Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Lin Carter on Naming

On to Chapter 10 of Lin Carter's Imaginary Worlds: "A Local Habitation and a Name: Some Remarks on Neocognomina."* This is a continuation of a previous post.

Lin** heads the chapter with the Tsargol Records Genesis 2:19, in which God brings the animals before Adam so that he can name them. God gave the earth to man for his dominion, and to man belongs the office of naming. The two are indissolubly tied – but that is a subject for another post. Lin goes on to quote Auden: "A Proper Name must not only refer, it must refer aptly, and this aptness must be publicly recognizable."

Let me make an aside here. The authority of a parent to name their child is a great authority indeed. I sometimes feel, in an almost mystical sense, that the act of naming exercises an influence over a child's destiny until the day they die and, perhaps, beyond. My parents have revealed that I was almost named Richard; well, I cannot imagine life as Richard any more than I can imagine being a different person. They clearly chose the correct name. It horrifies me when parents are flippant or cute about naming their children.

My wife and I went to a diner late one night a few years ago, and the waiter came over and introduced himself as…well, as having a name most people would find quite humorous. Naturally, being the well-bred people we are, we merely smiled and opened our mouths to order our coffee. Surprised, he asked why we weren't laughing. Apparently his mother had given him his name, and he'd never introduced himself to a patron without being laughed at. Imagine going through life like that! How could someone be so frivolous, to name their child as though they were a cute doll that would never grow up and have to make their way in the world?

My own children's names I thought long and carefully about. I named my son after my father and grandfather, but his middle name is a rather ornate Greek name that isn't commonly encountered in its masculine form, and has to do with the season in which he was born. Both my children have martyrs' names from the Roman Canon. We considered others, of course, but there's a strange retrospective sense of predestination. Beforehand, we could have chosen anything, but after the fact it was always going to be what we picked, forever, from the foundation of the world.

There's a touch of that in writing. I find that I have to be careful about affixing placeholder names to characters until I can think of something better, because they tend to become canonical and irreplaceable despite my intentions. Consider the example of E. R. Eddison, the consummate stylist who wrote an epic fantasy novel in Jacobean prose while retaining the ridiculous names of his childhood make-believe games, like Goldry Bluzsco and Fax Fay Faz. I'm willing to bet that he simply couldn't have written the story otherwise.

All of which is to say, the subject of naming must be approached diffidently, because we have less freedom in the matter than it may sometimes seem.

Lin begins by discussing Robert E. Howard's much-criticized penchant for using actual historical names. I can understand the criticism, but to be honest it's never really bothered me. REH was looking for connotations, and was generally pretty good about picking the right ones. Leigh Brackett's Sword of Rhiannon I have a harder time forgiving. What could she have been thinking, to have used Welsh place-names for an ancient Martian civilization? Babylonian I could see. Assyrian, too, or Egyptian. One of those desert empires that made really big stone buildings. But "Caer" on Mars? And "Ywain" as a lady-name?? And "Rhiannon" as a male entity???

Of course, a decent historical name is arguably better than a really stupid made-up one. Lin commends Moorcock's Imrryr (though why the double r?) but singles out R'lin K'ren A'a for contempt. How exactly did those mysterious preadamite races pronounce words with apostrophies?

As to aptness in common-nouning, Lin cites the opening to Edgar Rice Burroughs' Thuvia, A Maid of Mars as a prime example. Happy choice! I will repeat it here, though I've done so on this blog before:
Upon a massive bench of polished ersite beneath the gorgeous blooms of a giant pimalia a woman sat. Her shapely, sandalled foot tapped impatiently upon the jewel-strewn walk that wound beneath the stately sorapus trees across the scarlet sward of the royal gardens of Thuvan Dihn, Jeddak of Ptarth, as a dark-haired, red- skinned warrior bent low toward her, whispering heated words close to her ear.
Even without having read this passage, it's plain to anyone that ersite is a hard, granite-like stone susceptible to cutting and polishing, suited to upholding the shapely posteriors of scantily clad Martian princesses, while the pimalia is clearly a small, exotic tree out of place anywhere but the ornamental gardens of Martian jeddaks. The sorapus, of course, is a bit like a horse chestnut, a bit like a loquat, and a bit like an elephant, with big leaves and knobby, many-branching trunks.

I've written on the subject of common noun invention in previous posts, so won't dwell on it here. The point is to introduce apposite new terms for common things so as not to break the spell of the story.

For this reason Lin excoriates the style of one Jane Gaskell***, whose works I have not read, but who uses words like "epaulettes," "the big brass," and "H.Q." in a novel-series set during the time of Atlantis. She corresponded with C. S. Lewis, who advised her that names in fantasies should be "beautiful and suggestive as well as strange; not merely odd." He adds: "In a fantasy, every precaution must be taken never to break the spell, to do nothing which will wake the reader and bring him with a bump to the common earth. All magic dies at the touch of the commonplace."

Lin spends several pages discussing letter choice. He warns against an overuse of Q, X, and Z in attempting to create exotic-sounding place-names. This is excellent advice, though he might just as well have mentioned the abuse of double (and triple!) letters, a practice to which he was unfortunately addicted. Tolkien is presented as an antidote. He uses English-derived names for place-names in the common tongue, which eases the (English) reader into the story. Verisimilitude and mystery are heightened by occasionally referring to the more ancient, Elvish names, of which the common names are sometimes corruptions. For instance, the Brandywine is known to the Elves as Baranduin.

This reminds one of the many towns and rivers in England whose names come down from pre-Roman times, such as York, which derives from the latinized Eburacum. The landscape mirrors this layeredness. In a single day I once toured Salisbury Cathedral, went by bus to Stonehenge and Avebury, walked past Silbury Hill (a prehistoric mound used by Roman road surveyors) to an open Bronze-Age barrow, saw from a distance a white horse-figure cut into the green downs, and returned to town to dine on venison at a medieval inn. At the time it struck me that Eriador could be an immense Salisbury Plain.

There is, Lin claims, an "almost irresistible tendency to make up names which begin with 'T.'" I must confess to never having experienced this myself. S is also singled out as an offender. It is quite true from a practical point of view that one should avoid having too many names that begin with the same letter. Then again, one can get a little too worried about it, so that it becomes obvious and annoying.

Come to think of it, though, the character names in LOTR are pretty well distributed. If anything Tolkien would seem to incline toward F and G, with his Frodo, Fredegar, Folco, Faramir, Gandalf, Glamdring, Galadriel, Gondor, and Gimli. Lin criticizes his overuse of the ending -or for countries, e.g., Arnor, Eriador, Gondor, Mordor. Which, I suppose, is valid enough, though it's never bothered me.

With that, on to Chapter 11: "Tricks of the Trade: Some Advanced Techniques of World-Making."

* Is "neocognomina" a real word? Or was Lin indulging in a bit of unwarranted neology?

** He writes so chattily, I find I must call him by his praenomen. It's similar to the way people can't help but refer to Elizabeth Gaskell as Mrs. Gaskell, and to J. R. R. Tolkien as Professor Tolkien (though no one ever calls C. S. Lewis Professor Lewis – I suspect pipes have to do with it).

*** The great grandniece of Elizabeth Gaskell, mentioned in the previous footnote. Apparently she went on to become a journalist and an astrologer.

Monday, March 3, 2014

What Is So Great About The Worm Ouroboros?

A while back I discovered the statistics section of my blogging dashboard. Apparently I've just passed the ten thousandth visit since starting this blog in late 2011, thanks in no small part to the dedication of all the loyal spam-bots who carefully pore over everything I've written. Thank you all.

Most amusingly, Blogger shows you the search keywords that got visits to your site. I usually feel sorry for these people, as I probably didn't give them what they were after when they searched for "tom cruise," "gouache artists," "planet krypton," "of the attraction for," "i am a catholic not like someone else," "flying whale," "soylent green paper answer key," or "the protagonist doesn."

But recently someone came here from a search for "what is so great about the worm ouroboros." Ah, now this is something I can help with. My friend, you have come to the right place.

Here, without further ado, are the…


Reason 10. Alliteration in Duress
But the Prince himself took flamboys and went six in company to the old banquet hall, overpowered the guard, brake open the doors, and so stood before Lord Juss and Lord Brandoch Daha that hung shackled to the wall side by side. Something dazzled they were in the sudden torch-light, but Lord Brandoch Daha spake and hailed the Prince, and his mocking haughty lazy accents were scarcely touched with hollowness, for all his hunger-starving and long watching and the cark and care of his affliction. "La Fireez!" he said. "Day ne'er broke up till now. And methought ye were yonder false fitchews fostered in filth and fen, the spawn of Witchland, returned again to fleer and flout at us."
Reason 9. Overdecorated Palaces
At the end of the hall upon a dais stood three high seats, the arms of each composed of two hippogriffs wrought in gold, with wings spread, and the legs of the seats the legs of the hippogriffs; but the body of each high seat was a single jewel of monstrous size: the left-hand seat a black opal, asparkle with steel-blue fire, the next a fire-opal, as it were a burning coal, the third seat an alexandrite, purple like wine by night but deep sea-green by day. Ten more pillars stood in semicircle behind the high seats, bearing up above them and the dais a canopy of gold. The benches that ran from end to end of the lofty chamber were of cedar, inlaid with coral and ivory, and so were the tables that stood before the benches. The floor of the chamber was tessellated, of marble and green tourmaline, and on every square of tourmaline was carven the image of a fish: as the dolphin, the conger, the cat-fish, the salmon, the tunny, the squid, and other wonders of the deep. Hangings of tapestry were behind the high seats, worked with flowers, snake's-head, snapdragon, dragon-mouth, and their kind; and on the dado below the windows were sculptures of birds and beasts and creeping things.
Reason 8. Hippogriffs and Crocodiles
In such wise Mivarsh fell asleep, clasping the egg as a man should clasp his dearest. And a little before dawn it hatched in his arms and fell asunder, and he started awake, his arms about the neck of a strange steed. It went forth into the pale light before the sunrise, and he with it, holding it fast. The sheen of its hair was like the peacock's neck; its eyes like the changing fires of a star of a windy night. Its nostrils widened to the breath of the dawn. Its wings unfolded and grew stiff, their feathers like the tail-feathers of the peacock pheasant, white with purple eyes, and hard to the touch as iron blades. Mivarsh was mounted on its back, seizing the shining mane with both hands, trembling. And now was he fain to descend, but the hippogriff snorted and reared, and he, fearing a great fall, clung closer. It stamped with its silver hoofs, flapping its wings, ramping like a lioness, tearing up the grass with its claws. Mivarsh screamed, torn between hope and fear. It plunged forward and leaped into the air and flew.
     The Demons, waked by the whirring of wings, rushed from the pavilion, to behold that marvel flown against the obscure west. Wild was its flight, like a snipe dipping and plunging. And while they looked, they saw the rider flung from his seat and heard, some moments after, a dull flop and splash of a body fallen in the lake.
     The wild steed vanished, winging toward the upper air. Rings ran outward from the splash, troubling the surface of the lake, marring the dark reflection of Zora Rach mirrored in the sleeping waters.
     "Poor Mivarsh!" cried Lord Brandoch Daha. "After all the weary leagues I made him go with me." And he threw off his cloak, took a dagger in his teeth, and swam with great overarm strokes out to the spot where Mivarsh fell. But nought he found of Mivarsh. Only he saw near by on an island beach a crocodile, big and bloated, that eyed him guiltily and stayed not for his coming, but lumbering into the water dived and disappeared.
Reason 7. Dramatic Entrances
Lord Juss and Lord Brandoch Daha watched, as men watch for a star to rise, that radiant portal. And like a star indeed, or like the tranquil moon appearing, they beheld after a while one crowned like a Queen with a diadem of little clouds that seemed stolen from the mountain sunset, scattering soft beams of rosy brightness. She stood alone under that mighty portico with its vast shadowy forms of winged lions in shining stone black as jet. Youthful she seemed, as one that hath but just bidden adieu to childhood, with grave sweet lips and grave black eyes and hair like the night. Little black martlets perched on her either shoulder, and a dozen more skimmed the air above her head, so swift of wing that scarcely the eye might follow them. Meantime, that delicate and simple melody mounted from height to height, until in a while it burned with all the fires of summer, burned as summer to the uttermost ember, fierce and compulsive in its riot of love and beauty. So that, before the last triumphant chords died down in silence, that music had brought back to Juss all the glories of the mountains, the sunset fires on Koshtra Belorn, the first great revelation of the peaks from Morna Moruna; and over all these, as the spirit of that music to the eye made manifest, the image of that Queen so blessed-fair in her youth and her clear brow's sweet solemn respect and promise: in every line and pose of her fair form, virginal dainty as a flower, and kindled from withinward as never flower was with that divinity before the face of which speech and song fall silent and men may but catch their breath and worship.
Reason 6. Dancing Animals
Next the Red Foliot called for his Cat-bears, that stood before him foxy-red above but with black bellies, round furry faces, and innocent amber eyes, and soft great paws, and tails barred alternately with ruddy rings and creamy; and he said, "O Cat-bears, dance before us, since dearly we delight in your dancing."
     They asked, "Lord, will you that we perform the Gigue?"
     And he answered them, "The Gigue, and ye love me."
     So the stringed instruments began a swift movement, and the tambourines and triangles entered on the beat, and swiftly twinkled the feet of the Cat-bears in the joyous dance. The music rippled and ran and the dancers danced till the hall was awhirl with the rhythm of their dancing, and the Witches roared applause. On a sudden the music ceased, and the dancers were still, and standing side by side, paw in furry paw, they bowed shyly to the company, and the Red Foliot called them to him and kissed them on the mouth and sent them to their seats, that they might rest and view the dances that were to follow.
Reason 5. Bad-Ass Sorcerer Kings
Like a black eagle surveying earth from some high mountain the King passed by in his majesty. His byrny was of black chain mail, its collar, sleeves, and skirt edged with plates of dull gold set with hyacinths and black opals. His hose were black, cross-gartered with bands of sealskin trimmed with diamonds. On his left thumb was his great signet ring fashioned in gold in the semblance of the worm Ouroboros that eateth his own tail: the bezel of the ring the head of the worm, made of a peach-coloured ruby of the bigness of a sparrow's egg. His cloak was woven of the skins of black cobras stitched together with gold wire, its lining of black silk sprinkled with dust of gold. The iron crown of Witchland weighed on his brow, the claws of the crab erect like horns; and the sheen of its jewels was many-coloured like the rays of Sirius on a clear night of frost and wind at Yule-tide. 
Reason 4. Stinking Mantichores
Small time was there to ponder. Swinging from hold to hold across the dizzy precipice, as an ape swingeth from bough to bough, the beast drew near. The shape of it was as a lion, but bigger and taller, the colour a dull red, and it had prickles lancing out behind, as of a porcupine; its face a man's face, if aught so hideous might be conceived of human kind, with staring eyeballs, low wrinkled brow, elephant ears, some wispy mangy likeness of a lion's mane, huge bony chaps, brown blood-stained gubber-tushes grinning betwixt bristly lips. Straight for the ledge it made, and as they braced them to receive it, with a great swing heaved a man's height above them and leaped down upon their ledge from aloft betwixt Juss and Brandoch Daha ere they were well aware of its changed course. Brandoch Daha smote at it a great swashing blow and cut off its scorpion tail; but it clawed Juss's shoulder, smote down Mivarsh, and charged like a lion upon Brandoch Daha, who, missing his footing on the narrow edge of rock, fell backwards a great fall, clear of the cliff, down to the snow an hundred feet beneath them.
     As it craned over, minded to follow and make an end of him, Juss smote it in the hinder parts and on the ham, shearing away the flesh from the thigh bone, and his sword came with a clank against the brazen claws of its foot. So with a horrid bellow it turned on Juss, rearing like a horse; and it was three heads greater than a tall man in stature when it reared aloft, and the breadth of its chest like the chest of a bear. The stench of its breath choked Juss's mouth and his senses sickened, but he slashed it athwart the belly, a great round-armed blow, cutting open its belly so that the guts fell out. Again he hewed at it, but missed, and his sword came against the rock, and was shivered into pieces. So when that noisome vermin fell forward on him roaring like a thousand lions, Juss grappled with it, running in beneath its body and clasping it and thrusting his arms into its inward parts, to rip out its vitals if so he might. So close he grappled it that it might not reach him with its murthering teeth, but its claws sliced off the flesh from his left knee down ward to the ankle bone, and it fell on him and crushed him on the rock, breaking in the bones of his breast. And Juss, for all his bitter pain and torment, and for all he was well nigh stifled by the sore stink of the creature's breath and the stink of its blood and puddings blubbering about his face and breast, yet by his great strength wrastled with that fell and filthy man-eater. And ever he thrust his right hand, armed with the hilt and stump of his broken sword, yet deeper into its belly until he searched out its heart and did his will upon it, slicing the heart asunder like a lemon and severing and tearing all the great vessels about the heart until the blood gushed about him like a spring. And like a caterpillar the beast curled up and straightened out in its death  spasms, and it rolled and fell from that ledge, a great fall, and lay by Brandoch Daha, the foulest beside the fairest of all earthly beings, reddening the pure snow with its blood. And the spines that grew on the hinder parts of the beast went out and in like the sting of a new-dead wasp that goes out and in continually. It fell not clean to the snow, as by the care of heaven was fallen Brandoch Daha, but smote an edge of rock near the bottom, and that strook out its brains. There it lay in its blood, gaping to the sky.
Reason 3. Conjuring in the Iron Tower
And now through every window came a light into the chamber as of skies paling to the dawn. Yet not wholly so; for never yet came dawn at midnight, nor from all four quarters of the sky at once, nor with such swift strides of increasing light, nor with a light so ghastly. The candle flames burned filmy as the glare waxed strong from without: an evil pallid light of bale and corruption, wherein the hands and faces of the King Gorice and his disciple showed death-pale, and their lips black as the dark skin of a grape where the bloom has been rubbed off from it. The King cried terribly, "The hour approacheth!" And he took a phial of crystal containing a decoction of wolf's jelly and salamander's blood, and dropped seven drops from the alembic into the phial and poured forth that liquor on the figure of the crab drawn on the floor. Gro leaned against the wall, weak in body but with will unbowed. So bitter was the cold that his hands and feet were benumbed, and the liquor from the phial congealed where it fell. Yet the sweat stood in beads on the forehead of the King by reason of the mighty striving that was his, and in the overpowering glare of that light from the underskies he stood stiff and erect, hands clenched and arms outstretched, and spake the words LURO VOPO VIR VOARCHADUMIA.
     Now with those words spoken the vivid light departed as a blown-out lamp, and the midnight closed down again without. Nor was any sound heard save the thick panting of the King; but it was as if the night held its breath in expectation of that which was to come. And the candles sputtered and burned blue. The King swayed and clutched the table with his left hand; and again the King pronounced terribly the word VOARCHADUMIA.
Reason 2. The Lord Gro
And the son of Corund went, and returned anon with Lord Gro, that came with furtive step yet goodly and fair to behold. The nose of him was hooked like a sickle and his eyes great and fair like the eyes of an ox, inscrutable as they. Lean and spare was his frame. Pale was his face and pale his delicate hands, and his long black beard was tightly curled and bright as the coat of a black retriever.
Reason 1. The Lord Brandoch Daha
His gait was delicate, as of some lithe beast of prey newly wakened out of slumber, and he greeted with lazy grace the many friends who hailed his entrance. Very tall was that lord, and slender of build, like a girl. His tunic was of silk coloured like the wild rose, and embroidered in gold with representations of flowers and thunderbolts. Jewels glittered on his left hand and on the golden bracelets on his arms, and on the fillet twined among the golden curls of his hair, set with plumes of the king-bird of Paradise. His horns were dyed with saffron, and inlaid with filigree work of gold. His buskins were laced with gold, and from his belt hung a sword, narrow of blade and keen, the hilt rough with beryls and black diamonds. Strangely light and delicate was his frame and seeming, yet with a sense of slumbering power beneath, as the delicate peak of a snow mountain seen afar in the low red rays of morning. His face was beautiful to look upon, and softly coloured like a girl's face, and his expression one of gentle melancholy, mixed with some disdain; but fiery glints awoke at intervals in his eyes, and the lines of swift determination hovered round the mouth below his curled moustachios.
See also here, here, and here.

If, on the other hand, these things leave you cold; if you shrink from these jeweled Renaissance word-palaces; if the wine of true fantasy is too heady for your milk-and-water tastes; if you prefer the safe tropes of genre fiction to the strange, the terrible, the beautiful, and the eccentric – if any of these apply to you, my friend, then flee this place, and never let twilight catch you in the Lotus Room.