Gwladys and the Ghraem’lan

This essai follows ‘Quakers in Spain’, and like it, is a revised and expanded version of a piece I wrote and put up on LiveJournal in May, 2006.


If prose style in fantasy is fraught with peril, naming is a plain old-fashioned minefield. Fantasy writers have a tendency to throw together names from any and all sources that strike their fancy, without thinking how such disparate words came to be in the same language together, or even in the same world. Writers who are very good at other aspects of their craft can still inexplicably fall down in this one area. I am sorry to make a bad example of my friend Jonathan Moeller, but when I first began to read his Demonsouled series, and the first two characters I met were called Mazael and Gerald, I was thrown out of the story long enough to cry aloud to the unheeding night: ‘Mazael is good; Mazael is right and proper. There ought to be a fantasy hero named Mazael, and now, thank God, there is one. But why on earth is he hanging out with someone whose name is a foreign monstrosity like Gerald?’ In Le Guin’s terms, Mazael is from Elfland and Gerald is from Poughkeepsie, and there needs to be some explanation of how they ever came to meet.

There are two bad ways of coming up with fantasy names; or rather, of the many bad ways that one could devise, two are much more popular than the rest. One is to name people and places with the kind of jumble one might get by rolling Perquackey dice. This will do for a joke, or for a private diversion like a role-playing game: a friend of mine once did yeoman service with a character unfortunately named Hogheospox. But it is unkind to inflict such names on the reading public; especially your public.

The opposite error is the perfectly mundane name with a coat of bad paint. I am referring to the practice, which perhaps originated in cheesy Gothic romances but is most firmly established in bad fantasy, of taking familiar or (God help us) transiently fashionable names, changing a couple of letters, sticking in an apostrophe or two, and passing them off as something wild and exotic. It never works. You cannot pass off pinchbeck as fairy-gold, especially to the fairies.

Women writers seem especially prone to this fault — Anne McCaffrey and Katharine Kurtz, with their hordes of imitators, come quickest to mind — which is not surprising, since this is also one of the stock methods of coming up with ‘different’ first names for girl children. P.G. Wodehouse hit it exactly in ‘The Spot of Art’:

‘You sit there and tell me you haven’t enough sense to steer clear of a girl who calls herself Gwladys? Listen, Bertie,’ said Aunt Dahlia earnestly, ‘I’m an older woman than you are — well, you know what I mean — and I can tell you a thing or two. And one of them is that no good can come of association with anything labelled Gwladys or Ysobel or Ethyl or Mabelle or Kathryn. But particularly Gwladys.’

Of course, there are male offenders as well, and they make up in volume of prose whatever they lack in numbers. Robert Jordan’s names are cringingly awful. Take Rand al’Thor: evidently the name of a Dutchman who was named after a Norse god by Arabs, if internal evidence is anything to go by. Trollocs is a bad enough word, reminding one irresistibly of trollops as well as troll-orcs, but nothing compared to the ghastly names of their tribes: Ahf’frait, Al’ghol, Bhan’sheen, Dha’vol, Dhai’mon, Dhjin’nen, Ghar’ghael, Ghob’hlin, Gho’hlem, Ghraem’lan, Ko’bal, Kno’mon. A man who can perpetrate a travesty like that, and deliberately put it into print, should not have the freedom of the streets. He embarrasses the human race by ass’hoh’shieh’shun.

But let us give this dha’vol his dh’ue. Jordan may be the worst offender in bulk, but it is Terry Brooks who holds the record for the worst single name ever used in a fantasy novel: the unforgettable Allanon. (I keep wondering when his sidekick Allateen will show up.) Gary Gygax’s city of Stoink is a dismally close second.

George R. R. Martin, though a much better writer than Brooks or Jordan, comes perilously close to the Gwladys standard here and there in A Song of Ice and Fire. Some of his names (Tyrion, Daenerys, Arya) are quite effective, if over-freighted with the letter Y. But they sort very ill with the not-quite-English names like Eddard and Samwell, and those in turn clash just perceptibly with straight English names like Robert and Jon. One gets the feeling that Martin knows what he is trying to do, but hasn’t a sufficiently developed ear to tell when he has done it. His names go in and out of tune; or rather, they seem to be playing about three different tunes at once, and the tunes don’t harmonize.

In all of sf and fantasy, there have been three authors who perfectly mastered the delicate art of nomenclature: Tolkien, Cordwainer Smith, and Mervyn Peake. Tolkien, of course, worked for decades at his invented languages, and the names he coined in those languages are both euphonious (unless he intended them not to be, like ‘lovely Lugbúrz’) and authentic. But he was also deeply versed in English names, both of people and places, a study that would well reward many writers who do not trouble themselves to undertake it.

As for Smith and Peake, between them they cornered the market in Gothic bizarreries, which happened to perfectly suit the kinds of stories they wanted to tell. It is perfectly correct that Lord Jestocost of the Instrumentality should keep a cat-descended mistress called C’Mell. The C stands for Cat, you see; it is a natural contraction, like the one you occasionally used to see for Scottish names — MacLeod reduced to M’Leod, as it is in one of Kipling’s stories. What’s more, Smith actually unbends far enough to explain this. The average perpetrator of Aggravated Apostrophe couldn’t explain why she sticks pothooks in the middle of words, not to save her life, her soul, and her poetic licence. Or at any rate, she doesn’t bother.

Likewise, it is only right and just that the nemesis of Sepulchrave Groan, Earl of Gormenghast, should be called Steerpike, and that he should apprentice for a time under an old medico by the name of Prunesquallor. (It is still more right and just that the medico should have a ghastly sister named Irma Prunesquallor.) These names are English, or something near it, but so cleanly transported out of the normal conventions of English naming that they take on some of the glamour of names like Aragorn and Lúthien. And unlike Tolkien’s names, it is possible to work out something of their meanings, or at least associations, without an unobtainable dictionary of an imaginary language. This is a great timesaver.

An honourable mention — I owe this observation to my friend John C. Wright — should go to David Lindsay, for some of the names in his infinitely strange novel, Voyage to Arcturus. Despite the name and the ostensible setting, this book really belongs to the genre of fictionalized philosophical declamations, like Atlas Shrugged, rather than science fiction or fantasy as such; which is one of the reasons why it has gone out of vogue, and (frequently) out of print. But Lindsay must have been a considerable influence on Smith and Peake, with his protagonist Maskull, and characters with names like Krag and Nightspore. These names are not all euphonious and certainly not all of one linguistic type, but they are striking and evocative, and that makes up for some of their deficiencies.

Lindsay’s onomastic triumphs, known to thousands who have never read any of his books, are jale and ulfire, the two primary colours that one sees in the Arcturian sunlight, but never on earth. Those names are so suggestive that I can almost imagine what they look like. Jale, to me, suggests a colour between red and green that is nevertheless not yellow; pale like milky jade (for all I know, the name may be a portmanteau of jade and pale), but as bright and vivid as any colour you can see through a prism. (I have read that women with the recessive gene for colour-blindness sometimes report seeing such a red-green colour, but I don’t know what it looks like to them.) Ulfire suggests a torridly brilliant colour somewhere beyond violet, which would affect the human eye somewhat like the purplish-white of the very hottest lightning. Lindsay describes ulfire as ‘wild and painful’, and jale as ‘dreamlike, feverish, and voluptuous’. I can well imagine those descriptions fitting with colours of the sort I have described, though I came up with those impressions from the words alone, without ever having read any part of the book. The names are just that magnificently evocative.

Each method has much to recommend it, but for a writer in a hurry, with middling linguistic gifts, I would recommend leaning towards the Smith-Peake school. Inventing languages, like writing archaic English (or, as Le Guin says, bicycling and computer programming), is one of those things you have got to know how to do before you can do it. Few fantasy writers are inclined to take this advice, alas; and so the ghraem’lans, I fear, will be with us for a long time to come.


  1. I recommend baby name books. And an ear for which ones sound plausible together.

  2. “MacLeod reduced to M’Leod, as it is in one of Kipling’s stories”

    – or indeed M’Turk, who is in all the Stalky stories. Which when I first met that I had no notion that it was a variant on MacTurk, so I still say “MuhTurk” in my head when I read it…

  3. In defense of George R. R. Martin, Westeros has at least three layers of human civilization: the First Men (pseudo-Celts), who were then conquered by the Andals (pseudo-Saxons), who were then conquered by the Targaryens (pseudo-Normans) who were descended from the Valyrians (pseudo-Romans). The names of Westeros come from at least those three languages: First Man, Andal and Valyrian. Andal is the one he renders as pseudo-English, and he is following in a noble tradition here: the Common Tongue of Western Middle-Earth is rendered as English but is actually supposed to be some kind of proto-Semitic, according to Tolkien.

    • Unfortunately, I only got through the first three volumes of the series, and there was no indication of languages in any of the stuff I managed to read. Since I got through well over 2,000 pages of stuff before I was finally put off (it was the Red Wedding that did it), I don’t think it’s unreasonable of me to expect that somewhere in all of that I would have got a clearer indication of how the nomenclature was supposed to hang together.

      It remains a significant flaw, in my opinion, that while some of the ‘Andal’ names are pure English, the names of the pseudo-Celts, pseudo-Normans, and pseudo-Romans don’t appear to bear any linguistic relationship or resemblance to names in the languages of their real counterparts. Guy Gavriel Kay does this much better in his later works, where all of his ‘pseudos’ have names that at least suggest their origins. His pseudo-Byzantines have names recognizably derived from Greek, his pseudo-Vikings from Germanic sources, and so forth.

      By the way, Westron (or Adûnaic) was not supposed to be ‘some kind of proto-Semitic’; it merely has a phonology reminiscent of Semitic, and is not structurally very similar to any Semitic language. The real counterpart of the Semitic languages is Khuzdul, which outright borrows the Semitic trick of basing the whole vocabulary on bi- or tri-consonantal radicals, and using vowels as grammatical markers.

  4. Gwladys is not in fact the happiest example of this, being the unfashionable Welsh-speaking original of which Gladys is an English derivative. It works better in Aunt Dahlia’s context, where Welsh might almost as well be Quenya for her purposes.

    Otherwise, our f’eelinghs on this matter are pretty similar. I also approve of authors’ developing the connection further. If Gertrude is from Poughkeepsie and Galadriel is from Elfland, well; but if both are from one or the other, that constitutes an interesting promise to me which I expect to see carried through, and which can only be made if I trust that the very next character I meet is not going to be named Firesong or Setantae or Random. Likewise, I should be able to inhale a fair few clues about this particular Poughkeepsie if Gertrude’s best friend is Glauce and her brother is Burr: it seems a crashing shame to put me off the trail by drawing red herrings across it, even when ooh, the pretty fishies.

    • True, this. But Wodehouse’s ‘Gwladys’ was not represented as being the least bit Welsh; she was a London-bred artist, just a shade too highly bred to qualify as bohemian, who seemed to have fastened on the Welsh W out of sheer pretentiousness. It was a subtler and more plausible version of the idiot Mark Twain claimed to have known as a young man, who could not bear his common surname of Dunlap and tried to Frenchify it as d’Un Lap.

      But really, this kind of pretension has a long history. It was depressingly common during the Reformation, the age when would-be intellectuals, the better to impress the public, gave themselves dog-Latin names like Paracelsus, or cod Greek ones like Oecolampadius and Melanchthon. English artists pretending to be Celts was just a latter-day manifestation of the same absurdity.

      • Far be it from me to defend the chieftains of the Deformation, but Melancthon and Oecolampadius and such had a better excuse for their name-changing. They really used Latin and Greek naturally and normally, as those of us who have English as a second language do today. They weren’t trying to deform their names; they just translated them into the language they normally used. There was no disguise about that, and I feel pretty sure that in his daily life Melancthon would have answered without any trouble any call to “Philip Schwarzert”. This is not really the same as Gwyladys or d’Un Lop.

        • This is true, but the usual method of latinizing a vernacular name was simply to add the appropriate Latin noun ending, and alter the spelling if necessary; so Mikolaj Kopernik became Nicolaus Copernicus — he didn’t translate his name into (for instance) Aerarius or Chalcurgus, and he certainly didn’t invent an unwieldy Greek compound word for the occasion. Turning one’s name into Greek was no part of the custom.

          At least none of the Reformers were as silly about it as William Alexander Smith, who legally changed his name to the barbarous mock-classical ‘Amor de Cosmos’, and went on to become Premier of British Columbia under that name.

          To return to our muttons, it is unfortunate that ‘Amor de Cosmos and the Ghraem’lan’ just hasn’t got the same ring to it as the title I used.

    • deiseach says

      Even worse examples are those in modern romance/chick-lit type tales, by authors who don’t even aspire to be fantasy writers but produce those kinds of stories. Way back in 2007 I participated in a merry bout of ripping to shreds a Nora Roberts novel which – to quote the hostess of the site – “there is apparently also in the Robertsverse an “evil Celtic god” whose name is Kane. His nemeses on the side of Good are the Celtic god and goddess Pitte and Rowena, and no, these aren’t supposed to be their modern “cover” names. I guess I must have slept through that part of our Celtic Mythology section in the Medieval Lit course I took.”

      Don’t even ask what Ms. Roberts did to the character of the Morrigan whom she apparently decided is the kind of goddess who would go about dressed in white and swathed in rainbows. Yes, that Morrigan.

      Ms. Roberts is not the only offender; we were also warned off a book that is ” the sort of thing where you have a sort of generic late-Medieval/Early Renaissance Europe cognate, where the protagonist is someone named Llewellyn with a sister named Trenna and a male cousin named Cathe, who come from a culture where they worship, among other deities, a goddess called “Habundia” which we find out is merely an epithet of Ceres and whose Darkside avatar is Hecate (yes, Hecate of the moon and the three dogs, that oh-so-Magna Graecan Hecate), where one of the distant menacing enemies, in the Evil Warlord/Warlock/Potential Dark Lord way, is called Roguehan and a possible ally is entitled Walworth”.


      • Ah, well, where it gets really fun is when names of venerable provenance and cultural appropriateness have the misfortune to sound wrong. Especially when mixed with other names that have fallen from fashion. Like, say, Avice and Amy.

  5. In defense of Anne McCaffrey, I think she realized too late that the practice of apostrophating dragonriders’s names when they got their dragons was a bit of an affectation. Apparently, boys who might one day be dragonriders (i.e. mostly the boys who grow up in dragonweyrs) are given names which will contract well. When somebody who *wasn’t* so named accidentally becomes a dragonrider, it’s specifically noted that his name (“Jaxom”) will sound ridiculous when contracted honorifically. Since he’s also a powerful pseudo-feudal lord it’s decided that that’s enough honor and they skip the letterectomy.

    I do write fantasy, but my fantasies are set in an alternate reality which is by and large very similar to present-day Earth, so I don’t have a lot of Alasydins and Morhanthas. But I have an odd habit when naming my characters: characters from English-speaking countries, I give names that I just happen to like and/or select more or less at random. Characters from non-English speaking countries are given names which tell you something about them (I look them up on a baby-name-meaning website which lists names for that particular country.) For instance, the woman in “And All His Heart’s Desires” who turns out to be sort of a Indian holy warrior and has an important message for the hero is called “Punita,” which means “battlefield messenger” in Hindi. (Yes, it’s a female name.) My wife asked why I don’t do this with the English-speaking names as well, and the answer is, I don’t know.

    • Oh dear. I’m afraid that, as an Italian, that gave me a laugh. In Italian “Punita” means punished, and since “impunita”, the contrary term, means shameless and abandoned, one can also suggest that the punishment concerned was for being shameless and abandoned. Oh dear…

  6. Tolkien is the absolute master of this, and for all the right reasons: as a linguistics expert.

    I just finished my second book in a fantasy series where the fae characters from the Mabinogion have settled an otherworld version of the new world and met our ordinary human hero. On the one hand, I have to inflect legitimate Welsh names on the poor reader, not a friendly thing to do even with an index of names and pronunciation. On the other hand, it made me highlight just how very, very few Christian names would be present among the fae, since they’re not Christian. The one or two I use are there because of an outcross to a human from the regular world, somewhere in the background, so it’s become a family name.

    I just hate seeing Christian names popping up in pagan fantasies. Names like John and Thomas aren’t just English (as in the GRR Martin usage), they’re also religious in origin, a double problem when he uses them.

    • I was reading Saberhagen’s The Mask of Apollo, and it had a man named John — and potatoes — in an archaic Greek setting.

      To be sure at the climax, we meet up with an obvious computer quoting scripture so it’s not archaic Greece, but they had felt like flaws, not clues.

      • Granted that many Christian names are Hebrew names first, so a “time-travel” context doesn’t necessarily rule them out. Still they don’t belong in most pagan fantasy.

        • True. Which did put Tolkien in a bit of a cleft stick, since he wanted his Hobbits to have very English names — but modern English, not Anglo-Saxon like the Men of Rohan. So on the one hand he gave them names like Tom and Mat and Sam, but on the other hand he had to come up with etymologies (inside the story) so they would not be short for Thomas, Matthew, and Samuel. Hence the ‘common Hobbit-names’ Tolma and Matta, and of course the unforgettable Samwise.

          It’s a difficult balancing act, and one can point to it as a weakness in LOTR, but on the whole he did better with it than anybody could have a right to expect. (It took him a lot of work to do it that well. At one point Fatty Bolger’s name was Hamilcar, and for a while he was Belisarius. ‘Fredegar’ at least isn’t freighted with that weight of historical baggage.) Most latter-day fantasy writers don’t even bother; they just use names straight out of the Bible in cultures that have no connection with Christianity or Judaism.

  7. It’s also quite right that the Lord Jestocost should have a name that is the exact opposite of his character, and that his predecessor and teacher was the Lord Crudelta (the names mean the same thing). The Lady Panc Ashash, the Lady Goroke, and the Lord Femtiosex have something in common too.

  8. “Terry Brooks who holds the record for the worst single name ever used in a fantasy novel: the unforgettable Allanon. (I keep wondering when his sidekick Allateen will show up.)”

    I’ve never read a Terry Brooks book.

    What is so terrible about Allanon? It doesn’t sound nearly as bad as the others. Stoink is a terrible name, sounding like stink, oink, boink. Jordan’s names are derivative and the meaningless apostrophes are an eyesore. Any work with unjustified apostrophes are automatically garbage. All apostrophes should actually represent something like a glottal stop or a pharyngeal fricative.

    Allanon is maybe kind of bland, but I don’t understand what is so unfortunate about the name, or what the “Allateen” joke is supposed to mean. Does it sound like Aluminum? A Lenin? Alladin?

    I realize I am posting on a 6 year old post. My apologies.

    • No apologies are necessary. I’m glad people are still reading these posts and finding them worthy of comment.

      The trouble with ‘Allanon’ is that it is almost identical with ‘Al-Anon’, the sister organization of Alcoholics Anonymous (for families of alcoholics). Alateen is another AA sister organization. One of the quickest and surest ways for a fantasy author to damage his readers’ trust is to unintentionally evoke an extraneous bit of popular culture, such as a well-known trade name.

      Bored of the Rings, the famous parody of The Lord of the Rings, is full of names that are ridiculous for this exact reason: for instance, three of the main characters are named Frito, Spam, and Pepsi. But it is after all a parody, and the authors were being ridiculous on purpose. When someone does it accidentally, as Brooks did, the effect is mostly just painful.

      Your views on apostrophes, of course, are elevated and correct. (*grin*)

      • Garth Rose says

        A SFF writer friend of mine (with a few books in print by now) memorably showed me his first short story, freshly printed out. It was a fantasy world, and the main character used the magical system of the setting, called Blending. He was thus a Blender.

        I had to gently inform him that the inevitable intrusion of thoughts about kitchen appliances did not help the narrative. 🙂 He’s gotten a lot better.

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