Even when we consider only Book 1 of C.S. Lewi’s great literary fiction, Till We Have Faces, Orual is not just a successful queen, but has a peculiar genius for political leadership.
Take “the mines” for instance. The mines were a standard Greek and Roman tool for torture and punishment, and a place to eke out a little profit from war-slaves in the few months they could survive in that environment. This was how the King of Glome understood the mines, with the result that they required more silver to operate than came from their rocky depths. When his great counsellor, the Fox, falls out of favour, the King decides to send him to the mines. Grandfather Fox, now old and enslaved in the palace, would rather die than go to the mines, so he asks Orual to find “the little plant with the purple spots on its stalk” down by the river. Like his master, Socrates, the Fox prefers death to dishonour and suffering.
For Queen Orual, however, the mines were an opportunity. Rather than working men to death, Orual set a new manager over the mines, provided better living conditions for the slaves, and created a profit-sharing scheme that would lead the slaves to manumission in 7-10 years if they worked hard. Ultimately, beyond the hope it brought to the slaves, it created many new grateful citizens in her realm and increased the profitability of the enterprise. Yield increased by 50%, and Orual is able to boast that
Ours is the best silver in all this part of the world, and a great root of our wealth (book I, ch. XX).
Beyond winning favour from her people and increasing profitability, Orual created what was arguably the best library in all the barbarian lands on the Peloponnese, with eighteen books, including some of Homer, Euripides, and Socrates.
While Orual credits her success to great counsellors and the mystery of her veiled face, she clearly has a genius for the throne that her father utterly lacks. Moreover, as we see in Book 2, even in her old age and in the midst of deep bitterness, Orual has the capacity to move past her own self-delusion to be open to transformation. Her father never had any such knack or intention.
But there are several parallels in the text to show that, despite the differences in their tyrannical rule and courtly circumspection, the King of Glome and his daughter, Orual, share similar traits. Three brief moments from the text will show the connection.
Our Father’s Own Rage
The first comes early in the tale when Psyche has offered herself as a healer to the people of Glome during a plague. When the plague worsens, all of the minor healings are forgotten–as is Psyche’s vision of compassion. The people turn on Psyche, viewing her as accursed and using signs to ward off evil in her presence. Orual is furious at the people:
“You healed them, and blessed them, and took their filthy disease upon yourself. And these are their thanks. Oh, I could tear them in pieces! Get up, child. Let me go. Even now — we are king’s daughters still. I’ll go to the King. He may beat me and drag me by the hair as he pleases, but this he shall hear. Bread for them indeed. I’ll — I’ll — ” (book I, ch. IV).
Psyche’s response is entirely different, but it is her reaction to Psyche that is most telling:
“Hush, sister, hush,” said Psyche. “I can’t bear it when he hurts you. And I’m so tired. And I want my supper. There, don’t be angry. You look just like our father when you say those things…” (book I, ch. IV)
Read Till We Have Faces and you will see how, as Orual’s bitterness grows and her love transforms, increasingly we see references to anger, wrath, and “my father’s own fury” (book I, ch. XI).
The People of Court
The second example I’ll only give briefly. As you read through Till We Have Faces, though Queen Orual stands in stark contrast to her father as they work as princes of their land, her father’s personality comes through in her critical nature from time to time.
When Orual is broken and sick following her loss of Psyche, she spends several days lying in bed–first in delirium, but then in a slumbering grief, and finally in a mind focussed upon a plan of action to recover Psyche’s remains. It is an “unchancy” or even irreligious move in one sense, as Psyche has been devoured by the god, so the bones are the god’s. But it is also an instinct that operates according to honour, and may assuage her grief.
However, even by this time, Orual has become a counsellor in her father’s court–though an abused one–and is relied upon to mind her sister. The King becomes impatient and asks continually,
“Where’s that girl got to? Does she mean to slug abed for the rest of her life? I’ll not feed drones in my hive forever” (book I, ch. IX).
Despite her complete distaste of her father and his approach to kingship, Orual finds herself mouthing the same words of desperate use. And this of a man she admired and loved, brave Bardia. As his end-of-life sickness deepens, the Queen misses his leadership–and his companionship. In frustration, she finally cries out,
“Does he mean to slug abed for the rest of his life?” (book II, ch. I).
The parallel is a stunning one–and one of many such personality ticks that seep in upon Orual’s attitude. In the end, the people around her are there for her use–a softer but parallel attitude of her father (or Jadis, Queen of Charn, for that matter).
Finally–and critical to Orual’s self-discovery–is the way the King and his daughter relate to Psyche.
Certainly, Orual’s motherly and sisterly love for Psyche begins with deep authenticity. When Psyche is fated to die, Orual’s panicky grief is real, and her motivation to save her sister is genuine. Orual even offers herself in Psyche’s place–though she is a substitute unacceptable to the gods.
By contrast, Psyche and Orual’s father has no real love, though he discovers in Psyche’s own grief a way of posturing himself before the watching world. The King has been cowardly and terrified when he though his life was demanded; when Psyche was chosen as a sacrifice, the king was relieved. More than that, he saw the opportunity to present himself as the grieving father-king who reluctantly allows his daughter to die so the people don’t suffer.
So when Orual persists in trying to save Psyche, the King has had enough:
“Death and scabs!” he said. “You’d make a man mad. Anyone’d think it was your daughter they were giving to the Brute. Sheltering behind a girl, you say. No one seems to remember whose girl she is. She’s mine; fruit of my own body. My loss. It’s I who have a right to rage and blubber if anyone has. What did I beget her for if I can’t do what I think best with my own? (book I, ch. VI).
The king’s cruelty stills the blood. But watch how Orual’s own love develops for Psyche. In loss and grief, the love sours and grows into love that is not love. In her trial before the gods (or before her own heart), Orual begins to rant about why the gods are unfair:
The girl was mine. What right had you to steal her away into your dreadful heights? You’ll say I was jealous. Jealous of Psyche? Not while she was mine. If you’d gone the other way to work — if it was my eyes you had opened — you’d soon have seen how I would have shown her and told her and taught her and led her up to my level. But to hear a chit of a girl who had (or ought to have had) no thought in her head that I’d not put there, setting up for a seer and a prophetess and next thing to a goddess . . . how could anyone endure it? (book II, ch. III).
And, in closing her argument:
Did you ever remember whose the girl was? She was mine. Mine. Do you not know what the word means? Mine! (book II, ch. III).
The parallel is clear. Though the King’s feeling for Psyche was always as a tyrant for his realm–or for his sense of self–Orual’s love for Psyche began in intimacy and deepened into something beautiful. In the end, though, for both King Trom and Queen Orual, Psyche herself disappears into the self-need that each royal has to satisfy. Psyche is not Psyche, a person, but an object. In the moment of greatest threat, they each cry out, “She is mine!”
This loss of self to self-need is the pattern of the whole.
The difference between Queen Orual and the King of Glome at their worst is only a blade’s width apart. And, yet, a blade’s width is enough. Orual’s own pen–her suit against the gods–becomes “the gods’ surgery” (book II, ch. I). Orual’s transformation is possible, even in old age, while the King never awakens again to a world outside his own self. King Trom dies in madness, while Queen Orual dies in clarity. The pattern of self-need, once probed by “the gods’ surgery,” become the entry point to the loss of self–which is, ultimately, the prerequisite for the true love that Orual longs to have in her heart.