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The Unforgiveable Sin, Womanhood, and C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces


The Unforgiveable Sin, Womanhood, and C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces

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The Unforgiveable Sin, Womanhood, and C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces


Published on July 20, 2022


What exactly Joy Davidman Gresham’s role was in the writing of Till We Have Faces is debated. We know this much for sure: it was in an evening conversation with her that C.S. Lewis felt he had finally cracked the story. That night, after everyone was sleeping, he wrote the first chapter, eager to show it to her the next day.

In the months to come, Davidman also typed up the manuscript for Till We Have Faces. She was Lewis’ “first reader.”

There are some who contend that Davidman co-wrote the book with Lewis, and others who bristle at the thought that “typing up the manuscript” need necessarily mean that she gave any input. What is very clear is that Lewis’ portrayal of women is suddenly more nuanced, rich, interesting and, well… it has the ring of truth to it in a way that some of his other attempts don’t.

Whether this is because Davidman helped write, offered input, served as muse, or merely introduced Lewis to a woman he saw as his intellectual equal and friend, I don’t know. And while we know they eventually married, knowing exactly what their relationship was at the moment he was writing the book is less certain.

We do know that Orual was, at least in some sense, modeled on her. She was powerful, intelligent, passionate, unfettered in a way that took Lewis aback, delighted and surprised him. He infused Orual with the same traits.

As Jack himself would eventually say about Joy, “She was my daughter and my mother, my pupil and my teacher, my subject and my sovereign; and always, holding all these in solution, my trusty comrade, friend, shipmate, fellow-soldier. My mistress; but at the same time all that any man friend (and I have good ones) has ever been to me. Perhaps more.” He hadn’t gotten all the way there by the time he wrote this book, but he was on the path.

As Lewis’ brother Warnie said, “For Jack the attraction was at first undoubtedly intellectual. Joy was the only woman whom he had met…who had a brain which matched his own in suppleness, in width of interest, and in analytical grasp, and above all in humour and a sense of fun.”

1956 was a full year for Lewis. The Last Battle released on March 19. He and Joy were married on April 26th (a civil marriage kept mostly quiet…neither of them considered it an “actual” marriage at first, it was so she could get a visa to stay in England). Till We Have Faces was published on September 10th, and by December they were married in the church, both thinking that Davidman was about to die (she recovered and lived for several more years, passing away due to cancer on July 13th, 1960, exactly 62 years and one week from the day that this article was first published).

The point being: Joy Davidman changed C.S. Lewis’ world. How he saw it, the decisions he made, the joy he took in it. She radically altered his view of women, because her existence broke his own picture of “what a woman is and should be.”


The Women of C.S. Lewis

We’ve talked a lot in this series about Lewis and how he treats women in his fiction. Here are a few of the conversations we’ve had:

  1. We talked about the “Matrons, Monsters, and Children” in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. In much of Lewis’ work, women fall into these categories. There are stolid motherly figures, there are beautiful but evil women, and there are virginal and innocent children. Not that there are no exceptions whatsoever to this, but these are the roles Lewis’ female characters tend to gravitate toward.
  2. We looked at “The Horse and Her Girl” and enjoyed how Aravis nearly sidestepped all of that, and seemed to just really be a perfect person, and even was allowed to have a happy marriage and become a mother who doesn’t immediately die.
  3. We examined both “The Shoddy Lands” and “Ministering Angels,” two short stories where Lewis dealt with some gender issues directly—not with great success to my mind, though there’s more nuance than I expected stepping into the reread.
  4. We also dove into The Problem(s) of Susan, examining one of the more painful ways that Lewis presented a woman in the Narnia books, though his intention and how the book was read by many are not, I think, in full alignment.

What’s fascinating is that Till We Have Faces could be read as an argument against Lewis’ own previous presentations of women. We know from That Hideous Strength, for instance, that it would be right and best for a woman to marry and care for her husband, and for them to have children together…our main couple’s failure to do so  nearly derails a two thousand-year plan to save the world.

And along comes Orual. She never marries, never has a child. She is not beautiful, doesn’t excel at anything to do with homemaking or even entertaining. She doesn’t care for parties or beautiful clothes, she’s not obsessed with lipstick (okay, they didn’t have any, but you know what I mean). And yet we’re told by the story’s end that she’s not just a woman, but an exemplary one. Unmarried, childless, not beautiful. She’s not innocent of sex, is in fact interested in sex and has fantasies about a married man.

She’s a woman, first and foremost, and she doesn’t fall easily into any previous category Lewis has created for his female characters in the past.


Orual as Man

We’re told over and over that Orual is like a man. Bardia says, “It’s a thousand pities, Lady, that you weren’t a man,” because she’s so talented with the sword. We’re told in one of the Narnia stories that Lucy was “as good as a man” in battle, but Orual is not “as good as”—she’s better than many of them. Maybe better than most.

Lewis isn’t naive about the phallic nature of putting a sword in Orual’s hand, either. He was so opposed to Freudian interpretations of stories that I wouldn’t even mention this except that he draws attention to the sexual nature of the sword more than once in the text. He tells us that only a “weaponed man” can be a priest to Ungit (“weaponed” meaning not a eunuch). And when Orual is victorious in her first duel, she describes it like an orgasm: She gives her opponent a “straight thrust” which goes “deeply in the inner leg.” She’s scarcely out of breath, and, “Yet I felt of a sudden very weak and my legs were shaking; and I felt myself changed too, as if something had been taken away from me.” If that’s not convincing enough for you, the next sentence does it’s best to remove any doubt, “I have often wondered if women feel like that when they lose their virginity.”

Orual often dresses in men’s clothing, not because she sees herself as a man but because the trappings of a woman make her unable to do the things she needs to do. She wears men’s clothes when she sets out to find Psyche, as well as when she fights, and when she goes to war.

Her father sometimes calls her “that” and says, because of her ugliness, that the Fox hopefully can make her wise, because it’s all she’ll ever be good for; she’ll never be able to do the things a woman is meant to do.  She becomes an intellectual to the Fox, a soldier to Bardia, an advisor to her father. Her father eventually treats her “as one man might to another.”

She and Bardia lay together “the way men do in the wars.” Orual is upset by this, even, that Bardia doesn’t see her as a sexual being, stating that he “[u]sed me and talked to me more and more like a man.”


Orual as Woman

And yet, the text never once lets us forget that Orual is a woman. It never critiques her for being overly mannish. It never implies she is anything other than a woman, and never suggests that there’s any confusion or mistake in how she has chosen to express her gender identity. Orual often uses feminine metaphors to describe herself. She is “with book as a woman is with child.” As her Queen persona begins to overshadow her “Orual” self, she describes it as “like being with child, but reversed.”

We’re given hints often that the way she sees herself may not be exact reality. She claims over and over that she is exceedingly ugly, but it’s actually only a very few characters who directly say this (mostly her father and herself). She is certain she’ll never have a suitor despite having a proposal for marriage (because, she muses, he hasn’t seen her face)…she marries him off to her sister instead. Orual is convinced that “nature’s hand slipped” and that her ugliness makes her sexually ambiguous, that it makes her a monster, that it makes her an outcast.

And yet…there are always people interested in her, she’s well loved, there are people convinced she’s beautiful under her veil. Although Bardia never sees her as a sexual possibility, it should be pointed out that he doesn’t appear to see anyone but his wife that way. He’s not attracted to Psyche, for instance.

Also, Bardia unfailingly keeps referring to Orual as a woman. He may treat her differently than other women, but she is his queen, so of course she is different from other women. And when someone pushes hard for traditionally gendered roles by saying things like, “A woman cannot lead the armies of Glome in battle” it is Bardia who immediately defends her with, “This queen can.”

Orual does set herself apart from men in many ways, too. At the celebration after her duel she thinks to herself, “What vile things men are.” She sees Bardia’s ignorance of her love for him, and thinks that his ignorance is “what it means to be a man.”

The Complexity of Gender Roles Throughout Till We Have Faces

Many of the characters in Till We Have Faces don’t fall simply into the gender norms that Lewis has suggested in previous books. Bardia is a warrior, yes, but a “very tender man.” The Fox is as much nursemaid as teacher. There is a lot of liminality in gender in this book: Taran, for instance, is emasculated because of his interest in Redival, which he later sees as a good thing that set him on a better track.

Even when we get some of the old tropes, the characters don’t quite fall into them. Redival is the vapid party girl who only thinks about herself and boys. In so much of Lewis’ work this is the sort of girl to look down on, to pity, to judge. And yet in Till We Have Faces, Orual learns to see her with compassion. Redival marries, has children, grows up, becomes what appears to be a “good” mother and wife.

Psyche, the “beautiful one,” isn’t a temptress or overly focused on herself. She’s passionate (even sexual), she’s kind, dutiful, an excellent daughter and sister and lover and wife and eventually goddess.

Even Ungit, who may or may not be a villain through the book, is a person of nuance and complexity. She’s beautiful but ugly, cruel but kind, present but unknown, herself but Orual. She’s both mother and lover, “all-devouring,” “womb-like,” “barren.” Which is only to say that there is complexity to the female characters in this book.

The one woman who is simple is Batta, the stand-in mother, gossip, and trouble-maker. Her removal is part of what helps Redival to become someone better…and even here there is no comment about “that’s how women are” or anything like that. It’s simple who Batta is, not some larger statement about the dangers of being the wrong kind of woman, as it might have been in another Lewis book.

Oh, and I almost forgot Ansit, Bardia’s wife. In many ways, Orual once thought of her as an enemy, as the one who has Bardia’s affection. When Orual fantasizes being with Bardia she often thinks it would be better even than killing her to prove Ansit “whore, witch, or traitress” (note the heavily gendered roles of those first two). But it is Ansit who helps Orual see herself more clearly; it’s Ansit who helps her realize that she was “all gap” and no tooth. And Ansit has seen all along that Orual was a danger to her marriage, has always recognized her as a rival in relationship, even when Bardia didn’t and Orual couldn’t admit it.


The Unforgivable Sin

Orual is convinced there is one wrong she can never right: “The one sin the gods never forgive is that of being born a woman.” She’s wrong, of course. This is one of her great mistakes, her blindness, her wrongness that must be repaired before she can come face to face with the gods.

When Orual first hears about Psyche’s husband, and how he refuses to show his face to her, she says, “Nothing that’s beautiful hides its face.” The god (or whatever has taken Psyche) must be something hideous, she thinks. She has forgotten that the beautiful Psyche veiled her own face when she went to marry Cupid.

So Orual puts her own veil on, not realizing all the things it means. She thinks it’s just a way to close herself off from the world but it’s something more. It’s her wedding veil, and when it’s removed she will see herself the way her bridegroom sees her. Psyche goes to Hell to get the magic formula that will “make Ungit/Orual beautiful” but the journey allows Orual to see that she was beautiful all along, just the way she was made…she didn’t need to look like Psyche, or take on the traditional roles that Redival did. She just needed to be her true self.

When Orual sees Psyche in the last scene of the book, “she was the old Psyche still; a thousand times more her very self than she had been before the Offering.” Was she a goddess? Orual suspects, rather, that, “I had never seen a real woman before.” But when she looks in the water at their feet she sees two of these women-goddesses, the same but different…herself and Psyche. She was “being unmade.”

It was never a sin that she was a woman.

It was never a sin that she was different, that her womanhood was different than expected, different than that of the women around her. The gods were not refusing to meet with her because (as she thought) they were capricious or cruel, or because she was a woman, but rather for one simple reason: she didn’t know her true self yet, and so she couldn’t join in a real conversation with them.

We’ve seen this over and over in Lewis: the only unforgivable sin is choosing not to continue to grow into who you are meant to be. Orual must recognize her own beauty so that she can move into relationship with the gods.


Still Growing

One of the things I love about Till We Have Faces is that we see that Lewis’ ideas of what it meant to be a woman and the place of women in society—who and what women are—was still growing and developing. There is more nuance and complexity than in the past. There’s even critique of Lewis’ own past positions.

And though this was his last major work of fiction, and though Davidman died a few years later, we can see that in his marriage he continued to learn and grow. He came to understand sex in a new way:

One thing, however, marriage has done for me. I can never again believe that religion is manufactured out of our unconscious, starved desires and is a substitute for sex. For those few years [Joy] and I feasted on love, every mode of it—solemn and merry, romantic and realistic, sometimes as dramatic as a thunderstorm, sometimes as comfortable and unemphatic as putting on your soft slippers. No cranny of heart or body remained unsatisfied.

And Lewis learned to love a woman in a way that was new for him. He talked about having the feelings in his old age that most men experience in their twenties. Women weren’t an inconvenience at the social club anymore. Or, at least, Joy wasn’t. She was his favorite person. He adored her. “I too have lost what I most loved,” he wrote in a letter.

This was the epitaph he wrote after she passed:

Here the whole world (stars, water, air,
And field, and forest, as they were
Reflected in a single mind)
Like cast off clothes was left behind
In ashes, yet with hopes that she,
Re-born from holy poverty,
In lenten lands, hereafter may
Resume them on her Easter Day.

As for Orual’s eulogies, we have only this one from Arnom, the priest of Aphrodite (note that he does not say Ungit): “This book was all written by Queen Orual of Glome, who was the most wise, just, valiant, fortunate, and merciful of all the princes known in this part of the world.”

No mention of her beauty or her ugliness. No mention of whether she was married or had children. Just a recitation of who she was…her character, her reputation, her person.

Followed by a quick reminder that, yes, she, the queen, was better than any of the princes in the world.


And with that, we’ve almost reached the end of the road… After two and a half years the Great C.S. Lewis Reread will be coming to an end next week. Looking forward to sharing our final thoughts and insights together.

[Editor’s note: Due to some technical difficulties behind the scenes, the previous post in this series was published with comments closed. The article, “Power in the Blood: True Religion and Transformation in C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces,” has been added to the series, and comments are now open. Thanks for reading!]

Matt Mikalatos is the author of the YA fantasy The Crescent Stone. You can follow him on Twitter or connect on Facebook.

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