Tag Archives: names

Khazâd Part IV: The Road Goes On

This post is the end of a series. Find the earlier installments here:
Of the Free Peoples of Arda
Contrariwise
Khazâd Part I: Aulë
Khazâd Part II: The Deep Places of the World
Khazâd Part III: Creation

I’ve tried to wrangle this post down to something (possibly) reasonable. I hope you have enjoyed the series and that the Khazâd, if they haven’t before, now spark your curiosity and imagination.

Stereotypes, pernicious over-simplifications based on seeds of truth covered with lies, are as pervasive in our literary worlds as they are in the world we inhabit. I will spare you a full rant, but one of my objects in life is to smash the boxes we form around each-other that prevent us from truly seeing our fellows. If I could do it with an axe, I would. Baruk Khazâd! Khazâd ai-mênu!

The more time J. R. R. Tolkien spends with a character or a race, the more stereotypes fade. It is ironic that numerous clichés have arisen from the reading and subsequent glossing-over of his work.  It makes me wonder how many people actually read him. My intent is to highlight often-overlooked aspects of Tolkien’s Dwarves and break down some of the popular clichés. However, there is always a danger of creating new ones, and that is just as bad. I dislike even “positive” stereotypes because they insulate us from seeing.

Therefore, assume Tolkien wrote exceptions to everything I say about the Khazâd. They are not all alike.

In many “fantasy” books, films, and games, Dwarves are either comic relief; gruff, warlike side-characters; or else the “Big Guy” of the story.  Because the clichés have roots in Tolkien, some assume that Tolkien wrote according to these pop-culture images. His Khazâd are not pretty or dashing enough to garner much attention, and so their subtle complexity is overlooked. In contrast, his equally-complex Elves have gotten so much attention that many people are sick of them, which is also sad.

The seeds at the heart of “Tolkienesque”  Dwarves can be found in Tolkien’s work. He, however, does not take the acorn for the oak, and neither should we.

The Khazâd, like all of Tolkien’s races, have their cultural weaknesses. I share many of these, which adds sympathy to my other reasons for loving them. Excessive pride is probably the cause of their worst moments (Thorin, anyone?). This is not surprising for a people whom the elves call “Naugrim,” meaning “Stunted People,” and who face attitudes such as this:

…Caranthir was haughty and scarce concealed his scorn for the unloveliness of the Naugrim, and his people followed their lord. Quenta Silmarilion, Chapter 13

While the scorn of others doesn’t excuse pride, it helps explain the defensiveness of many Dwarves. They are also stubborn. The Silmarillion states that Aulë made them stubborn in defiance of the Enemy. It stands them in good stead, but it also gets between them and those who would be their friends were they more yielding.

…they were made…  to resist most steadfastly any domination. Though they could be slain or broken, they could not be reduced to shadows enslaved to another will… All the more did Sauron hate… and desire to dispossess them.” -Appendix A

Though it was sometimes destructive in other ways, I love that the stubborn nature of the Dwarves kept them from coming under the dominion of Sauron.

The greedy Dwarf is a stereotype all it’s own, isn’t it? Perhaps Tolkien understood that fierce love of the beauty of the world, though good in its way, leaves the heart vulnerable. I certainly find it so in myself.  It is a difficult balance to love without coveting; to be in the world and not of it. Like the Dwarves, sometimes I succeed and sometimes I fail. But I am very fond of this quote of Galadriel’s from The Fellowship of the Ring:

Let none say again that Dwarves are grasping and ungracious!

There is evidence throughout Tolkien’s scribbles that Dwarves are not as greedy as they are painted by the other races. For the sake of length, I will have to let you find it on your own.

The Khazâd are secretive. They do not teach their language to others and their true names are never written or told to outsiders. That’s right, we only have nicknames for the Dwarves! It may not help their relationships outside their own people, but I find the secretive aspect of Dwarven society mysterious. I like a little mystery.

Like their weaknesses, the strengths of the Dwarves are usually blown out of proportion or, if they do not fit cleanly into the clichés, forgotten. Loyalty is common in stock-fantasy Dwarves, but it is also very present in Tolkien’s representation. This resonates deeply with me. I believe friendship should be fast (in the archaic sense) and enduring. Love and promises should bind. The Khazâd, in general, seem to agree with me. This, however, ties in with an aspect of Dwarves often completely ignored: romantic love.

Because they are not beautiful, Dwarves in love seems off-putting to many. Even Tolkien says little on the subject. According to the Appendix A, only about a third of Dwarves are women (how are they not extinct?). Not all Dwarf women desire marriage, and neither do all Dwarf men (which is good, given the discrepancy in numbers!). But when they do marry, they take only one wife or husband in a lifetime. It is said that often a Dwarf woman, on failing to win the heart she desires, “will have no other.” I expect the same is true for Dwarf men. This suggests that when they do love it is with a passion similar to their craftsmanship: a powerful, single-minded, and loyal love.

The Khazâd are passionate beneath the surface. Cliché Dwarves seem to have three settings: wrathful, dour or rollicking. Tolkien’s writing gives a more balanced picture. His Dwarves show a full emotional range expressed in subtle, sometimes elegant, ways. Elegant Dwarves!

Far from the stereotypical “angry Dwarf shout of grief and rage!” that we get in the films, this is Gimli’s reaction on finding Balin’s tomb in Moria:

Gimli cast his hood over his face.

And when time came to escape:

Gimli had to be dragged away by Legolas: in spite of the peril he lingered by Balin’s tomb with his head bowed.

He breaks my heart, then gives it back to me whole and makes me smile:

“Dark is the water of Kheled-zâram… and cold are the springs of Kibil-nâla. My heart trembles at the thought that I may see them soon.” – The Fellowship of the Ring 

I will not quote his interactions with Galadriel, but any who have read the books will know them.

As I have said in earlier posts, the Dwarves have a passion for beauty and for craftsmanship. They are creative as well as industrious. This is a people who hang “flowering stars” on silver necklaces, create “metal wrought like fishes’ mail,” carve stone halls like beech forests, and treasure natural beauty deeply. The pop-culture ideas of elf-craft are probably closer to Tolkien’s idea of Dwarven works than the chunky and rigid images we always see. Not that there isn’t a place for stereotypical Dwarf-architecture. I like that too.

Tolkien and the clichés seem to agree that the Dwarves are strong. Tolkien’s Dwarves, at their best, have not only physical power and toughness, but deep roots to weather storms.

Last of all the eastern force to stand firm were the Dwarves of Belegost… And but for them Glaurung and his brood would have withered all that was left of the Noldor. But the Naugrim made a circle about him when he assailed them, and even his mighty armour was not full proof against the blows of their great axes; and when in his rage Glaurung turned and struck down Azaghâl, Lord of Belegost, and crawled over him, with his last stroke Azaghâl drove a knife into his belly, and so wounded him that he fled the field, and the beasts of Angband in dismay followed after him. Then the Dwarves raised up the body of Azaghâl and bore it away; and with slow steps they walked behind singing a dirge in deep voices, as it were a funeral pomp in their country, and gave no heed more to their foes; and none dared to stay them. ” Quenta Silmarilion, Chapter 20

Wisdom is more associated with the Elves in Tolkien’s tales, but I think the Dwarves have their share. Here is what the surviving Dwarves have to say to Thráin when, after the battle against the orcs of Moria, he claims victory and wishes to reclaim Khazâd-dûm.

Durin’s Heir you may be, but even with one eye you should see clearer. We fought this war for vengeance, and vengeance we have taken. But it is not sweet. If this is victory, then our hands are too small to hold it. -Appendix A

That does not sound like the impulsive behavior so often portrayed in Dwarf stereotypes. I am tired of Dwarves being fools. Gimli, in Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” films, shows less than half the intelligence and wisdom of the same character from the books. But the Khazâd are an intelligent race:

…the Dwarves were swift to learn, and indeed were more willing to learn the Elven-tongue than to teach their own to those of alien race. – Quenta Silmarilion, Chapter 10

Apart from some of the silliness in The Hobbit, I do not recall Dwarves doing stupid things, or having sub-par intelligence.

Thankfully, (for I dearly love to laugh) the Dwarves have their humor and joy as well. Thorin is probably the most “serious” Dwarf we meet (unless one counts Mîm), and the rest like to joke and laugh when they can. The plate-breaking song in the beginning of The Hobbit is an excellent example. There is a difference, though, between having a gift for humor and being comic relief.

Music and song are mentioned repeatedly in relation to the Khazâd. And this from a people in exile whose story, like that of Arda itself, is one of devastating loss and victories that come at great cost. But the Dwarves are resilient, using their outward toughness to protect the gems beneath. Gimli makes me cry and laugh, and his whole race makes me smile.

And finally, I give you an amateur reading of Gimli’s chant within Moria: My favorite of the verses in The Lord of the Rings.

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Progress?

Mere Inkling has an entertaining post on The Fantasy Novelist’s Exam and the heroic and tragic death of Boromir son of Denethor son of Ecthelion from Lord of the Rings.

More than likely, no one will be interested in this, but I am and therefore I shall post it. Also, my promised posts on Dwarves are not ready yet, so this will have to do.

I took the exam twice. Once for the first “high fantasy” story I ever started (at the age of 12 and still ongoing for my own enjoyment) and my current work in progress which, if I can finish, I will try to publish some day. The first set of answers are in red, and the second in blue. There are places where I can tell I have progressed. Overall, though, I do not see a huge difference in the answers.

I can tell a difference between the stories.  I’ve learned lessons about plot, clichés, characterization and prose. I find it interesting, and a little discouraging, that I have not changed much in essentials, though.

I guess there is no merit in change for change’s sake, and as I am not dissatisfied with my answers, I will try not to worry about it.

  1. Does nothing happen in the first fifty pages?
    no.  no.
  2. Is your main character a young farmhand with mysterious parentage?
    Mysterious parentage, yes, farmhand? NoNope.
  3. Is your main character the heir to the throne but doesn’t know it?
    Not a throne, but a strategic military position.  Nope.
  4. Is your story about a young character who comes of age, gains great power, and defeats the supreme badguy?
    He’s not that supreme, really…    hmm… tricky question. Loosely?
  5. Is your story about a quest for a magical artifact that will save the world?
    13 artifacts, actually. What can I say, I have attention-deficit issues.  Nope.
  6. How about one that will destroy it?
    Nope.  Nope.
  7. Does your story revolve around an ancient prophecy about “The One” who will save the world and everybody and all the forces of good?
    No prophecies here.  There’s a prophecy tangled up in all of it, but not one of that kind. 
  8. Does your novel contain a character whose sole purpose is to show up at random plot points and dispense information?
    Not sole purpose, but… yeah.  Not that I know of. I need to watch out for that, though.
  9. Does your novel contain a character that is really a god in disguise?
    Not a god, but a dragon. Er… dragons.  Nope.
  10. Is the evil supreme badguy secretly the father of your main character?
    Ugh… No, No and NO!  It would be a little weird for a female to be someone’s father… And no, she’s not her mother, either.
  11. Is the king of your world a kindly king duped by an evil magician?
    There is no “king of the world” but the Hastaren Emperor is a puppet…  Nope.
  12. Does “a forgetful wizard” describe any of the characters in your novel?
    No, indeed. My wizard is quite present, thank you. Nope.
  13. How about “a powerful but slow and kind-hearted warrior”?
    Securen insists that he is not slow. I have to agree, though Millace is giving us a wry look. Nope.
  14. How about “a wise, mystical sage who refuses to give away plot details for his own personal, mysterious reasons”?
    Erhm… yes.  Nope.
  15. Do the female characters in your novel spend a lot of time worrying about how they look, especially when the male main character is around?
    Nope. Nope.
  16. Do any of your female characters exist solely to be captured and rescued?
    No! Grr.  Possibly one, but I am working on her.
  17. Do any of your female characters exist solely to embody feminist ideals?
    No.  No. That would be self-defeating.
  18. Would “a clumsy cooking wench more comfortable with a frying pan than a sword” aptly describe any of your female characters?
    No. Nope.
  19. Would “a fearless warrioress more comfortable with a sword than a frying pan” aptly describe any of your female characters?
    Does a distant tertiary character count? If so, then yes. World domination for the win!  One that comes to mind. Both her and the character mentioned above are of the same people-group.  None of their people are very into frying pans. Hmm…
  20. Is any character in your novel best described as “a dour dwarf”?
    Nope.  No.
  21. How about “a half-elf torn between his human and elven heritage”?
    No. No.
  22. Did you make the elves and the dwarves great friends, just to be different?
    No. No.
  23. Does everybody under four feet tall exist solely for comic relief?
    NO! NO!
  24. Do you think that the only two uses for ships are fishing and piracy?
    What are ships?  Oh, I wish!
  25. Do you not know when the hay baler was invented?
    I do not, but it’s moot.
  26. Did you draw a map for your novel which includes places named things like “The Blasted Lands” or “The Forest of Fear” or “The Desert of Desolation” or absolutely anything “of Doom”?
    What are place-names? How about Fort Landham or Blackhorse Cove? I’d love to use “Shake-rag Hollow,” but as it’s a real place, I resist.  
  27. Does your novel contain a prologue that is impossible to understand until you’ve read the entire book, if even then?
    I wrote one, but I don’t consider it part of the book.  Not a prologue, exactly, but a beginning chapter that is a little disconnected from the next couple. About three short chapters in the pieces make sense. Hopefully.
  28. Is this the first book in a planned trilogy?
    I have no idea. Do you? I hope not.
  29. How about a quintet or a decalogue?
    Meh? I dunno… ask me later.
  30. Is your novel thicker than a New York City phone book?
    It will be. Oh, it will be.  It might be…
  31. Did absolutely nothing happen in the previous book you wrote, yet you figure you’re still many sequels away from finishing your “story”?
    That would require knowing where the breaks in the story should be, but probably. Let’s just say “I hope not.”
  32. Are you writing prequels to your as-yet-unfinished series of books?
    No. I’m simultaneously writing two books that are about some of the same characters only with a 10-year time difference. If that counts as writing a prequel, then yes.
  33. Is your name Robert Jordan and you lied like a dog to get this far?
    Who is Robert Jordan? (oh, those were the blissful years!) HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA no.
  34. Is your novel based on the adventures of your role-playing group?
    My brother still won’t let me play. Nope.
  35. Does your novel contain characters transported from the real world to a fantasy realm?
    Not exactly.  Nope.
  36. Do any of your main characters have apostrophes or dashes in their names?
    No. No.
  37. Do any of your main characters have names longer than three syllables?
    Dandelion.  If you count “Necromancer,” then yes, but he prefers “Master.” I swear it’s not my fault; he refuses to tell me his name…
  38. Do you see nothing wrong with having two characters from the same small isolated village being named “Tim Umber” and “Belthusalanthalus al’Grinsok”?
    Someone needs a lesson in linguistics.  Hehehehehe! Ahem… extenuating circumstances aside, it looks pretty weird to me.
  39. Does your novel contain orcs, elves, dwarves, or halflings?
    Yes, yes, yes and no.  Do dead ones count?  If so then possibly, yes, yes and no.
  40. How about “orken” or “dwerrows”?
    Uhhhh , what?   I love the word “dwerrows.” Just sayin.
  41. Do you have a race prefixed by “half-“?
    No. Nope.
  42. At any point in your novel, do the main characters take a shortcut through ancient dwarven mines?
    Oh, I hope so, but not yet.  No shortcuts. Some of them practically live there. So I am Moria-obsessed. Sue me. ;)
  43. Do you write your battle scenes by playing them out in your favorite RPG?
    Battle-scenes are haaaaaard! And my brother still won’t let me join his RPG. No, I whimper to my friend to tell me what I am doing wrong. Unfortunately Grad-school has her in its grips, so I am all alooooooone!
  44. Have you done up game statistics for all of your main characters in your favorite RPG?
    I’ve tried to steal my brother’s manuals. So far, I’ve only nabbed the monster compendium. Ooo! Displacer beasts! Um, no, but that’s an interesting thought. Where’s my GURPS manual…
  45. Are you writing a work-for-hire for Wizards of the Coast?
    What is that?  Heh, no.
  46. Do inns in your book exist solely so your main characters can have brawls?
    Um… yes.  Sadly, no.
  47. Do you think you know how feudalism worked but really don’t?
    Probably…  Who does know? Honestly? I’m not sure the feudal societies knew.  The society in my writing at present isn’t feudal. Problem solved? Yes. More problems created? Oh my heavens, you have no idea!
  48. Do your characters spend an inordinate amount of time journeying from place to place?
    How about all the time? Literally. What else is there?  I’m trying to avoid that.
  49. Could one of your main characters tell the other characters something that would really help them in their quest but refuses to do so just so it won’t break the plot?
    Erm. Yes. One of them could tell the others oodles of stuff, but they are on opposing sides, so… I guess “just so it won’t break the plot” doesn’t apply.
  50. Do any of the magic users in your novel cast spells easily identifiable as “fireball” or “lightning bolt”?
    Does it count if a dragon does it? If “dire necromantic spells” fit into this category, then yes. Otherwise, probably not.
  51. Do you ever use the term “mana” in your novel?
    Yes. Nope.
  52. Do you ever use the term “plate mail” in your novel?
    No. Why?  Uh, no. Plate armor isn’t a factor, though. It’s not very practical in subtropical rainforests or damp caverns… or foothills, mountains, forests… need I go on?
  53. Heaven help you, do you ever use the term “hit points” in your novel?
    Uh, no.  Hahahahaahahahahahahaahahaahahahahahahahahahah *dies*
  54. Do you not realize how much gold actually weighs?
    It’s heavy, right? Oh yes.
  55. Do you think horses can gallop all day long without rest?
    Nope. Nope. The problem is calculating their endurance over rough terrain… help? Please?
  56. Does anybody in your novel fight for two hours straight in full plate armor, then ride a horse for four hours, then delicately make love to a willing barmaid all in the same day?
    *Rolls eyes* no. Ah… no, nope, no and no.
  57. Does your main character have a magic axe, hammer, spear, or other weapon that returns to him when he throws it?
    Nope. One has a halberd that stands on its own. Does that count?
  58. Does anybody in your novel ever stab anybody with a scimitar?
    Scimitar! I have a scimitar! Well, it’s just a cheap imitation, but still! I haven’t seen any scimitars in-story so far. Is stabbing people with scimitars a stock-fantasy thing? Aren’t they more for slashing, anyway? And yes, I still have that cheap-imitation scimitar. It hangs above the headboard of my bed.
  59. Does anybody in your novel stab anybody straight through plate armor?
    No, that’s ridiculous. Wow. Um, no, but I can think of two characters who probably could.
  60. Do you think swords weigh ten pounds or more? [info]
    Some do, some don’t. Depends on the kind of sword, no? There aren’t many swords in this story anyway. Let’s talk crossbows.
  61. Does your hero fall in love with an unattainable woman, whom he later attains?
    My “hero” is a heroine, and no. Well, of the triumvirate, the main one is a heterosexual female, so “no,” for her. For the other two, it depends on your definition of “unattainable,” but I am going to venture “no.”   
  62. Does a large portion of the humor in your novel consist of puns?
    Ugh, no.  Still no!  
  63. Is your hero able to withstand multiple blows from the fantasy equivalent of a ten pound sledge but is still threatened by a small woman with a dagger?
    She is the small woman with a dagger, and she wouldn’t withstand a sledgehammer or a stabbing.  Sledgehammer would definitely do her in, but a small woman with a dagger could, as well. Still, I wouldn’t want to try her in a fight.
  64. Do you really think it frequently takes more than one arrow in the chest to kill a man?
    No. Nope.
  65. Do you not realize it takes hours to make a good stew, making it a poor choice for an “on the road” meal?
    No… excuse me, I need to do some editing. I cook now, so yep.
  66. Do you have nomadic barbarians living on the tundra and consuming barrels and barrels of mead?
    Nope.  Sadly, no.
  67. Do you think that “mead” is just a fancy name for “beer”?
    It’s made from honey, right? Beer is not. No! The horror!
  68. Does your story involve a number of different races, each of which has exactly one country, one ruler, and one religion?
    No, save in one instance. No, save for that one instance. It is still around, but there’s a good reason for it.
  69. Is the best organized and most numerous group of people in your world the thieves’ guild?
    Not so organized, really. *shifty look* what thieves’ guild?
  70. Does your main villain punish insignificant mistakes with death?
    I haven’t seen him do it, but I wouldn’t put it past him. There are two. Of one, I would say: not when he’s lucid…  of the other, no.
  71. Is your story about a crack team of warriors that take along a bard who is useless in a fight, though he plays a mean lute?
    A bard? What? OOTS! Um, I mean, “nope.”
  72. Is “common” the official language of your world?
    Nope, I have invented an inanimate version of a babelfish! Hahahahah! Wouldn’t that be convenient?
  73. Is the countryside in your novel littered with tombs and gravesites filled with ancient magical loot that nobody thought to steal centuries before?
    That depends on which countryside. That no one thought to loot? No. That no one dared to loot? Let’s just say that only one person, in the course of the story, will even try.
  74. Is your book basically a rip-off of The Lord of the Rings?
    Um… little bits, but overall no. Nope. I love Tolkien too much for that.  
  75. Read that question again and answer truthfully.
    No dark overlord, no band of stalwart companions on a mission to save the world, no war for all the free-peoples of Arda. I think we’re safe.   It’s good not to be hasty. *re-checks the calculations* Nope, still not Faux Tolkien.

Shapes are only dresses… and dresses are only names

Book Meme 2012

Question 5: Characters and literary figures I’d name my children after

As I am me, I am going to take this very literally. With the wealth of wonderful writers, illustrators, characters and places, it is tempting to wax poetic about naming a child of mine Eowyn, or Cadfael, but in reality, I think too much to do such a thing. So while there are plenty of names I would like to honor, most are names I would give to pets, not children. I have strong opinions on names because, well, a real person is going to have to deal with their name and all its connotations until they reach the age of 18.

In general, I consider a name’s meaning and history as well as its sound. In this case, I also have to consider the namesake in literature. But what usually stops me from saying “oh I would name a child this, because it is lovely!” is the ever-dreadful, “what would someone with this name actually be called?” Even my own name gets turned from Anne to Annie, though only my parents can get away with it. I would love to name a child Harper, but the thought of its being shortened to “Harpy” gives me pause.

Like I said, I think too much.

Most of my favorite authors are out of the running. George is not a bad name, but I am not fond of it. John Ronald Reuel… no. I like Agatha, but not enough to give that name to a daughter of mine. Rosemary is worth consideration, but I have yet to read enough of her books to form much of an opinion of her. Jane is nice, as is Austen, but I am stopped by how enormous Austen’s fandom has grown. Do I really want my child forever tied to a fan-base? No.

As my literary taste runs to the fantasy genre, a lot of my favorite characters have beautiful names… that, again, I would not tie to a child of mine. There are exceptions though, and below I will choose my favorite literary-derived name for a boy and for a girl.

Gareth

The name itself, I am told, means “gentle.” In some ways its bearer in Arthurian legend is gentle, but not so much that he will not fight for a cause and win. I must watch my step here because some of my readers (quite possibly all of them) are more versed in the Arthurian legends than I am, but from the versions I have read, Gareth and his brother Gawain have always been the characters to whom I was most drawn. They are not the highest or the mightiest, they are not the most pure (what is with Galahad, anyway?), but I find them to be both human and noble. Gareth is astoundingly patient, courageous, powerful, and relatively wise. That seems a good legacy for a son, to me. Best of all, the name is Welsh! Also part of the consideration: while “Gary” is not my favorite name, it does not set my teeth on edge.

Irene

This name comes from Greek mythology, and means “peace.” That alone, however, would not tempt me to choose it for this post. Irene is the name of the princess and her “grandmother” from The Princess and the Goblin, by George MacDonald. The little princess Irene is a mix of uncertain temper, and noble nature. She can be irritable or spoiled, but when the pressure mounts she shows herself to be bold, resourceful, loving and loyal. She alone would be enough, for me, to merit the choice of her name, but then there is her “grandmother.”

Queen Irene seems to be a creature of faerie. One moment she may be a withered hag spinning thread in a garret, the next a young queen with a cascade of golden hair standing in a stately hall, and the next a glowing gemstone down in the mines. The title of this post is a quote from her, an answer to young Curdie’s question as to her true form. Queen Irene is right: none of her shapes or names can tell the full truth of who and what she is. Perhaps I should take her advice and lighten up about names, eh? For all the uncertainty of her person, though, Queen Irene’s character is clear enough. She is full of wisdom, strength, and most of all, love for all that lives. On the whole, I think Irene would be an excellent name to have.

Here are the links to the rest of this series, in order:

1. Motley Crew

2. Cue Music/Shout Out

3. Villainy Most Vile

4. Very Ominous Endings

5. Shapes are Only Dressess… and Dresses are Only Names

6. Chridonalchett

7. Verbage

8. The Scent Test

9. Personal Question

10. Packing Lightly


Pitfall of T’naké’lorilin’arpé’liél

I make no secret of it anymore.

Most of my family and friends know that I am yet another would-be novelist. To make matters ten times worse, I am a would-be fantasy novelist! I am defiantly proud of this fact, but then that seems to be normal.

Writing, like all art forms, has many intricacies and pitfalls to claim the unwary, and occasionally the wary as well. Fantasy, like all genres, has its own unique precipices and bramble thickets.  Today I explore the dangers of place-names.

Naming is far more complicated than it seems. There is a fine line between iconic and obtrusive, original and over-wrought, simple and boring, and between fitting and cliché. Whatever is a writer to do?

Pitfall 1:  Pretension

Sometimes pretension works. Not often, but it does happen. When I see  “Doom” in a name, my first impulse is to say “not another one…” and yet “Mount Doom” in the “Land of Doom” (from J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings) lives up to its impressive title.

Pretentious names come in all shapes and this pitfall is often combined with others (I never said I could only topple into one at a time!). To move away, briefly, from place names and bring in a character-name example, consider Mr. Furious from the super-hero spoof film “Mystery Men.” When Mr. Furious is asked his real name by a woman he likes, he fidgets and tries to come up with a suitably “awesome” name:

Mr. Furious: “It’s Phoenix… Phoenix Dark… Dirk. Phoenix Darkdirk. I was christened Dirk Steele, and I changed it to Phoenix.”

His lady-friend is unimpressed. Finally, he admits that his name is Roy. Her reaction to his “cool” names is mine when a place or character has a pretentious name and fails to live up to it.

In short, with great pretension comes great responsibility, and an author had better deliver not only up to, but above the standard. If your “Dark Lord’s” kingdom is called “Doomland” or “The Deadlands” or “Domain of Darkness” (alliteration is fun!), make sure it can out Doom or Dead or Darkness the competition. Otherwise it will simply be “Moderately Doomful Deathland that is Not Quite as Dark as that Other Dark Lord’s Dark Domain.”

Pitfall 2: Other Languages

Tolkien was a linguist. Most of us are not. Why are “Minas Tirith,” “Orthanc,” ” Lothlorien,” and Tolkien’s myriad other non-English-based place names so awesome? Because he created  languages behind them. Numerous authors who are not linguists succeed in making up good names from fictional languages. “Narnia,” of C. S. Lewis comes to mind.

The pitfall here opens when these names are over-used and over-wrought. T’naké’lorilin’arpa’liél is not a cool name… it is horrible eye-bleeding gibberish. Accent-mark, umlaut, and apostrophe abuse are good warning signs. If every other word in your made-up language has an apostrophe in it, please start over. If your strange place-names are hard to pronounce or read, you should consider simplifying them.

In other words, this can be a good naming scheme in moderation, but overdone it is cliché if not unreadable.

Another option, of course, is to use real language. George MacDonald’s city “Gwyntystorm,” from The Princess and Curdie is Welsh. The same readability rules apply.

Pitfall 3: The Cliché

I may write a post just on clichés one day. Not all  are bad. The trick is to be aware of them and to avoid or use them depending on the situation. Be Aware. A Cliché is most dangerous when the person using it does not recognize what it is. It’s the gun that can kill a story in the hands of someone who doesn’t know it is loaded or hasn’t learned to take aim.

Writer A thinks herself so very clever in naming her elven village Greenleaf Dell.

Writer B glories in his extra-awesome city name of Wizardhome.

Either of these could be put to good use, but their cliché leanings make care essential. Another cliché, not easily avoided, is being too-flowery or overly-dramatic with names. See pitfall 1.

Pitfall 4: Mundanity

I feel this becomes a problem if all the place-names used are uniformly ordinary and therefore boring. Brian Jacques’s “Redwall” works very well. It is descriptive and mundane, like naming a child after its eye color, but the personality of the place fills it out and makes its name iconic. If, however, my towns are all called Greenwood, Red River, and Brownfield, then they fail to differentiate themselves and the people who live there  seem two-dimensional as they can only think to name their homes after colors of geographic features. In short, ordinary is ok, but ordinary without variety makes for a bland world.

Then there is the allegorical-name problem. Such names belong in an allegory, like “Glome,” from C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces. They do not work well in a non-allegorical story.

Pitfall 5: Out of Place

No matter how wonderful a name is, if it does not fit in the world it belongs to, and fit seamlessly, then it is the wrong name. There is not much else to say about this one, but it does lead me into the process of…

How to Find the Right Place Name:

If you have other strategies, please tell me about them in the comments!

1. Start with the place.
Brainstorm on what it looks like, what kinds of resources (or lack thereof) it has.  Are there myths associated with it or great historical events? The time spent doing this should be in proportion to the importance of the place to your story. That said, if it is an important place, like the central country, or a primary player in events, go into depth. Sometimes names spring from the details.

2. Follow up with the people.
Places pick up names over time. Who has named this place? Flesh out their culture. This is where research comes in handy. Study real people-groups from our world. Find ones that are similar to the fictional people you want to create and begin modeling the fictional people on real people (multiple real groups can be inter-woven to create new and interesting fictional groups!).

3. Combine the two
Now that you have the people and the place, what would these people call that place? Again, look at real people-groups and see how they name places. Brainstorm until you have some options to pick from.

4. Details
Sometimes it is the details that matter. Two real places I know are called Shiny Rock, and Tongue Springs. The first is so-named because it is the last place the sun hits before it sets over the valley  Shiny Rock overlooks. The second is so-called because railroad workers in the area were given salted buffalo tongues to eat, and they would soak the tongues in the spring to make them palatable. It is details like this that fill our world, and details like this that make a fictional world solid. Even if the reader never knows why a place bears its name, the uniqueness of a name with a story behind it creates more atmosphere and believability than a random name chosen because it “sounds good.”

5. Variety
Don’t stick too close to one pattern. Each place on earth contains a variety of place-names. A well may be named for the person who dug it, and a mountain for its funny shape, a castle may be named for a betrayal that took place there or a relic contained within.

Conclusion:

Think. Don’t slap names down hap-hazard, for then you risk a cliché-ridden and shallow world regardless of how rich or original your characters and plot may be. Also remember that the real world holds many names that are fun, weird, elegant, disturbing and beautiful, meaning you neither have to, nor should use the most mundane choice you come up with while brainstorming. Have fun with it!

And now, for a finale to this stupidly-long post, enjoy some real place-names. These are a map of the cultures, history, geography/natural resources, religions and ideas of an area.  Every place and every culture on earth has a wealth of names.  I would love to read some of your favorites in comments.

Accident, Acadia, Acedemia, Acorn, Adamsville, Alexandria, Alpha, Antioch,
Baneberry, Barren Fork, Bass Hollow, Bean Station, Bell Buckle, Big Frog Mountain, Bledsoe’s Fort, Buggytop Cave,
Calfkiller River, Castalian Springs, Celina, Creech Hollow, Crossville, Coal Creek, Copperhill,  Cottontown, Couchville Cedar Glade, Clear Fork, Covington, Cumberland Plateau, Cypress Inn,
Del Rio, Denmark, Dismal Swamp, Dyersburg,
Elora, Etowa, Eva, Fall Branch, Fiery Gizzard, Five Points, Flag Pond, Flint River, Fort Assumption, Fort Defiance, Fort Louden, Friendsville, Frozen Head,
Germantown, Ghost River, Gilt Edge, Grand Junction, Grimsley, Gruetli-Laager, Guild
Harpeth River, Helenwood, Heiskell, Henry, Hickory Withe, Hidden Passage Trail, Hidden Springs, Hiwassee, Hoenwald, Hollow Rock, Horsepound Falls, Huron, Hurricane Mills
Idlewild, Jasper, Jellico, Joelton, La Follette, Laconia, Laurel Bloomery (I wish I was kidding), Lebanon, Lexington, Liberty, Little Emory River
Manchester, McKenzie, Medina, Memphis, Midway, Milan, Miller’s Cove, Moscow, Moss, Mount Carmel, Mount Juliet, Murfreesboro, Mousetail Landing,
Nameless (no joke), New Hope, Niota, Normandy, Obion, Obed River, Ocoee River, Oldfort, Only (yep, there’s a town called Only), Ooltewah, Ozone
Paris, Parker’s Crossroads, Pikeville, Pioneer, Pinson Mounds, Pistol Creek, Pleasant Shade, Poplar Creek, Possum Creek (not Opossum Creek…), Prospect, Pumpkin Town, Puryear,
Quebeck, Readyville, Red Boiling Springs, Reliance, Ridgeside, Roan Mountain, Rutherford,
Saint Joseph, Saltillo, Salt Lick Creek, Scotts Hill, Sevenmile Creek, Sewanee, Sharon, Sherwood, Shiloh, Signal Mountain, Smoky Mountains,  Smyrna, Sneedville, South Carthage, Sparta, Stinking Creek,  Sugartree, Sunbright, Summitville,  Sweetwater,
Tallahassee, Tazewell, Ten Mile, Three Way, Thompsons Station, Thorn Hill, Townsend, Tracy City, Troy, Tullahoma, Tuscumbia River, Twin Falls,
Unicoi, Vanleer, Vonore, Wartburg, Wartrace, Westmoreland, White’s Fort, Wilder, Winchester, Wolf River, Woodbury, Yorkville,


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