The last two weeks I have talked about the role of women in classical literature and mythology. I have been primarily looking at Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces.
In the Iliad and Odyssey and Till We Have Faces there is an element of misunderstanding roles and placements of women, which transcends even to the court where the men hold council. This is not to say that women have no place in courts or politics, but that there is an order to governing and many times the women struggle with understanding that order or learning how to respect that order. It is true that often times in myth and classical literature it would appear that the women are being looked down upon or bullied but that is because we do not understand time, placement and order. We cannot subject history to the same philosophies that our society clings to. The Greeks were not post modern, and it is ridiculous to view their world and thier way of doing things by such standards.
Therefore when we read about we struggle with understanding why it is sad that Orual cannot find her place. We want to blame the man for being chauvinistic pigs when really the blame is not completely off of the woman. Sadly, Orual on numerous occasions oversteps her bounds in the court with her father. Like Helen who is always butting into Menelaos’s conversations, Orual cannot let her father govern as he sees fit. Orual does not exhibit the subtle grace of storytelling that Helen does, so that when Orual contradicts her father she is blatantly belligerent. The outcome is the same; both Kings lose face with their people. Fortunately for Helen, her delicacy only mildly irritates her husband (Homer 4. 266). Yet, Orual’s blunt words get her a blooded up face and a sound beating from her father (Lewis 55). Helen and Orual do not understand where they belong. Helen should comprehend the proper order of things in the court with men; her years of being fought over, her time spent in Troy, the very fact that she is back in her first husband’s household, should have taught her. However, Helen still sets herself up in the court of men and in her way mocks her husband, which she ought not to do. Orual, who has spent some time in the court with her father, should have known her place was not to speak against her father in a public manner. But Orual still does not comprehend her place. She is still trying to discover where an ugly, intelligent girl fits into her society.
If only Orual had paid more attention to some of the stories the Fox told her and had learned the finesse of Penelope who knew her place in the court with men and still could speak her piece without overstepping the leadership and authority of her husband. It should be noted that first of all, Penelope avoided the suitors when she could. If she needed to seek counsel or speak with anyone, be he the swineherd or a vagabond, she would conduct her conversation in an orderly circumspect manner that did not compromise her honor nor the honor of her husband’s household. When it was necessary for her to address the suitors, she would do so in the proper way, veiling herself and speaking with a prudent tongue (Homer 16.416-423). She does not let anger or fear move her to speak out of turn and she takes counsel with Telemachos and Eumais in private (17. 96-97). When Penelope becomes aware that Telemachos has reached the age where he capable of making the decisions for the household, she respects him for it and does not question his authority (17.57). Such behavior on Penelope’s part sets her apart from Helen and any other women in Homer’s epics. Her sense of honor and her prudent conduct around men are the testimony of her virtue and faithfulness.
If Orual had had such an example, she would have known how to let go of Psyche when it was her time to meet her fate of the Shadowbrute. She would have known how to speak with decorum and prudence. She may have learned how to be a woman in the court of men and still be respected. Unfortunately, Orual did not. When it was her time to take command of her people, Orual did not do so as a woman, but as a veiled woman acting like a man (Lewis 226). Orual thinks that hiding herself will give her strength and make her a better ruler. In some ways it does and in other ways it does not. She fights like a man, commands her people like a man, and her veil strikes fear into the heart of her enemies (216). She governs her house like a man and for all of that, she brings prosperity and peace to her people. But Orual has lost a part of herself. She is not all that she could be. She does not have the compassion or the womanly nurturing spirit; she has locked that away. To be a ruler, Orual sacrifices family for she has none; she has lost Psyche, she marries Redival off, and she frees the Fox. She does not marry, not because she is ugly, but because that would mean that she would have to let Orual out—the woman, the vulnerable, weak part of herself that she has buried. If only Orual had known that she could have been a great queen while still retaining herself. But Orual did not understand how to be a woman in a man’s world, so she masked herself and pretended to be as much of a man as possible.
The relationship of woman to woman and how a woman presents herself in the court of men also affect the woman’s fidelity to her husband and her household. Because Orual is not married, she neither comprehends the sort of fidelity that a woman should feel for her husband nor how a man ought to feel for his wife. Orual, throughout her life, effectively ruins the life of the two people she loves the most. Because she does not understand the love between a husband and a wife, she causes Psyche to betray her husband like Helen betrayed Menelaos. In the same way, she kills Bardia out of envy and despair, as Klytaimestra killed Agamemnon.
I’ll have more on this topic next week…