‘Don’t you know who is the king of beasts? Aslan is a lion.’ When Mr Beaver tells the children this news in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, they are surprised – and fair enough, since Turkish language lessons weren’t on the syllabus in the 1940s, and Aslan means lion in Turkish. Creating a convincing fantasy world takes imagination and invention. But when it comes to names, it’s astonishing how many are literally, well, literal. This can give a world depth and rootedness. But it also raises a few questions about what it means to give people names at all.
So Aslan means lion (and ‘Narnia’ is a town in ancient Italy). Gandalf, in Old Norse, means ‘Wand-elf’ – and there really once was a Gandalfr, in ancient Norway, chief of a place called Alfheimr, or ‘Elf-home’. Tolkien and Lewis, of course, were experts in old languages, and cared deeply about basing their fantasies in the real world past. But the tradition of giving names a literal meaning didn’t die with the Inklings.
Philip Pullman exercises a lighter touch in His Dark Materials. Asriel clearly comes from Azrael, the angel of death: Asriel is on a mission to ‘kill death’. And he gets unreasonably cross at his daughter’s deceitfulness, given that he named her ‘Lyra’. Her eventual lover Will, however, takes the biscuit: the plot of the whole series turns on his ability to exercise free . . . will. Sometimes the most obvious ones are hiding in plain sight, reminding us that even our own ordinary names have meaning, from ‘Peter’, the rock, to every girl named after a flower. My own name, Oskar, comes from the Old Norse Ås-karl, meaning ‘god-warrior’, so in last season’s Doctor Who I rolled my eyes when Maisie Williams’ character Ashildr became immortal. Of course she did: her name means ‘god-girl’. Shame they all pronounced it wrong.
As in so much else, no one comes close to J.K. Rowling in the field of nominative determinism. Professor Sprout teaches herbology? The black dog is Sirius ‘dog star’ Black?! Sometimes it’s only suggestive: the Malfoys have gone bad; Cornelius Fudge makes hopeless compromises; Hermione comes out of a long coma in Chamber of Secrets (a nod to The Winter’s Tale?) Sometimes it borders on the obsessive. Remus Lupin: so good a werewolf she named him twice (Romulus and Remus were raised by wolves; Lupin shares a root with ‘Lupus’, meaning wolf). Ludo Bagman: head of the department of magical sports with a first name meaning ‘game’.
Mostly these things are just fun to spot, an author nodding to their influences (Stark/York and Lannister/Lancaster, anyone?) Still, there’s an uncomfortable message here in books generally written for people who have all their big life choices still before them, a message that your fate can be more or less determined at birth. Returning to J.K. Rowling, there’s only one person who gets to choose their own name and, in consequence, how they will spend their life. When Tom Riddle becomes Voldemort he declares himself, literally, to be ‘Thief-of-death’ (all the baddies get French names in Rowling!) – leading to all those horcruxes. Is it only villains who are allowed to choose? It’s bad enough that
most heroes in fantasy spend all their time reacting to evil schemes, endlessly fighting to restore the status quo.
C.S. Lewis (who decided calling a big wolf ‘Fenris’ was too obvious, changing it to the subtler ‘Maugrim’) also allows only one name change, when Strawberry becomes Fledge in The Magician’s Nephew. But Aslan gets to decide that one, just like he decides everything else.
In my own books, The Stones of Winter and The Wild Hunt, most of my characters actually existed, so their names were already decided. One of them, Haralt, even changed his own surname in real life, from Gormsson to Bluetooth. Choosing your own second name is equally important for the two heroes, Astrid and Leif. But in Viking times, people really did believe in fate, and it’s been fun naming the minor characters as if they’ve always had a certain destiny. Both Thorbjorn (Thor-bear) and Karl Bersi (Man-bear) can, well, turn into bears. Bekkhild (sowing-girl) loves needlework. An arrogant poet, Bragi, is named after the first mythic poet – that’s where we get the English ‘to brag’ from.
In the second book The Wild Hunt, which moves further from real events, I got to invent some major characters. Jaska means ‘quiet one’ in Sami, a name that suits her in more ways than one. The two most important names are Issar and Grimnir, since both give major clues about what happens to those characters – so I’m not about to reveal their origins here!
It makes sense that in a magical version of ancient Scandinavia, where well-spoken words have incredible supernatural power, names and fates should be closely linked. But can’t people grow up to be quite different from their names? This is something Astrid and Leif think about a lot in The Wild Hunt. The more you – as a writer – make a name, decided at birth, reflect a grown person’s identity, the more you say about your fantasy world and the freedoms it allows people. Even Harry Potter always hopes to be as normal and unnoticed as his name suggests: in wanting to be like his name he’s no different from the flashy Gilderoy (Gold-king) Lockhart. But there’s always a choice. Whether your name is Ahmed or Aalia, Zara or Zbigniew, do you want to live up to it? Change it (to your favourite avatar)? Remember: it’s never just a name.
The Stones of Winter, and The Wild Hunt, both by Oskar Jensen, are out now, published by Piccadilly Press.