Meaningless names

Charles Butler hannibal at
Tue Mar 16 09:40:53 EST 2004

This topic has been following me around recently like a stray dog. First I
saw this from Jan Mark's review of Eragon (and others) in the TES:

"A defining characteristic of fantasy is that the nomenclature should make
interesting noises but not actually mean anything."

Huh? Did she really say that? A 'defining' characteristic, not just a
regrettably-common one? Mark should know better. Then, just as my blood
cooled to room temperature, I read this on another list (the writer is
herself a fantasy author):

"I hate it when I read a fantasy and the main character's name is something
like Lyyklyzteremdazzentooper. I've read whole books where I know the
characters by the first syllable of their horrendously unpronounceable

Okay, DWJ makes fun of unpronounceable fantasy names in the Tough Guide -
but all this makes me wonder, have we ever talked about her own use of
names? It's clear she thinks pretty hard about them - the Heroic Ideal essay
shows that, even if you couldn't tell from the books. I'm particularly
interested in how she decides when to use an ordinary English name, and when
to go for something more exotic. Most of her early books are set in this
world or ones superficially
like it, and there she tends to go for recognizable names: even in HMC, Howl
turns out to be just Howell after all. In her more recent work we get more
of a mixture of the strange and the familiar, namewise, and not always in
the places we might expect. For example, to find that that mages of the
pirate universe in SWM had names like Edward and Lawrence frankly surprised
me. In that and quite a few other books (e.g. Year of the Griffin) there are
weird mixtures of 'ordinary' names, historical or foreign ones, surnames
being pressed into service as forenames (e.g. Ruskin), and names that are
just invented. Has anyone got any theories about this?

Charlie (whose email system is having problems with this list, recently.
Some posts never arrive at all, others come up to 30 hours late, so if I
ignore you or answer from the purpose that is - possibly - the reason why!)

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