Where is Glome, exactly? And when does Till We Have Faces take place?
C.S. Lewis plays coy on both counts. The people (or at least the royalty) of Glome are fair-skinned and somewhere on the edge of the Greek empire, which narrows both the time and place, but Lewis has removed most signposts that would give us clarity on when exactly and where exactly Till We Have Faces takes place. No doubt this is completely on purpose. It’s “a myth retold” and it takes on the mythic timelessness that is common to the genre. The names of kings and rulers don’t lead us to anyone historical, and even the references to familiar stories are (mostly) to mythological stories, not historical events.
So we get plenty of references to the gods of ancient Greece and their stories. We get references to the Trojan War and particularly the beauty of Helen. There are throwaway comments about people like Oedipus, as well as the occasional allusion to historical figures (mostly philosophers) like Plato (Lewis can’t help it, he loves Plato) and Aristotle and Socrates. Still, there are precious few “real world” references to actual history, which is interesting given that this novel works hard to give one the impression of something that may have really happened.
There is, however, one really fascinating place in the narrative where we get clear references to historical documents and stories, and that is in the library of Glome. Once Orual becomes queen, she gives the Fox permission and a budget for building a royal library. He sets out at once to do so, complaining often of the cost and difficulty. Books have to be passed hand to hand from other, distant, kingdoms to come to them, and it takes a long time for merchants to hear there is a market for Greek books in Glome.
The Fox, in fact, tears out his hair at the cost and says, “an obol’s worth for a talent.” For those unfamiliar with ancient Greek weights, measurements, and currency, this price would have been upsetting indeed: an obol would have been about one gram of silver. A talent would have been roughly 26 kilograms of silver. But the Fox manages to gather together eighteen books for the library, and it’s pretty interesting to reflect on them and why Lewis includes them. He names several of the books, and it turns out they’re often thematically connected to the narrative of the myth he’s spinning for us.
Lewis doesn’t list all of the collected volumes, but let’s take a look at some of the ones he mentions specifically (either by telling us straight out what they are, or by giving us clues about them)…
First up is Homer’s Iliad (part of it, anyway). The Fox obtains a partial copy, but the text cuts off after the beginning of the 16th book (the full epic is divided into 24 books). So we have Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, who is stolen away and forced (?) to marry someone new, setting off war in heaven and on earth. There are some really interesting parallels here with Orual, who sees Psyche as the most beautiful being on the planet and truly “hers” until Psyche was forced to go away to be with Cupid. Orual’s own book—like her copy of the Iliad—will also be cut short. Her copy of the Iliad ends with Patroclus weeping (just before his death) and her own story ends in a similar place, though hers concludes after meeting with the gods.
Books two and three are “two tragedies of Euripides, one about Andromeda and another where Dionysus says the prologue and the chorus is the wild women.” The first play mentioned there is a tragedy of Euripides that did not survive to the modern day; we have only fragments, but we do know the main story of Andromeda as Euripides tells it. And of course, she’s mentioned elsewhere in Faces when the Fox says that Psyche is “[p]rettier than Helen, prettier than Andromeda, prettier than Aphrodite herself.” (Which no doubt is part of what drew Aphrodite’s attention in the first place. Bad job, Fox! But then again, he believes the gods are merely faces for philosophical concepts, so we can’t judge him too harshly.).
Euripides’ Andromeda was first performed in 412 BCE, and has a few moments that are similar to Psyche’s story as well. A beautiful woman is chained to a stone (it was a tree for Psyche), offered as a sacrifice to a horrible monster (sea monster for Andromeda, shadow beast for Psyche), as an attempt to make restitution after offending the gods. There’s more we could dig into here (saved by someone appearing in the sky, the appearance of Eros/Cupid, etc.) but the main point is only that Orual had yet another myth in her library that seemed to echo (or rather prefigure) the story of Psyche.
The second tragedy, where “Dionysus says the prologue,” is a reference to The Bacchae, where the god is not some distant being but, in fact, the main character. As we know, Lewis had a particular affection for Dionysus. This play was first performed in 405 BCE (after Euripides’ death!). The story is this: there’s an accusation against one of the gods (Dionysus) that he is no god at all. Dionysus shows up and is super angry about the whole thing and sets out to prove to everyone that he is, indeed, a god. He takes on the form of a human being (he’s in disguise, in other words) and gets right to work on establishing his divine credentials in the opening speech. The connecting themes here are pretty obvious: accusations against the gods who may or may not be gods, and the gods coming to set everyone right on the question.
The next book Orual mentions is “a very good, useful book (without metre) about the breeding and drenching of horses and cattle, the worming of dogs, and such matters.” I’m not sure what this book may be, though a good guess for ancient Greek books on this topic would maybe be Xenophon’s On Horsemanship, sometimes called The Art of Horsemanship (355-ish BCE). How this relates to our story, I’m unclear…maybe it doesn’t! I’m not super familiar with Xenophon, but if someone wants to do some homework and report back to us, here’s a link to an English translation. Xenophon wrote some other books on general household chores and whatnot, so maybe Orual got the collected works or something like that.
Then we have some “conversations of Socrates.” This is almost certainly a reference to Plato, and there are plenty of his works that would be resonant with Till We Have Faces. Since Lewis didn’t give us more of a hint, I’ll leave that one as is, but it might be useful to know that some scholars think Apuleius’ original story of Cupid and Psyche was an allegory showing the Platonic philosophy of how a soul falls in love (or, as others have argued, it may have been meant to be a satire of Platonic philosophy!). It’s interesting to note that Lewis pushed pretty hard away from his retelling being an allegory.
Then, another specific reference to an actual work we can track down: “a poem in honour of Helen by Hesias Stesichorus.” Stesichorus wrote a number of poems about the Trojan War and at least two about Helen. One of these—and this is so fascinating given the book that we’re reading here—was a recantation of a previous poem. Which is to say, he wrote a poem that presumably said untrue things about Helen, and then he wrote another retracting the previous poem and correcting the record, which is exactly what Lewis is doing to Apuleius’ presentation of Psyche and Cupid. What’s really interesting is something Plato wrote about one of Stesichorus’ Helen poems. Plato said, “For those who have sinned in their telling of myths there is an ancient purification, known not to Homer but to Stesichorus….” He goes on to explain: Stesichorus “blasphemed” against Helen, and so was struck blind (as Homer had been). Stesichorus figured it out and retracted his old story, and as a result his sight was returned. Homer did not, and thus remained blind. Stesichorus’ retraction starts by saying that Helen never left Sparta. She never left her husband, never married another.
Of course, we see Orual in a similar position. Book Two of Till We Have Faces is her own response to Book One. And it is only when she realizes that her own accusations are false that she gains true sight of herself and the gods. Till We Have Faces is Lewis’ recantation of Apulieus’ work; Book Two is Orual’s recantation of Book One and, indeed, of her entire life.
The next book in the Library of Glome is by Heraclitus, who only wrote one book so far as I know (called On Nature), and we don’t have copies of it today. We do have some idea of his philosophies and several of them would make sense in Orual’s world. He was a big believer in the “unity of opposites” and the need for strife in the world in order for there to be positive change (a lesson that Orual learns painfully).
Side note: Heraclitus also taught about the logos, and there are some who think that his own work here led to the philosophical construct of the logos in Greek thought that is eventually adopted by the Apostle John to describe Jesus Christ in his gospel. The famous German philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote that it was through Heraclitus that “the Greeks arrived at the very doorstep of absolute truth, namely, the revealed truth of Christianity.” This is primarily of interest to me because this is one of Lewis’ core interests in myth…how a myth brings us truth from the wellspring of reality. In other words, that the story of Cupid and Psyche is resonant as myth precisely because it presages the coming “true myth” of Christ. Lewis’ comfort in doing the same thing in his own retelling (and we’ll talk more about that in weeks to come) was one of the reasons many of his core Christian readers at the time struggled with his book…it seemed all pagan, lacking in clear Christian message. Lewis, of course, would strongly disagree with this take.
And, lastly, the royal library had “a very long, hard book (without metre) which begins All men by nature desire knowledge.” This is Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Pretty much anything I can say about this book in a paragraph will be so oversimplified that it becomes untrue, but I think it’s fair to say that it’s dealing with some of the same questions that Orual is asking: What is existence? How can things change so much and yet continue to exist? How can we understand the world around us?
Most of these books in Orual’s library appear to have direct connections to her life and to the very questions she’s asking in her own book. The two other books in the library are her own, in Greek, and the Fox’s, written in both Greek and the language of Glome. Her own book she alternately loves and hates, coming to see it as “poison” and deeply flawed, and she wrote that the Fox’s history of Glome was “often laughable and most so where he thought it most eloquent.” He didn’t speak the language of Glome as well as he thought.
So where does Till We Have Faces take place? “Somewhere on the far outskirts of the Greek empire” is all we know for sure. And when? It’s unclear. Probably somewhere between 350 BCE (going from the latest dates of the books assembled) and the second century CE (when Apuleius wrote about Cupid and Psyche…because of course the true events must have happened before the story could be written!).
One of the things I love about this little paragraph detailing the library of Glome is that if you just glance over it, you don’t lose much. It’s just some fun details that lend a feeling of veracity to Orual’s story. But if you’re aware of these books to some degree, it gives you some rich commentary on Orual’s tale—sort of like Lewis is embedding Greek literature Easter eggs, which is fun!