Browning said that his poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” came to him in a dream, and he wrote all 204 lines in one day. He did not say what he thought the nightmarish dream signified.In light of Walter Hooper’s claim that Lewis wrote The Dark Tower in response to Browning’s poem, certain lines in the poem are relevant for Lewis readers who distrust Hooper.
Line 1: My first thought was, he lied in every word
Line 150: Bog, clay and rubble, sand and stark black dearth
Line 182: The round squat turret, blind as a fool’s heart
C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces:
An Analysis of Character and Place Names
by Jeff Herron, Chicago, IL
and Kathryn Lindskoog
Charactonyms and Mare’s Nests
As Lewis himself cautioned in the introduction to his Studies in Words:
…it is not enough to make sense. We want to find the sense the author intended. “Brilliant” explanations of a passage often show that a clever, insufficiently informed man has found one more mare’s nest. The wise reader, far from boasting an ingenuity which will find sense in what looks like nonsense, will not accept even the most slightly strained meaning until he is quite sure that the history of the word does not permit something far simpler.
A charactonym is a name given to a literary character that is descriptive of a quality or trait of the character. In trying to uncover possible sources and connotations of Lewis’s character and place names in Till We Have Faces, we have tried to avoid mare’s nests. Speculation about the etymology of names does not preclude the commonsense assumption that some were chosen for their sound alone and have no etymological significance whatever.
This is the first published exploration of the subject at hand, so far as we know, and although it contains significant discoveries,, further information and insights are sorely needed. Jeff Herron’s primary sources have been Harper’s Latin Dictionary, Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon, the Oxford English Dictionary, Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, The New Century Cyclopedia of Names and the Harper Dictionary of Foreign Terms.
Till We Have Faces is unique among Lewis’s works of fiction for its complete lack of commonplace English names. Such is to be expected in a tale set somewhere in the ancient Middle East. Although the kingdoms
mentioned in Till We Have Faces are obviously mythical, we can place them in the known world with reasonable accuracy because we know the central kingdom of Glome imports slaves from Greece and practices religious rituals similar in form and content to those of the ancient Mediterranean nations of Assyria, Babylon, and, to some extent, Greece.
The only two names from ordinary English to be found in this book are Grey Mountain and Fox, and both are merely descriptive. The Grey Mountain was viewed by Glome’s citizens as the home of a god as well as the vicinity of frequent storms and fogs. Fox is King Trom’s nickname for his Greek slave Lysias. Identifying slyness with foxes is not unique to any one period or culture. It is apparent from the text that Trom percieved all Greeks, and especially those with a predisposition for philosophy, as crafty and wily.
Individual Names (in alphabetical order)
* Alit is arguably this novel’s least important character; however, her name is rich with implications. She is the infant daughter of Poobi, a good slave in the palace of Glome whom Orual has kindly set free. The obsolete term a’lite means a little, reflecting both Alit’s small role in the text and her stature as an infant. Similarly, the Greek root can mean anything from simple and frugal to paltry and small. It is here that the nugget of meaning probably lies. The Latin alitus means nourishment, sustenance, or support, and Alit’s arrival on the scene occurs a period of renewed national vigor for Glome.
* Ansit is Bardia’s wife. Her visit from Orual after Bardia’s death reveals a likely etymological rationale for her name. In their bitter exchange we learn that through the years Orual had deprived Ansit of Bardia much of the time, drained and exhausted him, and thus shortened his life. Orual had been jealous of Ansit all along; they both resented sharing her husband. It is not surprising, then, to discover that the Latin sitio means to thirst or to be dried up, to thirst after something or to desire; in Greek the word Ansit may be derived from lack of food. Ansit is starved for a happy, healthy family life. Nor is it surprising to learn that the obsolete term ansete means hostile; Ansit was understandably hostile toward Orual.
* Argan is the unworthy crown prince of Phars, a kingdom neighboring Glome. When his likable brother Trunia leads a revolt, Argan pursues him into Glome. The name Argan resembles the negative form of the Greek word for work — hence idle, yielding no return, fruitless, left undone, unattempted; Argan’s early death leaves his work undone and unattempted. (Defying and killing Argan is what establishes Orual as the strong Queen of Glome.) Argan is the name of an evergreen tree of Morocco with a hard, grainy wood, and is also the name of a foolish character in Moliere’s La Malade Imaginaire. Coincidentally or not, Prince Argan is hard-headed and foolish.
* Arnom is Ungit’s second high priest in Orual’s lifetime. One of the descendents of King David was named Arnan, and the Arno is a famous river in Italy. Because he is the priest of a religion that required blood sacrifices, Arnom’s name may have been suggested by the name of the Greek festival in Argos that featured the slaying of dogs. It could also relate to the Greek word for sheep or lamb (from the Sanskrit root uranas).
* Bardia, captain of the palace guard in Glome, is a kind and noble man of war. The Latin barditus is a collective name for war songs of the ancient Germanic peoples. Bard is also a term for the armor placed on a warhorse, and bardy is an old term that means bold-faced, defiant, or audacious. According to The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, July 1995, Bardhi is a charactonym playing on berja, barinn, and bardagi, thus meaning tough. Bardia is also the name of a town in northeast Libya known as a center of military supplies during World War Two.
* Batta, the nanny of motherless Orual and her two sisters, ingratiates herself with their father King Trom; but Batta is a harsh, malicious, devious trouble-maker. The Hindi term bhatta denotes extra pay given to British soldiers and officials serving the underclass in India. Battable, from Middle English batten, from the Old Norse verb batna, means to improve, often applied to pasture lands, indicating their fertility and their propensity for fattening cattle. In contrast, modern French battue has connotations of beating for sport or wanton slaughter. In the end, Queen Orual has Batta hanged.
* Caphad is a kingdom neighboring Glome. The obsolete term ca’phar is from the Arabic khafarah, meaning to protect or patronize.
* Charmides is one of the Fox’s two names for Orual when he is apparently in his dotage. This name comes from Greek words indicating the source of one’s joy, joy itself, or the joy of victory in battle or games. The Fox had always found Orual’s quick mind and eager spirit a joy. Charmides was a male character in Plato’s dialogue of the same name, an individual renowned for his moderation.
* Crethis is the Fox’s earlier name for Orual. Whereas Charmides probably represents the joy Orual brought to the Fox, Crethis seems to be an indication of how he saw her. In Latin cretio means fruitless, and a similar word in Greek means need or want. As a virgin queen, Orual was certainly fruitless. But because this name was given to her by a Greek as a term of affection, it might refer to her lifelong restlessness for love and justice. Never complete after her loss of Istra (until the novel’s final pages), she lived in great need of meaning, goodness, and answers.
* Daaran is the son of Trunia and Redival, a good man who is destined to inherit the thrones of both Phars and Glome. His name might be related to Darius, the famed Persian king whose name means “sustainer” (from the Persian root dar-, meaning to hold). Daaran, like Darius, will be the sustainer of his empire.
* Essur is a kingdom bordering Glome. Es Sur is the Arabian name for the city of Tyre. Essur hungers after Glome’s land, and the Latin word esurine means to be hungry. In English surient is an adjective expressing voraciousness, and esurine is also used for corrosive chemicals that eat away things they contact.
* Glaucon is one of the Fox’s two latter-day names for Orual; Glaucon was the father of Plato’s Charmides, the other name the Fox has for Orual in his last years. It is possible that Lewis also had in mind Ovid’s Glaucus, a human fisherman who ate magic salt-meadow grass that turned him into a god with a consuming desire and ability to dive to the ocean depths. In Purgatory Dante said “The eyes of Beatrice were gazing at the revolving heavens, and when I lowered mine from there I set them on her. Then as I stared at her I had an internal experience like that of Glaucus when he ate the herb that transformed him into one of the sea-gods. Transcending human consciousness this way is indescribable; anyone who has not had the experience yet will have to be satisfied with the story of Glaucus. I came back from the most holy waters born again, like trees renewed with new foliage; now I was pure and prepared to rise to the stars.” At the end of Till We Have Faces Orual has this very kind of transformation and enters the realm of God.
* Glome is the kingdom at the center of this story. The Latin root glom- gives us our word globe. The archaic English word glome meant the center around which something is wound. (It is around Glome that Lewis’s tale is wound.) Glom, a variant of the Gaelic glaum, means to steal, grab, or snatch. The Latin word glomerarius means one eager to collect men for war. And the obsolete term glome is equivalent to the modern word gloom.
* Gram is the small soldier who accompanies Orual on her second trip to the Grey Mountain to see Istra, and he is extremely terse. The Latin word gramma can be used for a single written character or the slightest articulate sound. In Latin gram refers to the tiny chick pea or a small weight.
* Ialim is the Essurian name for Glome’s dark god “the Shadwbrute,” son or husband of Ungit and counterpart to the Greek god Eros. Ialim and Talapal, the Essurian name for Ungit, may be related to Burmese.
* Ilerdia is the son of Bardia and Ansit. Because Orual kept Bardia away from his family much of the time, Ilerdia must have missed him, and iler is a derivative of the Old English oelar, meaning empty. The city of Lerida in northeast Spain was known in antiquity as Ilerda, a much contested territory between Spain and France and the site of several famous battles. But Lewis has warned us about mare’s nests.
* Ingarn is where Orual saved Bardia’s life once in battle. Possibly
related to garn (Old Norse for yarn), garnwin (winding wheel for yarn), or garner (a storehouse for grain).
* Istra is Orual’s beautiful sister. Her name is derived from the Assyrian and Babylonian Ishtar, the equivalent of the Greek goddess Aphrodite. There is a Mediterranean myth about Ishtar that contains elements of both the Greek myth of Persephone and Hades and that of Orpheus and Eurydice. Both of these myths are echoed in Istra’s own trip into the underworld in the second section of this novel.
* Lysias is the Fox’s given name. The historical Lysias was a famous
Athenian orator. Like Lewis’s Lysias, he was forced to live outside Greece for a time, but for him this was due to exile rather than slavery. Lewis’s Lysias was a teacher, and the French word lysee means high school. So the name of Lysias relates to his love of learning and teaching.
* Maia is Istra’s Greek name for Orual that the Fox taught her. Orual was essentially Istra’s foster-mother, and the name Maia means mother, good mother, or foster-mother. It is also used metaphorically to denote one who delivers another from ill, as Orual finally did for Istra. Orual seems to resemble the mythical Maia, daughter of Atlas and eldest of three daughters (Orual is eldest of three daughters), who becomes the nurse of Arcus after Callisto’s death. If Trom’s Maia is like Atlas’s Maia, then perhaps Trom is like Atlas and Glome is like the globe he bears on his back. The Maia of ancient myth was associated with an Italian fertility goddess, and Orual is linked inextricably with Ungit, Glome’s fertility goddess. (Ungit was faceless, and Istra’s Maia chose to make herself faceless.)
* Orual is the protagonist and narrator of Till We Have Faces. The Greek word closest to Orual means pickaxe. Orual uses a pickaxe and descends into the underworld in a vision in chapter two of book two. A closely related Greek word means excavation, ditch, tunnel, or mine. Russia’s Ural Mountains, a natural boundary between Europe and Asia, are rich with ore. In fact, the mid to central section is called the Ore Urals. (There is a Ural language group or family [linguists disagree] named after the Ural Mountains.) The western Bolivian state of Oruro is primarily known for its tin mining. One of Orual’s major accomplishments as queen of Glome is the success of her silver mines. The fact that Orual’s name suggests digging and mining is also appropriate in light of her lifelong, booklong search for meaning and understanding. It is also appropriate because Ungit, Orual’s counterpart, is a stone that once pushed its way up out of the earth. (Lewis’s metaphysical interest in mineral deposits is evident in his little-known three-stanza poem “Break Sun, My Crusted Earth,” published in the collection Fear No More in 1940 and, unfortunately, never reprinted.)
* Penuan is one of Glome’s noblemen. Perhaps his name derives from the Latin penus, a store of provision or food, a sanctuary.
* Phars is a kingdom near Glome. Fars is a region in southern Iran, a
similar location. The ancient Greek city of Pharsalus was famous for a
battle waged there by Caesar, and Orual’s battle with Argan of Phars set her on her course as Glome’s new queen.
* Poobi is a slave in the palace of Glome whom Orual befriends. It is
slightly possible that her name is related to that of the servant Pooh-Bah in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado.
* Psyche is the Fox’s and Orual’s name for their beloved Istra. Psyche is the heroine in the Greek myth of Eros and Psyche, of which Till We Have Faces is a retelling. In Greek Psyche means life, soul, spirit. Istra is life and spirit personified. In Till We Have Faces she is hardly in the flesh at all and scarcely capable of error or wrongdoing. Even her disobedience to her husband serves only to open up the way to greater life.
* Redival is Orual’s only full sister. Her name may be related to the Latin redivivus, meaning renewed, renovated, restored to life; her loneliness and jealousy are assuaged when she weds Trunia. Another possible connection is the Hindu festival of Dival, during which houses and shops are lavishly decorated. The only women in Glome more elaborately made up than Redival are the priestesses of Ungit, and even they are less concerned for their appearance than she is.
* Ringal is a town or city near Glome mentioned early in the novel. Ringald (a form of rangale from the Old French ringaille) refers to the ranks of an army as well as to the rabble or the common herd of humanity.
* Shennit is the primary river that flows along Glome’s border. Thus, its referent is most likely to be found in the obsolete term shend, which is a corruption of the word shield (from the Old High German scanta) and can mean to protect or defend. A nation with a river for a border depends on it for defense from neighboring countries and for domestic commerce and sustenance; if the river fails in either of these capacities, it can very well spell destruction for the nation that relies upon it. This is especially true for a pre-industrial city-state like Glome.
* Talapal is the Essurian name for Ungit. The English word talapoin
(derived from the Burmese pongyi, “my lord”) can mean a Buddhist monk or priest and also a small variety of West African monkey.
* Tarin is a servant in the palace of Glome who has a brief romance with Redival and then is castrated and exiled by Trom. Tarin is the English name for the European siskin, a small green-and-yellow finch. As a male name, it seems to be a variant of Darin. The close rhyme with Varin, a place-name mentioned earlier in the book, may account for its occurring to Lewis.
* Trom is Orual’s father and the king of Glome. The Greek word from which we derive our word trauma is probably the source of this name. The Greek meant quaking or quivering from fear, cold, earthquakes, or delirium. In English, trauma means serious injury or shock to the body or emotions, and Trom inflicts trauma on almost everyone associated with him. Both Trom and Glome are ominous names.
* Trunia is the rebel prince of Phars who later weds Redival and gains the throne. He is Tarin’s successor in love, and his name might have been chosen because it is similar to Tarin’s.
* Ungit is the Glomian equivalent of the Greek goddess Aphrodite, but in Glome she has Babylonian rather than Greek characteristics. She appears as a faceless black stone that is sometimes anointed with blood, and Arnon says she signifies mother earth. Her name is apparently derived from the Latin ungo or unguo, meaning to smear or anoint with any fatty substance; ungo came to Latin by way of Greek, from the Sanskrit word ang, meaning to besmear. Our English equivalent is unction, the act of anointing as part of a religious, ceremonial, or healing ritual.
* Varin’s Wood is mentioned early in Till We Have Faces. Varini is the name of an ancient Germanic people who lived near the Baltic Sea between the Elbe and Oder rivers. Lewis’s Varin’s Wood could be located somewhere near the Baltic Sea.