10 April 2012

"Give me a name and it produces a story."

I started A Clash of Kings this week and I was pleasantly surprised at how good it felt to see all the old gang again. I left A Game of Thrones excited and ready to learn what happened next, but not quite eager to continue the series. That was last year. I actually intended to sit myself down and read the remaining four books of a A Song of Ice and Fire all in a row this summer, but having finished a few books over spring break I deemed A Clash of Kings the next thing to start on the ol' Kindle and just went for it. I love the pacing of the books and the political intrigue and the backstabbing and the worldbuilding. One thing that strikes me, though, especially as a Tolkien fan, is the quality of the names in the series.

They just aren't good!


Please, do not strike me!

Alright, here it is: I started writing fantasy-ish stuff at the age of 10 or 12. I'd, of course, written before that but it was mostly the odd comic book story or assignments from school. When I was in the 5th or 6th grade I got really into the Dragonlance series, which inspired me to write stories in a similar fashion. It wasn't until later in life that I got really into The Lord of the Rings and all the rest, so when I hear names like 'Riverrun' and 'Myr' and 'Theon' they remind me entirely of those sword 'n sorcery novels I was reading when I was a kid and of the stories I created in their stead. Is there anything wrong with Mr. Martin's names? Of course not. But when one goes deep into the mind of J.R.R. Tolkien one finds there a deep appreciation of names.

"Give me a name," he said, "and it produces a story."

If nothing else it is the languages and, thusly, the names that bring Middle-earth to life. The stories are beautiful and expertly told but borrow heavily from many sources, "revived mythologies" if you like. There is not the intricate web of betrayal and intrigue like in Martin's work and that's not really the point. There is some of that in the histories but it's largely left out of The Lord of the Rings proper. It's the worldbuilding that is truly (or mostly) perfect in Tolkien's work. Names like Gondor, Amon Sûl, Imaldris all bring a depth to the world that makes it more believable and historical. Even the 'common' names for these places, like Weathertop or Rivendell, have a certain erudition and mystery about them. Personal names fall in as well: Aragorn, Glorfindel, Feanor, even borrowed names like Gandalf and Thorin feel so proper and believable largely because they all stem from the uniformity of the languages Tolkien produced. There's a coherence that lets you know they did not just spring wantonly from the mind of the artist, but were carefully sown and reaped when the time was right.

Am I comparing Tolkien and Martin as authors, or their works here? No. That would be a perfect case of apples and oranges and has already been done elsewhere and better. Strictly the names are under scrutiny here.The Languages of Tolkien's Middle-earth starts by describing the intentionality of Tolkien's languages and it's that intention that goes before the suspension of disbelief (among other things). Conversely, it doesn't seem like Martin's names are intentional at all. It's not a problem because his characters are real enough and the world familiar enough to similarly preclude disbelief and let us get sucked into the intrigues of Westeros.

Again, apples and oranges, only the oranges are all killing or doing each other.

1 comment:

Andrew Isley said...

I don't know if I agree. I think LoTR names seems a little too traditional fantasy in my mind. But it may be because I use LoTR as the Megatome of fantasy.

I personally prefer GRRM's names. I just get annoyed at how spells them.