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.


  1. My favorite made up name of all time is one that occurs only in this chapter of Lin Carter: the name Unmoiqh. It has that over-the-top sound of self parody of someone trying too hard to coin an alien term -- which, of course, was exactly what Lin Carter was trying to capture in coining the term.

    I have always been taken aback by Carter's discontent with the names of lands in Tolkien. It was obvious enough to me, even as a child, that Mordor, Gondor, Eriador and so on have the same ending for the same reason that Iceland, Greenland, and Scotland do. "Dor" means "Land."

  2. I just read a fantasy story in a 'zine that suffered from similar poor word choices as Gaskell is described making. The already thin atmosphere was ruined.