other good literature can help too, by reinforcing the biblical narrative and fleshing it out in our imaginations.  Is life a meaningless, self-centered ramble or a purposeful quest?  We need Oddyseus’s journey home to Ithaca,Aeneas’s journey to find a new homeland for his people, Dante’s journey through Hell and Heaven, Frodo’s journey to the Cracks of Doom, Reepicheep’s journey to the Utter East, and Puddleglum’s journey back to Overland, to help keep us fresh and focused.  Is this world our home, or are we just a-passing through?  If so, to what end?  The choices we make and the quality of our experience will depend on how we conceptualize the journey of life.  We need the Bible as a foundation and other good literature to reinforce it in order to be travelers who will arrive at our destined end and be healthy and productive along the way.

Dante-Satan
Slide from Dante’s trip to Hell.

Donald T. Williams, PhD, is R. A. Forrest Scholar at Toccoa Falls College and the author of eight books, including three from Lantern Hollow Press: Stars Through the Clouds (his collected poetry), Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters, and Reflections from Plato’s Cave.  To order, go to

https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/.

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I want to be everything I’m not

I have spoken on this topic before…the role of women and the crisis of identity.  I suppose it means so much to me because I can see the struggle in becoming more and more of a theme in young adult literature and in our popular movies.  I find it interesting that I keep coming back to this topic and Orual from Til We Have Faces keeps being a role model.

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 never once 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.  Orual does not appreciate where she belongs or how she fits into a her world, a world that she thinks is so dominated by men that she could not possibly have a place in it.

The classical world appears to be all about men with only trophy women thrown in to it to add contention and flavor. However, if you look beyond the facades and the faministic mumble you can see women of character, women who knew who they were and where they belonged. (Some of you may not like the “where they belong” part.  It is a phrase that is often times used in a derogatory sense “a woman belongs in the kitchen or with the kids.” However, I’d like to suggest that we embracae the idea of belonging and having positions.  We spend out lives looking for them and yet we complain must ardently when we are told what those roles or posistions might actually be.  Is it possible that we can find an understanding about who we are and where we belong in literature, that some things written before the twentith century actually might give a positive reflection on the role of women? It is a thought I’d like us to consider…

 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.  Helen did run off with a younger richer man, thus starting war.  Andromache, though she is not prominent in the story, paints the smallest picture of what the woman ought to be like.   She stows courage to her son and husband when faced with the reality that her husband is going off to war and may not come home.  She is diligent and hard working and doesn’t complain.  But the Iliad is a poem about war and the glory of men; therefore, it is in the Odyssey that Homer gives a fuller picture of the domestic life.

Once again Homer portrays Helen as the bad example.  She is always undermining her husband.  The way she talks and holds the conversation, her mannerisms are manipulative and mean.  Such behavior in anyone is just undesirable.  In contrast we are given Odysseus’s wife, Penelope, as the shining example of a woman doing her duty for husband and household. She is not weak nor is she cold and unfeeling.  She has quiet efficiently (until she is besotted by suitors) taken care of the management/business of her husband.  By her own merits she is seen as a woman of honor and respect among the people.  This is not something a weak, docile, incompetent person could or would achieve.  Some would complain that these woman were confined and thier roles were limited to the homes and therefore my argument is not valid.  But if you know anything about running a business or a more practical analogy, farming, then you would know that often times family/home life and the business are the same.  These classical women were incharge or not only the families but of the property as well.  They worked along side their husbands and fathers.  Granted this is family and not corporate America but I think the concepts are not exclusive.  Helen was discontent with her stations. She wanted more or different or something other than what she had.  Penelope and Andromiche knew who they were and what they needed to do.  They had learned contentment with what it was they had to do to survive and thrive.

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.  Oraul struggles with even accepting the thought that she is a women or that someone would find her attractive or even love her.  Because she cannot accept herself she cannot love or be loved.  She pushes those she loves away at the same time she pulls them close, a “nine-tenths hatred” that calls itself love.  Her dissatisfaction in life is a result of not being satisfied with who she is and what she is.  She goes about trying to change all the unchangable things about herself.  First she learns to fight so that she can be more like a man. Then she hides her face to hide her ugly face taking away her femininity.  She tries to change Psyche and force Psyche to be someone she was not so that she could be something for Orual.  All of these things only mask or hide the truth; they do not actually change anything.  Orual must go through a process of unveiling and demasking all of her lies before she can learn to love and accept who and what she is…and only then can she have what she really wants.

 

Myth and the Role of Women: Dignity and Fidelity

In the last weeks I have explored the roles of women in classical literature.  Granted this is a topic that is beyond what this little study could possibly cover; however, I am convinced that we can learn a lot about the how women are portrayed in society.  Though they are often looked down upon there are moments and situations where a woman’s virtue and character are needed and demanded by the leaders and rulers.  This is not the presumably negative understanding of women.  If you look closely, these moments in literature show the complete weakness and failure of the men and exonerate the virtue of women.

I have also demonstrated the importance of women and their relationship to children and sisters as a means of knowing the character and virtue of women.  Once again this topic reveals the good and the ugly about women but with the hope that upon revealing the ugly side of ones character we can learn how to improve.  This is what Orual most learn in order for her to find redemption.

I have also discussed how women, mainly Orual, perceive men and how women love not only others but themselves. Orual’s self loathing made it impossible for her to love, while Psyche’s selfless love made her irresistible.

Fortunately, the classical culture does not despise woman, nor disparage their womanhood before men. Penelope and Nausikaa are examples of women who kept honor, dignity, and fidelity throughout all of their dealings with man and with women.  Psyche and Ansit, despite Orual’s failings, still manage to preserve their love and households.  This is a testimony to the strength and fortitude of these women that, despite the pain, the suffering, they preserve their households and they perform their duty. The place of the woman in the household is not one of submission to the man or one that is subservient.  It is about companionship, respect and love.  Homer’s champion women are no doubt Nausikaa and Penelope.  They exhibit all the virtue of leadership among their peers, honor and prudent speech among men, and show enduring faithfulness to their household.   So too, Lewis’s Psyche and Ansit reveal such virtue of a woman knowing how to love woman to woman, woman to man.  And Orual for all her blundering and internal struggle with her duty as daughter, sister, lover, and Queen, learns mainly through the examples of Psyche and Ansit who she is and reconciles herself with what it means to be a woman in her world.

Myth and the Role of Women: Self Love, Self Loathing, and Selfless Love

On the topic of women in literature, there are many different angles that one can take.  As I have been studying classical myth and C. S. Lewis’s retelling of Cupid and Psyche, I have learned a great deal about the roles of women.  I have looked at women in society, women and their relationship to children and sisters, and how women deal with men.  Each corresponding aspect reveals the failings as well as the virtues of women.  I now would like to consider the strongest vice and virtue of a woman…her love.

Orual’s love for Psyche is jealous love.  Like Paris stealing Helen, Orual wishes to steal Psyche from her husband.  Orual rationalizes her behavior, believing that nothing could be good if it hides his face.  This is mainly a self projection of Orual’s own lack of self worth—only ugly things veil their faces.  However, Psyche is not concerned by her husband’s strange request of secrecy.  She is content and takes joy in being his wife, calling him, “My god, of course. My lover. My husband. The master of my House” (Lewis 122).  But Orual is blind to this sort of love and loyalty.  She thinks of only the worst of Psyche’s god husband.  It is to this end that Orual designs a way to convince Psyche to betray him, “the best of lovers” (166).

Psyche knows that it is her duty to be faithful first to her husband, but Orual does not.  Orual uses Psyche’s love for her as a weapon to violate the trust and bond of husband and wife.  In the same moment that she destroys the bond of love between Psyche and her god, so Orual destroys the bond between her and Psyche.  It is a dirty trick and Orual will suffer the grief of it all her life.

Psyche, unlike the wanton Helen, once again acts selflessly towards Orual; nevertheless, her act is an act of love for another who is not her husband.  Fidelity to the husband should be her desire above all, and it is the fact that she betrays her lover for another love, which makes her like Helen, who destroyed her marriage bed with Menelaos for the bed of another love, Paris. The defilement of trust between a wife and her husband destroys the household.  This is the great theme of the Iliad; it is for this reason that the Achaians go to war with Troy.  This is how important the household, the marriage bed, is in the classical world.  What Orual does to Psyche, what Helen did to Menelaos, is perhaps the worst thing that could have happened not only to Psyche but to Orual and the community at large as well.

Fortunately, through all her trials, Psyche is restored to her god, and her marriage is once again as it should be—one of love, truth, and faithfulness. Her reunion with her husband is not like Helen who still does not love or respect Menelaos.  Psyche’s reunion is more like Penelope and Odysseus.  Penelope, who is faithful and constant to the very end, is able to reunite with her husband after twenty years and once again enjoy her place by his side.  Her marriage bed is no longer a place of loneliness and grief; it is a place of union and bliss (Homer 23.300-305).  Psyche too must suffer the pain of separation; she must endure the trials and prove her faithfulness (Lewis 246). Thus, she returns to her proper place – being wife and lady of her master’s House.  And as the marriage is restored, so is the household.

Orual’s jealous love destroys another household – that of Bardia and Ansit.  Orual in her account of her life does not mention Ansit often and only in the context that it is Bardia’s duty to his wife that takes him away from her, his Queen.  Orual is not pleased that there is this other woman who takes precedent over her. In fact “because he had loved her she was, in a way, surely enough the enemy” (Lewis 259).  But for all of Orual’s disdain for Ansit, the fault cannot be put on Ansit.  Once again the failure is Orual’s, as she does not grasp the different types of love and duty.  She struggles with her identity and her relationship with Bardia.  He is her counselor, her battle companion, her friend, and through it all she loves him.  Likewise, he loves her; he is faithful, good, prudent, and devoted.  But his love for her is as a Queen.  Unfortunately, Orual as Queen is more man than woman and the love that she has developed for Bardia is more than that of a Queen for a devoted subject.  She loves him as a woman loves a man, as a wife.  But she is not his wife, nor his kin; her love is unrequited. Therefore, she despises the woman whom Bardia loved as wife.  But knowing of no one who could understand her pain, she goes to Ansit to seek comfort.  She gets more than she bargained for.

Ansit is first seen spinning.  In the classical culture, there is nothing more domestic or proper for a woman to be doing than for her to be spinning or at her loom weaving.  All of the great women of Homer’s epics are portrayed at some point weaving.  Andromache, Helen, and most notably Penelope are all described at this occupation.  And they are always commended for it.  Ansit sitting there spinning in her home could not be exemplifying a more womanly or wifely duty than that (Lewis 259).  She is the good wife even after her husband is dead.

It is here in the confidence of Ansit’s sitting room and Orual learns the ugly truth about her love for Bardia.  Ansit describes Bardia as “a tree that is eaten away within” (Lewis 260).  Orual did not see; she could not see; it was not her place to see that Bardia was tired.  It was Ansit who saw “the times when a man shows his weariness” (260).  She tells Orual what she as a Queen missed about the man she loved:

You never saw his haggard face in early morning.  Nor heard his groan when you (because you had sworn to do it) must shake him and force him to rise.  You never saw him come home late from the palace, hungry, yet too tired to eat.  How should you, Queen?  I was only his wife.  He was too well-mannered, you know, to nod and yawn in a Queen’s house. (260)

Such words reveal the truth of not only Bardia’s character, but Ansit’s.  She did her duty for her husband.  She helps him, even when it pains her, to perform his duty to his Queen.  Ansit is the wife who tends the household for her husband never complaining, until the moment she is able to bare her grievances before the woman who caused her grief: “The mines are not the only place where a man can be worked to death” (261).

This is the stabbing blow. Orual’s inability to have her own household essentially causes her to steal another husband from his wife.  Envy and despair over unrequited love, turns Orual into a woman much like Klytaimestra who killed her husband.  Though Orual’s murdering scheme is unintentional and takes years to be accomplished, she still manages to kill the man she would have liked to call husband.  Granted, Klytaimestra did not love her husband; he had sacrificed her daughter and brought home another wife from Troy, but the emotions of the two women parallel each other.

After her husband has gone to war, Klytaimestra is unfaithful and finds a lover.  She destroys her household before Agamemnon has even come back with the new bride, which further destroys his household.  Orual’s household, which is never complete since she never married, is always in a sense destroyed.  She is envious of Ansit, as Klytaimestra is envious of Kassandra.  They both despair over lost loves—sister and daughter—and over the ruinous marriage of the man they love (or once loved) to another woman. In grief and rage, Klytaimestra kills her husband (Homer 11.404-434).  In a desire to have what she could not have, Orual kills the man she loves.  The result is the same, a household – a marriage – is left in decay.  Ansit only had what Orual did not first take away from her husband (Lewis 262) and the house of Agamemnon was destroyed by the Furies, all because Klytaimestra was not faithful to her husband and Orual did not know what faithfulness meant.

If Lewis had left Ansit and Orual in the silence after the declaration of what, or rather who, had caused Bardia’s death, Orual’s story would be more like the bitter end of Agamemnon.  However, Ansit and Orual both demonstrate a great fidelity to man and to their sex when they embrace each other (263). And in that moment, they forgave each other all of their grievances against one another.  Orual is learning about her role.  She unveiled herself and was not queen, only Orual who knew the pain of love lost the emptiness of a household without a husband. This is the beginning of understanding for Orual as she finally learns what it means to be a woman and what her place is in the world that she thought had been dominated by men.

Sadly, Orual is more often than not the negative example of how to a woman ought to behave.  She desires to be what she cannot be.  She wants to be mother and lover, master and redeemer to Psyche. She wants to be beautiful or a man.  She wants to be wife and lover to Bardia.  But Orual is not any of those things.  Had she known her place, had she been more like Penelope, Orual could have been what she ought to have been to the people she loved most. She could have been the loving supportive sister to Psyche and Redival; she could have had unveiled respect from the men in the pillar room; she could have loved Bardia selflessly, without murderous envy.

Next week I will conclude with  my thoughts on myth and the role of women…