Tuesday 21 June 2022

The Green Lady, Jane, Orual and other adult women in the novels of C S Lewis


I will begin with the Green Lady, Perelandra’s unfallen Eve, although the novel has very much the quality, simplicity and large theme of the medieval morality plays (Temptation by the Devil, the Prevention of a New Fall) and characterisation is consequently minimal. There are just three characters of any significance: Dr Ransom, the Lady herself, and the devilish Un-man, none of whom is particularly complex. The Green Lady is all innocence and majesty, the Unman devilish horror, while Ransom is Everyman, or Every Christian, whose task it is to tackle evil and fight the good fight even when he thinks he isn’t up to it. Though the workings of the plot involve plenty of jeopardy and tension, for me the book’s appeal rests largely in the rapturous, lyrical writing with which Lewis brings this Edenic ocean world to rich life.

            The Green Lady is a blend of mother-goddess and Mother-of-God, but we can learn quite a lot about Lewis’s view (circa 1941) of more ordinary women and their roles from the strategies of temptation to which she is subjected. At work to make her break Maleldil’s command never to sleep on the Fixed Land, the Un-man suggests that Maleldil’s hidden purpose is for her to become independent necessitating a disobedience which would really be a far higher obedience, and would make her wiser and ‘older’ than her absent husband the King. (Contextually, a bad idea.) To illustrate this argument the Unman tells her tales of tragic and noble heroines.

Each one of these women had stood forth alone and braved a terrible risk for her child, her lover or her people. Each had been misunderstood, reviled and persecuted: but each also magnificently vindicated by the event. The precise details were often not very easy to follow. Ransom had more than a suspicion that many of these noble pioneers had been what in ordinary terrestrial speech we call witches or perverts.

The Un-man’s appeal to the Lady is one of self-aggrandisement masked as self-sacrifice: ‘Do this for the King even if he doesn’t want you to: it will be for his own good.’ I’m not honestly sure how many witches that fits, or ‘perverts’ either – whomever or whatever Lewis intended by that term. Given that most of the people who ‘in ordinary terrestrial speech we call witches or perverts’ have in historical fact been innocent victims, it seems a bit rich for Lewis/Ransom to point the finger at them rather than at the witch-hunters. It is done for effect, doesn’t stand up to a moment’s thought, and should have been left out. But the clear implication of the passage is that busy-bodying interference in someone else’s life ‘for their own good’ is a female trait, or sin, and one the Green Lady as a woman is most likely to fall for. (Is it, though? Or is this the reaction of the little boy being made by Matron to swallow the cod-liver oil?) It becomes explicit when Ransom, ‘goaded beyond all patience’, loses his temper and

tried to tell her that he’d seen this kind of ‘unselfishness’ in action: to tell her of women making themselves sick with hunger rather than begin the meal before the man of the house returned, though they knew perfectly well that there was nothing he disliked more [my italics]; of mothers wearing themselves to a ravelling to marry some daughter to a man whom she detested; of Agrippina and Lady Macbeth.

From passive aggression to Lady Macbeth is quite an escalation. Ransom’s first example is sharp social observation but fails to investigate likely reasons why this test-case woman would delay her meal. What if she’s lonely? Who likes to eat on their own? What hour does the ‘man of the house’ get home? If she’s really ‘sick with hunger,’ then it must be late. Does he usually meet his friends in the pub for convivial drinks after work? Pubs in the 1940s were not places in which women felt welcome. If he regularly abandons her in this way, of course he’ll detest this enacted reproach.

             The Un-man’s final temptation is his attempt to teach the Green Lady vanity and exceptionalism, encouraging her to wear a robe of feathers and a chaplet of leaves, and to look at her own face in a cheap mirror which – it claims – will become ‘the Queen’s mirror, a gift brought into the world from Deep Heaven: the other women would not have it.’ Ransom perceives that the image of the Lady’s beautiful body has been shown her ‘only as a means to awake the far more perilous image of her great soul’ – and realises that ‘this has to stop.’ The contest now changes from a three-sided metaphysical or moral argument to a very physical battle between the Un-man and Ransom.

The Green Lady is an impressive, even awesome presence who is able to philosophise as well as Ransom can, if not better. When I said she is two-dimensional (in that morality play sort of way) I didn’t mean Lewis didn’t think hard about her: he did. As he explained in a letter to Sister Penelope Cary of 9 November 1941,

‘I’ve got Ransom to Venus and  through his first conversation with the ‘Eve’ of that world: a difficult chapter.  ...I may have embarked on the impossible. This woman has got to combine characteristics which the Fall has put poles apart – she’s got to be in some ways like a Pagan goddess and in other ways like the Blessed Virgin. But if one can get even a fraction of it into words it is worth doing.’

The polarity he mentions – ‘Pagan goddess/Blessed Virgin’ – is not a black and white one of evil/good or sin/virtue, but of sensuality/purity, and nothing is wrong with either of those qualities per se. In the sinless world of Perelandra they are combined, whereas in our sinful world, in Lewis’s view, they are separated. The man who introduced the Bacchantes into Narnia had no real problem with pagan goddesses. All the same, the Un-man’s attacks on the Lady target what Lewis seems to think of as women’s especial weaknesses, in particular a tendency to reorganise others’ lives, personal vanity, and self-dramatisation.

Some of these issues turn up again in Lewis’s portrait of a contemporary and more complex female character, Jane Studdock in That Hideous Strength (1945). Jane is the lonely young faculty wife of aspiring lecturer Mark Studdock, and her predicament – she has given up her studies to become a housewife – is sympathetically drawn. Lewis describes her marriage as

the door out of a world of work and comradeship and laughter and innumerable things to do, into something like solitary confinement. ... She had never seen so little of Mark as she had in the last six months. Even when he was at home he hardly ever talked. He was always either sleepy or intellectually preoccupied. [...] Was it the crude truth that all the endless talks which had seemed to her, before they were married, the very medium of love itself, had never been to him more than a preliminary?

Here, couched in much more understanding terms, is the viewpoint of the nameless woman of whom Ransom complains in Perelandra. Sharp, spiky, intelligent Jane is bored stiff, and wasted on the trivial domestic routine which has become her life.

She had just left the kitchen and knew how tidy it was. The breakfast things were washed up, the tea towels were hanging above the stove, and the floor was mopped. The beds were made and the rooms ‘done’.  She had just returned from the only shopping she need to that day, and it was still a minute before eleven. Except for getting her own lunch and tea there was nothing that had to be done till six o’clock, even supposing Mark was really coming home to dinner. But ... almost certainly ... he would ring up to say that ... he would have to dine in College. The hours before her were as empty as the flat.

Reading this we are immediately on Jane’s side, as Lewis intends. He is clear that Jane’s current existence is barren and pointless. Yet, sympathetic as his portrayal is, this is no feminist take. Jane still hopes to complete an unfinished doctorate thesis on John Donne – but Lewis strongly hints that it’s not going to happen and that in any case it is the wrong way to go. What a married woman really needs is babies.

She had always intended to continue her own career as a scholar after she was married: that was one of the reasons why they were to have no children, at any rate for a long time yet. Jane was not perhaps a very original thinker, and her plan had been to lay great stress on Donne’s ‘triumphant vindication of the body’. She still believed that if she got out all her notebooks and editions and really sat down to the job she could force herself back into her lost enthusiasm for the subject.

Why has Jane lost enthusiasm for a thesis emphasising the ‘vindication of the body’? Perhaps, Lewis hints, because marital sex has proved a disappointment. Her husband Mark is ‘an excellent sleeper. Only one thing ever seemed to keep him awake after he had gone to bed, and even that did not keep him awake for long.’

           Lewis's unkindest cut is ‘not an original thinker’. Jane, he lets us know, is not top-class academic material: and if you’re not top-class you shouldn’t try. But then her husband Mark is hardly a committed scholar. He is a sociologist – this is intentionally damning, since the discipline was regarded by Oxbridge as very much below the salt, in the 1940s – and the only work he does for the vacuously named National Institute for Controlled Experiments (N.I.C.E.) is hack propaganda. At least Jane studied literature! One of the conscious ironies of the book is that Mark’s apparent success in scrambling into N.I.C.E.’s ‘inner ring’ is due not to his merits, but to the fact that they want to recruit his wife. Jane is a seer whose visions would be useful to them, but she has become part of the real Inner Ring, the community of St Anne’s on the Hill. She is at the centre of what’s really happening, while Mark is clueless.  

Lewis takes both characters on a pilgrim’s progress, but Mark’s is more convincing than Jane’s. One of the novel’s best passages is when Mark, who’s been desperately toadying the villains and is way out of his depth, finds the power to reject them when, asked to insult a crucifix, he has a Puddleglum-like moment: it may seem a trivial act to trample an unfeeling image, but to insult the pain it represents would be a disgraceful action. What side is he on? The worm turns, and he utters the natural but telling words, ‘I’m damned if I do any such thing.’

But Jane – sharp, unhappy, newly-married Jane – her road-to-Damascus moment comes when she is inexplicably bowled over by the male authority of Dr Ransom, now mysteriously transformed into the charismatic, golden-bearded Mr Fisher-King, aka the Pendragon – a sort of ur-Aslan, if you like. It is unbelievable; Ransom was never charismatic. We identified with him in the earlier books precisely because he was ordinary, modest, unsure. Dorothy Sayers put it rather kindly in a letter to Lewis: ‘I don’t like Ransom quite so well since he took to being golden-haired and interesting on a sofa.’ Impossible to imagine the Ransom of Out of the Silent Planet or Perelandra expounding to Jane on courtship, ‘fruition’ and sexual enjoyment, or remarking: ‘No one has ever told you that obedience – humility – is an erotic necessity.’ So far as we know, Ransom has never married. Neither, at this point, had Lewis.

That Hideous Strength is a flamboyant but flawed mash-up of fantasy, science-fiction, horror, Christianity, the powers of the medieval cosmos and the Matter of Britain, and is strongly influenced by the ‘spiritual thrillers’ of Charles Williams – not to its benefit. Lewis seems to me never to have quite made up his mind what it’s about. Jane and Mark’s almost non-existent relationship is at its heart, but though their marital reunion is the culminating event of the book, they do nothing together. The lessons they learn are learned separately. Jane’s true destiny turns out to be wife-and-motherhood, albeit an enriched form following the conversion of both Mark and herself to a sacramental view of marriage with its duties and honours which include ‘the procreation of children’. There is even a suggestion from Merlin that the child she conceives should have been (or may yet be) one ‘by whom the enemies should have been put out of Logres of a thousand years.’ These are deep waters to drown in.  


There are several adult women in the seven Narnia books. Some are villains, like the White Witch/Queen Jadis (I’ve never been entirely convinced they’re the same woman: Jadis has more personality), and the lamia-like Lady of the Green Kirtle who is drawn very much from medieval romance and balladry. On the virtuous side there is Digory’s kind, homely Aunt Letty, a minor character who all the same is capable of telling Uncle Andrew a few home truths. There is Ramandu’s unnamed daughter, who is not much more than a consolation prize for Caspian, denied the chance to visit Aslan’s country – and there are brief glimpses in The Horse and His Boy of the adult Queen Susan ‘The Gentle’, visiting her suitor Prince Rabadash in Tashbaan – and Queen Lucy ‘The Valiant’, riding with ‘a merry face’ to the relief of Anvard, armed with helmet, mailshirt, bow and arrows.

Lewis has sometimes been criticised for what one critic has termed ‘the dearth of heroic adult women’ in the Narnia books. Such criticism is mis-aimed. Adults do not get to be heroes in children’s books: it is the children who have agency, who are put to the test and triumph. And of course the Narnia books feature several girl-heroes: Polly with her tough common-sense, Lucy with her integrity, Aravis’s fiery courage, Jill’s stubborn independence, woodcraft and archery. Adults in children’s fiction are either villains, or else supporting cast such as parents, grandparents and teachers. We might as well ask where the heroic adult men are, in the Narnia stories? They don’t exist either – for the same reason. But there are plenty of adult male villains: Uncle Andrew, King Miraz, and Gumpas the Governor of the Lone Islands. Does Shift the Ape count? He masquerades as a ‘man’ towards the end of the book... Where the female villains are charismatic and powerful, the male villains are sly and repulsive: when Queen Jadis meets Uncle Andrew, the latter collapses into a grovelling heap. I don’t see any reason to complain.


 ‘Hope not for mind in women,’ Jane quotes bitterly from Donne. ‘At their best/Sweetness and wit, they are but Mummy possest.’ And she goes on to wonder, ‘Did any men really want mind in women?’ It turns out that Lewis did. His marriage late in his life to Joy Gresham, neé Davidman – a civil marriage in early 1956, followed by a religious ceremony in March ’57 was to him an emotional, mental and physical revelation. After her death from cancer a few years later, he wrote of her in A Grief Observed:

Her mind was lithe and quick and muscular as a leopard. Passion, tenderness and pain were all equally unable to disarm it. ... How many bubbles of mine she pricked! I soon learned not to talk rot to her unless I did it for the sheer pleasure [...] of being exposed and laughed at. I was never less silly than as H’s lover.

Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold was published in 1956 and dedicated ‘To Joy Davidman’. They discussed it together as he was writing, and she wrote to her children’s father Bill Gresham that Lewis ‘says he finds my advice indispensable.' And it's Lewis’s masterpiece. It is the only work of fiction he ever wrote in the first person (he'd recently completed his own autobiography), and it is the exception to the rule that no matter whether he’s writing fiction, literary criticism or Christian apologetics, we always hear Lewis’s own voice in his books. Orual’s voice is stronger.

I will begin my writing with the day my mother died and they cut off my hair:

Batta, the nurse, shore me and my sister Redival outside the palace, at the foot of the garden which runs steeply up the hill behind. Redival was my sister, three years younger than I, and we two were still the only children. While Batta was using the shears many other of the slave women were standing around, from time to time wailing for the Queen’s death and beating their breasts, but in between they were eating nuts and joking. As the shears snipped and Redival’s curls fell off, the slaves said, “Oh what a pity! All the gold gone!” They had not said anything like that when I was being shorn. But what I remember best is the coolness of my head, and the hot sun on the back of my neck when we were building mud pies, Redival and I, all that summer afternoon.

A brilliant synthesis of voice, narrative and information, this does so much. We’re plunged into a vivid, ancient world of kings, queens and slaves, where little Orual and her sister, cared for by slaves, are so remote from their mother they’re not at all affected by her death and go on playing with mud ‘all summer afternoon’. We can see that Orual and Redival are at this time playmates; that Redival is pretty and Orual is not and that – at this time – Orual hasn’t realised it. All in one effortless paragraph. And Orual doesn’t sound like Lewis.

            Lewis had been considering a version of the myth of Cupid and Psyche back in the 1920s, when he tried and then gave up writing a narrative poem on the subject (in which, interestingly, Psyche has a sister named Caspian and a brother named Jardis, names that reappear in Narnia, gender-switched, as Prince Caspian and Queen Jadis). Three decades on, the story was still in his mind. 

            The myth of Cupid and Psyche, if it is a myth and not a fairy tale, first appears in Lucius Apuleius’ The Golden Ass. A picaresque romance of the second century AD, it is a ribald tale in which Apuleius is turned into a donkey by a Thessalian witch and has numerous bizarre adventures. In the 22nd chapter an old woman relates the story of a King with three daughters, the youngest of whom is so beautiful she attracts her people’s worship and the wrath of the goddess Venus. Obeying an oracle, her father takes her to a nearby mountain to become the bride or prey of a flying serpent. But Venus’ son Cupid has fallen in love with her, and she is carried away to a palace on the mountainside where each night he becomes her unseen lover. Psyche’s two sisters visit the mountain to mourn her fate, but are jealous when they discover her living in luxury. Warning that her lover may be a monster, they persuade her to disobey his command and light a lamp by which she can see and kill him. A drop of burning oil falls on Cupid, who wakes and flies angrily away. The envious sisters meet shameful deaths, but Psyche (now pregnant) sets out to seek her lover. Jealous Venus gives her a number of impossible tasks – sorting a heap of different kinds of grain, collecting gold wool from a flock of fierce sheep, fetching the water of death, and descending to Hades to beg Proserpina for a portion of her beauty. With fairytale assistance from ants, reeds, an eagle and a talking tower (!) Psyche succeeds, but is tempted to try some of Proserpina’s beauty on herself. The box contains a deadly sleep, and she falls senseless to the ground, where Cupid discovers and wakens her. Jupiter makes Psyche immortal, and the lovers marry.

            Lewis preserved the pattern of a king with three daughters. All the characters are excellent – the educated Greek slave, the Fox, who is the voice of philosophy, reason and civilisation; the King, the three girls’ father, a violent, bullying Henry VIII figure whom Lewis keeps three-dimensional because of the contradictions in his nature. But all the characters are mediated to us via the voice and perceptions of the eldest daughter, and Orual is a passionate and unreliable narrator. Till We Have Faces is her story not Psyche’s, and the narrative we follow is one which in the end she comes to reassess. In Orual’s account, Redival grows up a shallow, sly, envious, tattling, man-loving minx, while Psyche is innocent perfection. In fact, where Apuleius’ Psyche is a persuadable simpleton, Lewis’s Psyche possesses considerable mental and spiritual strength: and she grows up. Orual often misreads her half-sister, and the intensity of her feelings for her is almost suffocating:

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.

The last sentence is the giveaway: Orual’s love is toxically possessive. Low in self-esteem, ugly, and denigrated by her father, she is needy for love. Far from setting Psyche free, she manipulates and clings to her. In Apuleius’ tale the two sisters are jealous of Psyche’s wealth, her rich palace. Orual is jealous too: jealous of any person or thing that will separate her from her sister. She believes she is weak and powerless when in fact she is monstrously strong.

And yet we’re on her side. Lewis is on her side. We know this story: we know that the palace which Orual can’t (in Lewis’ version) see, is real: we know that Psyche’s lover is Love himself. And we see her making this dreadful, catastrophic mistake. Forcing Psyche to break her promise to her invisible lover, Orual sticks a dagger through her own arm and threatens to kill them both. If you’re anything like me you’re inwardly crying ‘Don’t do it!’ It’s the worst possible emotional blackmail. Here again is the woman Dr Ransom complains of in Perelandra, the woman who meddles, who takes it upon herself to re-organise someone’s life ‘for their own good’ against their will, the woman who knows what’s best. But Orual cannot see the invisible palace or the beautiful wine cup; to her the rich wine is simple spring water. She cannot see what Psyche claims is there, so Psyche must be deranged. In her shoes we would probably feel the same way. Braced for disaster, we know she’s wrong, yet still we understand and empathise.

Orual has no empathy, no space left for anyone else. After Psyche has been chosen as the sacrifice to Ungit, Redival comes running to her in tears, babbling:

‘Oh Sister, Sister, how dreadful! Oh, poor Psyche! It’s only Psyche, isn’t it? They’re not going to do it to all of us? I never thought – I didn’t mean any harm – it wasn’t I – and oh, oh, oh...’

            I put my face close up to hers and said very low but distinctly, ‘Redival: if there is one single hour when I am queen of Glome, or even mistress of this house, I’ll hang you by the thumbs at a slow fire until you die.’

Near the end of the novel, Orual reflects back on the time ‘when we were building mud pies, Redival and I, all that summer afternoon’. Tarin, a boy who was gelded and sold to punish his teenage romance with Redival, reappears in Glome as a diplomat in the service of the Great King and tells Orual that Redival was lonely after the birth of Psyche. ‘She used to say, “First of all Orual loved me much; then the Fox came and she loved me little; then the baby came and she loved me not at all.”’ Though Orual cannot quite believe him she admits that

one thing was certain; I had never thought at all how it might be with her when I turned first to the Fox and then to Psyche. For it had somehow been settled in my mind from the beginning that I was the pitiable and ill-used one. She had her gold curls, didn’t she?

It’s the beginning of her reassessment of her own life.

            Lewis revisits, with so much more insight and compassion, themes that have cropped up time and again in earlier books. In Perelandra, the Green Lady is tempted to break Maleldil’s law by the non-human Un-man, an evident devil. In Till We Have Faces Orual causes Psyche to disobey another apparently arbitrary divine command. Orual even suggests that her lover ‘need never know’ – just as Queen Jadis suggests to Digory in The Magician’s Nephew that he can steal the apple of life for his mother and abandon Polly in Narnia, and nobody at home need ever know: ‘You needn’t take the little girl home with you, you know.’ Both suggestions are met with fiery disdain, but where Jadis is irredeemable, Orual’s ‘victory’ turns at once to ashes. She has made Psyche despise her. “[M]y heart was in torment. I had a terrible longing to unsay all my words and beg her forgiveness.’

There are other parallels. Motherless or abandoned children are scattered liberally throughout the Narnia books. In The Horse and His Boy, Shasta is stolen from his mother as a baby, and she dies long before he can be reunited with her, though there is no narrative reason why this should be. Prince Caspian’s mother is long dead, and his uncle Miraz gets rid of his nurse and mother-substitute. The youthful Prince Rilian of The Silver Chair loses his mother (Caspian’s queen) when she’s stung to death by a poisonous green serpent, and in The Magician’s Nephew Lewis re-imagines the events of his own mother’s death and gives Digory the miraculously happy ending he had prayed for as a child.

Yet in this book here’s Orual losing a mother and not caring a jot. All the caring is to come, when she makes herself surrogate mother of baby Psyche – to the exclusion of Redival. The passion Lewis explores in Orual is the passion of a strong-willed, capable, undervalued woman who knows she will never marry, never experience sexual love, never have children. There’s a lovely moment when she discovers Trunia of Phars in the palace gardens at night, on the run from his brother Argan, and he flirts with her in the dark: ‘I’ll bet a girl with a voice like yours is beautiful’. Orual finds this so unusual and so sweet she feels ‘a fool’s wish to lengthen it’, but knows it cannot go on.

So she cannot let go of those few to whom she is dear. Before fighting Argan of Phars in single combat she sets the Fox free – and dissolves in childish fear on realising that he may now wish to leave her. After an inward struggle he agrees  to stay – ‘his face very grey and his manner very quiet.’ Orual, embracing him, feels ‘only the joy.’  

The goddess Ungit, who is Aphrodite, is worshipped in Glome as ‘a black stone without head or hands or face’ and the old Priest of Ungit says that with her, ‘loving and the devouring are all the same thing.’ Orual makes an excellent Queen of Glome but she does devour those she loves, in particular her Captain of the Guard, Bardia, with whom she is in love. Jealous of his wife, she consoles herself by thinking her own relationship with Bardia is the more important. ‘Has she ever crouched beside him in the ambush? Ever ridden knee to knee with him in the charge? I have known, I have had so much of him she could never dream of.’ It’s selfish, we see she’s hard; we also see she doesn’t understand the damage she’s doing as without intending it, she works him to death.

With all her flaws and faults we remain on Orual’s side (perhaps because her faults seem familiar) as she finally comes to a painful understanding of herself. In dreams or visions at the end of her life she stands barefaced and naked before the gods and makes her accusation against them. She thinks she is reading from the book she has written, the book we have been reading. But it’s a tattered roll scribbled over with a terrible outpouring of jealousy, anger and hate:

I never really began to hate you until Psyche began talking of her palace and her lover and her husband. Why did you lie to me? You said a brute would devour her. Well, why didn’t it? I’d have wept for her and buried what was left and built her a tomb and ... and ... But to steal her love from me! ... What should I care for some horrible, new happiness which separated her from me?

Listening to her own ‘real voice’ Orual at last recognises that she has been a destructive lover, angry with those whose other commitments threatened her – Psyche’s to the god, Bardia’s to his wife, the Fox to his homeland. This is her ‘death before death’: the spiritual death of the Orual who felt these things. The gods can never meet us face to face, she realises, ‘till we have faces’. It is the process of writing her accusation – her autobiography, the book we have been reading – that reveals her long-hidden face. The vision ends with her acceptance by and reunion with those who have loved her. In her devouring love she has been Ungit, but in her suffering she has also been Psyche. 



All of CS Lewis’s novels explore the country of the spirit and this is eminently the case in Till We Have Faces. At the same time, in Orual he gives us the portrait of a lone woman, active in a man’s world. She has ruled a country and led her armies in battle – erasing Aslan’s remark about battles being ugly when women fight: all battles are ugly. She has killed men and passed judgements. Her reign has brought prosperity, stability and peace to Glome, and her people praise her. Her self-esteem is still low. On the brink of death she finds it strange that her women and Arnom the priest should weep for her: ‘What have I ever done to please them?’ Yet Arnom writes in her epitaph that she was ‘the most wise, just, valiant, fortunate and merciful of all the princes known in our parts of the world.’ Orual is a tour de force  and by far the most complex and interesting woman in Lewis’s fiction. If Joy Davidman helped him to understand her, she did a good job.


If you've enjoyed this essay about CS Lewis's work, you might also enjoy my book on the Narnia stories: 'From Spare Oom to War Drobe: Travels in Narnia with my nine year-old self', published by Darton, Longman and Todd.

Picture credits:

The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli

The White Witch by Pauline Baynes

Queen Jadis and Uncle Andrew by Pauline Baynes

Psyche and Amor by Francois Gerard 

Psyche's Wedding by Edward Burne Jones. 


  1. Wonderful - so moving, and so full of insight. Thank you!

  2. Thank you for this -- you've made me want to re-read Perelandra and Till we have Faces, the latter with a printout of your article beside me.

    I have a couple of quibbles with your comments on Perelandra, though I'd have to reread it to make sure. One is that I'm sure that Lewis was aware of the distinction between a witch and a person falsely accused of being one, and when he spoke of witches he meant the former and not the latter. The second is that I don't think wanting to do something "for someone else's good" is an exclusively female characteristic, it's just that the representative of the Perelandran race who was being tempted at the time happened to be female. Also, the transformation of Weston into the unMan, and Ransom into the Pendragon is Lewis's (perhaps crude) representation of the way we shape our lives by the choices we make.

    I suppose we are all influenced by our own context and experience, so my take on "That Hideous Strength" is a bit different from yours.

    1. Thankyou Steve, and hearing from people that they're going back to the books is the best of compliments.

  3. I read "Till We Have Faces" in my 20's. I admired it, knew it was great, didn't entirely know why. What you write rings so true to my memories of it, all the strong emotional reactions to Orual, both positive and negative, that I still remember, so much later. Clearly, I need to read it again.

  4. Great article!

  5. Thankyou all - I've had trouble today posting my own comments, but found I can get there on Google Chrome. Phew!

  6. I've had a quick skim-through this stimulating essay as I've yet to read my copy of Till We Have Faces (and it's been decades since I read the first two of Lewis's Space Trilogy) but I have to agree about Jane Studdock, who starts off by being such an interesting character but then submits to obedience, wifehood, and likely child-rearing; such a disappointing outcome.