There is a popular opinion that J. R. R. Tolkien created Middle Earth for the sole purpose of implementing his made-up Elven languages. Whether that theory is true or not, one thing remains for certain: Tolkien’s world is designed in copious detail, and everything related to the languages — names of people, places and objects, has become the impeccable ideal of worldbuilding. Time and time again numerous writers have attempted to follow his footsteps, with varying degree of success, and even if Tolkien’s mastercraft has never been matched, it set a demanding standard.
Medieval Fantasy, But Not Really
The thing with fantasy is that it has to resemble medieval Europe, but there are things that you can’t just carbon copy. Yes, there will be some sort of organized religion with priests vowing celibacy, but it’s totally not Christianity. Yes, there will be some dark-skinned nomadic hordes raiding the continent, but they are totally not the Mongols. Yes, there will be a culture of ruthless pillagers sailing the seas in their longships, but they are totally not Vikings. Essentially, you want to adapt the medieval culture without the direct influence of the historical characters central to it (Julius Caesar, Jesus of Nazareth, Mohammad, Charlemagne, Gengis Khan).
First element of the medieval culture that you have to remove completely is the Bible. And not just the story itself – all the words and phrases that stem from it, too. Some might be acceptable in a fictional setting as universally appplicable, like “ashes to ashes, dust to dust”, “by the skin of one’s teeth”, or “you reap what you sow”. Others are too characteristical for the Bible (“love thy neighbour”), understandable only within its context (“forbidden fruit”), or originating from a personal name or location (“sodomy”). And without the Bible, a fictional world can’t possibly have biblical names.
One John Per Story
It is an unwritten rule of fiction that no two characters can share the same name. Come to think of it, it’s pretty damn obvious. There are virtually no advantages of addressing two people by the same name, and the confusion it may cause to the readers – and potentially, even the writer – is glaring. Unless, of course, mixing up two identically named characters is the point of the story. However, as George R. R. Martin noted himself, when trying to paint a picture of quasi-medieval history, the facts are merciless; medieval names are anything but original, and the fancy Roman numerals are there for a good reason, as there are dozens of reigning Edwards, Johns and Philips throughout numerous dynasties. The narrow naming patterns weren’t specific to the nobility, either – the firstborn son often received the name of his father as his first – or, in Scandinavian cultures, last name.
The reason for this hasn’t changed since the biblical times – parents want their children to have a good name, and the concept of a good name was to simply repeat a name that has been used in the family before. There’s a scene in the Bible when Zahariah’s relatives and neighbours argue against naming his son “John”, as that particular name has never been found in their family before. Repeating popular names is present in all cultures, especially as a way to differentiate two cultures sharing similar or nearly identical languages (a good example would be the prevalence of the name “Ali” in Shia Islam and “Muhammad” in Sunni Islam). Christianity has introduced a “public list” of acceptable names in the form of the saints – every Catholic child has to have a saint patron at their baptism, and if the first name is not Catholic, a second, “proper” one is required. It’s not difficult to realize that such system prevents the emergence of any new Catholic names, unless the saint has converted to Christianity or has been baptized under two names.
GRRM was put in a difficult position when he had to compromise between historical accuracy and writing clarity – and made it happen using two tools: vacant names (it just happens that the guy the name came from is dead, as with Jon Arryn and Jon Snow) and derivative names (Bran after his uncle Brandon, Rickon after his grandfather Rickard). The latter method was originated by Tolkien, who used numerous names like that (Aragorn son of Arathorn, Thorin son of Thrain). Despite all that effort, there are still numerous living characters sharing the same names – the show simply cut all of them out, occasionally leaving a singular specimen. The most extreme case of naming redundancy was when the author, fully aware of what he’s doing, exaggerated this trope to holy hell in the Frey family, where so many men are named Walder that even the book characters get confused. Even Roose’s wife is named (Fat) Walda Frey. Fun fact: Hodor’s name isn’t Hodor – it’s actually Walder. No wonder the show has decided to cut all the extra Walders out.
As the title of this article indicates, Robert, Robb and Robin are essentially the same name here. Eddard Stark and Jon Arryn both named their firstborn sons after Robert Baratheon. In the books, Robert Arryn is nicknamed “Sweetrobin” – the show renamed the wimp to Robin Arryn in order to avoid any possible confusion with the late king.
Wait, I Know That Name
Edward – Eddard, Richard – Rickard, Catherine – Catelyn, John – Jon. The trick is to take a known ordinary name and modify it ever so slightly, sometimes changing only a single letter, but with a quite noticeable effect on the whole word. This trend continues throughout more families than just the Starks – Kevin transforms into Kevan, Peter into Petyr, and Walter into Walder. Lancel is, obviously, short for Lancelot, but the similarities don’t end here: both the Lannister zealot of a cousin and the knight of the Round Table sleep with their queens. Which brings us to the vast realm of shout-outs, as the books are overflowing with subtle yet clear references to other works.
The Lannisters are obviuously the Westerosi version of the Lancasters from the War of the Roses, which is the historical inspiration for A Song of Ice and Fire. The minstrel featured in season 1 is called Marillion, which can be a reference to the book Silmarillion (“the song of Silmarils”), Drogo is a name straight out from Lord of the Rings (Frodo’s father), and there are numerous references to Cthulhu mythos (these seem mandatory for all major fantasy writers). Some of the references are less obvious and disputably coincidential. “Sam”, for example, is a quite common name, and even though Samwell Tarly and Samwise Gamgee serve a very similar purpose to their respective protagonists, the inspiration isn’t one hundred percent certain.
With the aforementioned Edward and Richard, these are popular names of (several) English monarchs. Some names, like “Robert” seems to have managed to transition to the story without change, as it is not a strictly Christian name, but a Germanic one (from “Hrodebert”). Few interesting cases are “Joanna” (which seems to be the only biblical name that made it to the series – Joanna Lannister was Tywin’s wife) and “Stannis”, which seems to originate from Slavic “Stanislav” (“the one who achieves glory”), name shared by two Polish kings, including the last one of them, Stanisław II August.
Dragon Named Drogon
This one is rather a coincidence… or is it? Daenerys named her dragon “Drogon” after her late husband, Khal Drogo, adding the suffix -on, commonly found in dragon names (Balerion, Viserion). Where does the -on suffix come from, though if not the word “dragon” itself?
Sometimes names are supposed to mean something. The first, original names in most languages were like that – one or two words sewn together, serving as a wish for the newborn child’s good fortune. It’s completely justified to have a name with an “obvious” meaning, especially if the interpretation is not straightforwad. “Bran” means “raven” in Welsh, “Orell” means “eagle” in Russian, “Tully” is Irish for “flood” and “Stark” as it is is a very proper name for a family ruling the cold harsh North. What’s nice about such connections, though, is that you can go looking for them, but they’re moderate enough to never stand out. If anything, the author went an extra mile to make sure that the names, even the peasant ones, are not as blunt all the time as they should have been – not saying that there is anything wrong with a name “Gilly”.
The realistic, straightforward naming convention is present, however, in the names of the Seven Kingdoms. Only “Dorne” is a proper name – the rest are quite geographical: “the North”, “the Vale”, “the Riverlands”, “the Iron Islands”, “the Westerlands”, “the Crownlands”, “the Stormlands”, “the Reach”. It goes on with the names given to noblemen’s bastards: Snow, Stone, Rivers, Pyke, Hill, Waters, Storm and Flowers. This element of the Westerosi culture, however lazy might it seem from the writer’s side, feels actually really authentic and consistent. After all, most of the European countries are named in a very similarly straightforward pattern and mean literally “Land of the People” or something in that manner.
Aegons and Hizdahrs
It seems to be a failproof method in fantasy to throw in a simple “ae” dyphtong to achieve an instant Ancient Language style. There go the Targaryens (surprisingly, without “ae” in their family name): Aegon, Aemon, Aerys, Baelor, Maekar, Jaeharys, Rhaenys, Rhaegar, and more. Another popular element is the -nys, -lys and -rys endings. The Targaryen fashion is not exclusive to their faimly, as it has its roots in the commonly known Valyrian culture, and Mace Tyrell, who foguth for the Targaryens against Robert Baratheon, named his daughter Margaery. Simlarly Robb’s wife in the show, who came from Volantis, a city formerly belonging to the Valyrian Freehold, was named Talisa Maegyr.
Cities in Slaver’s Bay are older than Valyria and belong to the Ghiscari culture (pyramids and landscape make it very much Middle Eastern), and the names are all odd and tongue-twisting: Daenerys’s husband Hizdahr zo Loraq, the burned slave trader Kraznys mo Nakloz, and Tyrion’s captor Yezzan zo Qaggaz. As you can already see, the consistency is maintained through generous usage of “q”, “zz”, “mo”, “no”, and “zo”. Overall both Ghiscari and Braavosi (Tycho Nestoris, Syrio Forel) names will be pronounced “normally” by an Italian or a Spaniard, but the Ghiscari ones will have an Arabic melody.
However, it is not just the foreign cultures that manifest naming patterns. Look at the Lannisters – Tyrion is the son of Tywin, who was the son of Tytos, who in was the brother to Tywald and nephew to Tybolt Lannister. Same with Jeor and Jorah Mormont. There are numerous connections like that, some more and some less noticeable, within the noble families and between them. The founder of the house Baratheon, Orys, was the bastard brother to Aegon the Conqueror, and even though the core of his name stands out from the Targaryen lineage, it preserves the Valyrian -rys suffix. Another possible connection is that one of Robert’s bastard sons was named Gendry, in a very similar fashion to king’s brother Renly. It’s not unheard of for the common folk to name their children after the famous nobles, but this fact might be a decision made by Robert or Gendry’s mother, or even just a clue left by the author without putting much attention to its exact reason within the story.
Fabricating a diverse and yet consistent set of names is no easy task, but George R. R. Martin seems to have done a fairly decent job at it. As in most fantasy novels, everything is clearly designed for an English reader, with most names having either English (British, Celtic) or fictional (Valyrian, Braavosi, Ghiscari) etymology. This, paradoxally, makes it easier for non-English readers than if it had stronger references to other languages, as translations don’t have to account for any possible equivalent names (as there are none) and the fictional languages are just as foreign from other language’s standpoint as it is with English.
Details like that are crucial for reader’s (or watcher’s) immersion, and the more attention to the detail, the more believable the setting is. In such carefully sculpted world, “Drogon” is a peculiar but understandable coincidence. In a less convincingly designed universe, “Eragon” might raise some eyebrows.
Tune in tomorrow for the weekly Followup for non-readers! As always, I’m thirsting for any feedback regarding both the usual series and any spin-offs like this one. If you have a topic in mind you’d want to read about, let me know!