Tuesday 16 June 2015

The Naming of Dark Lords (a Difficult Matter)

It isn't just one of your fantasy games...

Aged nine or so, one of my daughters co-wrote a fantasy story with her best friend. By the time they’d finished it ran to sixty or seventy pages, a wonderful joint effort – they’d sit together brainstorming and passing the manuscript to and fro, writing alternate chapters and sometimes even paragraphs. There were two heroines (one for each author) and sharing their adventures was a magical teddybear named Mr Brown who spoke throughout in rhyming couplets. Transported to a magical world on the back of a dove called Time – who provided the neat title for the story: ‘Time Flies’ – the trio find themselves battling a Dark Lord of impeccable evil with the fabulous handle of LORD SHNUBALUT (pronounced: ‘Shnoo-ba-lutt’.)  The two young authors had grasped something crucial about Dark Lords. They need to have mysterious, sonorous, even unpronounceable names.

Imagine you’re writing a High Fantasy. You’ve got your world and you’ve sorted out the culture: medieval in the countryside with its feudal system of small manors and castles; a renaissance feel to the bustling towns with their traders, guilds and scholar-wizards. The forests are the abode of elves. Heroic barbarians follow their horse-herds on the more distant plains. Goblins and dwarfs battle it out in the mountains.

And lo! your Dark Lord ariseth. And he requireth a name.

Let’s take an affectionate look at the names of a few Dark Lords. The first to come to mind is of course Tolkien’s iconic SAURON from The Lord of the Rings.  A name not too difficult to pronounce, you’d think – except that when the films came out I discovered I’d been getting it wrong for years. I’d always assumed the ‘saur’ element should be pronounced as in ‘dinosaur’, and ‘Saw-ron’, with its hint of scaly, cold-blooded menace, still sounds better to me than ‘Sow-ron.’ I was only 13 when I first read The Lord of the Rings, and although I was blown away, and keen enough to wade through some of the Appendices, I never got as far as Appendix E in which Tolkien explains that ‘au’ and ‘aw’ are to be pronounced ‘as in loud, how and not as in laud, haw.’ But who reads the Appendices until they’ve read the entire book? - by which time I’d been getting it wrong for months and my incorrect pronunciation was fixed. Still, there it is. Peter Jackson got it right and I was wrong. 

Not content with one Dark Lord, Tolkien created two - three, if you count the otherwise anonymous Witch-King of Angmar, leader of the Nazgul and the scariest of the bunch if you want my opinion.  In The Silmarillion Melkor is given the name MORGOTH after destroying the Two Trees and stealing the Silmarils. In Sindarin the name means ‘Dark Enemy’ or ‘Black Foe’, but Tolkien must have been aware that its second element conjures the 5th century Goths who sacked Rome and that, additionally, the name carries echoes of MORDRED, King Arthur’s illegitimate son by his half-sister Morgan le Fay. Of course Mordred is not a high fantasy Dark Lord, but he’s certainly a force for chaos and darkness. Though the name is actually derived from the Welsh Medraut (and ultimately the Latin Moderatus), to a modern English ear it suggests the French for death, ‘le mort’, along with the English ‘dread’: a pleasing combination for a villain. Mordred and Morgoth are names redolent of fear, death and darkness, and the ‘Mor’ element appears again in Sauron’s realm of ‘Mordor’, the Black Land. 

The name of JK Rowling’s LORD VOLDEMORT is also suggestive of death and borrows some of the dark glamour of Mordred, but the circumlocutory phrase HE-WHO-MUST-NOT-BE-NAMED (used by his enemies for fear of conjuring him up) certainly owes something to H. Rider Haggard’s Ayesha, SHE WHO MUST BE OBEYED. Interestingly, males become Dark Lords but females are never Dark Ladies – which doesn’t have the same ring at all*. They turn into Dread Queens, such as Galadriel might have become if she had succumbed to temptation and taken the Ring from Frodo:

In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and Lighting! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!

Coming down to us from many an ancient goddess, Dread Queens are usually beautiful, sexual women of great power and cruelty, like T.H. White’s MORGAUSE, Queen of Orkney from The Once And Future King, busy – on the first occasion we meet her – boiling a cat alive. In his notes about her, T.H. White wrote:

She should have all the frightful power and mystery of women.  Yet she should be quite shallow, cruel, selfish…One important thing is her Celtic blood.  Let her be the worst West-of-Ireland type: the one with cunning bred in the bone.  Let her be mealy-mouthed: butter would not melt in it. Yet also she must be full of blood and power.

Blood, power (and racism): White is clearly very frightened of this woman. He didn’t find her character in Le Morte D’Arthur: Malory’s Morgawse is a great lady whose sins are adulterous rather than sorcerous – but her half-sister MORGAN LE FAY is an enchantress whose name is derived from the Old Welsh/Old Breton Morgen, connected with water spirits and meaning ‘Sea-born’. A final example from Celtic legend is Alan Garner’s ‘MORRIGAN’, a name variously translated as Great Queen or Phantom Queen, depending this time on whether the ‘Mor’ element is written with a diacritical or not. Enough already!

Not every Dark Lord’s name works as well as Sauron and Voldemort. I’m underwhelmed by Stephen Donaldson’s ‘LORD FOUL THE DESPISER’ from The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Unbeliever. Donaldson seems jumpily aware of the long shadow of Tolkien. He struggles to produce convincing names (for example the Cavewight ‘Drool Rockworm’ whose name to my mind belongs not in the Land, but in the Discworld). I've always thought that to call a Dark Lord ‘Lord Foul’ is barely trying, and tagging ‘the Despiser’ on to it doesn’t help. (‘He’s foul, I'm telling you! He’s really foul! I’ll prove it – he despises things too!’) Tacking an adjective or adverb on to a fantasy name often only weakens it, as in the case of the orc-lord AZOG THE DEFILER whom Peter Jackson introduced to the film version of The Hobbit. Azog is to be found in Appendix A of The Lord of the Rings, where Tolkien writes in laconic prose modelled on the Icelandic sagas, of how Azog killed Thrór, hewed off his head and cut his name on the forehead (thus indeed defiling the corpse).

Then Nár turned the head and saw branded on it in Dwarf-runes so that he could read it the name AZOG. That name was branded in his heart and in the hearts of all the Dwarves afterwards.

Just ‘Azog’, you see? The name on its own is quite enough.

Donaldson is trying to emulate Tolkien’s linguistic density, in which proper names from different languages pile up into accumulated richness like leafmould: Azanulbizar, the Dimrill Dale, Nanduhirion. But we cannot all be philologists. Lord Foul’s various sobriquets, which include ‘The Gray Slayer’, ‘Fangthane the Render’, ‘Corruption’, and ‘a-Jeroth of the Seven Hells’, only suggest to me an author having a number of stabs at something he knows in his heart he isn’t quite getting right. ‘Fangthane’?  A word which means ‘sharp tooth’ attached to a word which means ‘a man who holds land from his overlord and owes him allegiance’? It could work for a Gríma Wormtongue, but not for a Dark Lord. 

Dark Lords are a strange clan. Why anyone over the age of eighteen would wish to dress entirely in black and live at the top of a draughty tower in the midst of a poisoned wasteland is something of a mystery, unless perhaps Dark Lords are younger than we think. If they’re actually no older than Vyvyan from The Young Ones, it could totally explain their continuously bad temper, their desire to impress, their attacks on mild mannered, law-abiding citizens (aka parents), their taste in architecture (painting the bedroom black and decorating it with heavy metal posters) and their penchant for logos incorporating spiderwebs, fiery eyes, skulls, etc.

It probably also explains their peculiar names. Most teenage boys at some point reject the names their parents picked for them and go in for inexplicable nicknames like Fish, Grazz, or Bazzer… Anyway, the all-out winner of the Dark Lord Weird Name competition has got to be Patricia McKillip, whose beautiful fantasies are written in prose as delicate and strong as steel snowflakes (Ombria In Shadow is one of my all-time favourites). But the Dark Lord in her early trilogy The Riddle-Master rejoices in (or is cursed with) the altogether unpronounceable and eye-boggling GHISTELWCHLOHM. He wins hands down. Lord Schnubalut, eat your heart out.

*The pun was unintentional.

Picture credits:

Cover detail from The Fellowship of the Ring, George Allen and Unwin (author's possession)

Melkor, Wikimedia commons, http://www.aveleyman.com/ActorCredit.aspx?ActorID=5137

Morgan le Fay  by Frederick Sandys (1864)

Adrian Edmonson as Vyvyan Basterd from The Young Ones http://www.aveleyman.com/ActorCredit.aspx?ActorID=5137


  1. Marvelous theme! Thanks for such well researched thoughts.
    I gasped in horror to hear anything bad whispered about SRD's Covenant series. But you pitched a good argument and I... hear you. Personally, I think the name "Lord Foul" plus the epithets like Despiser, Render et al achieves multiple goals (did he mean to do this? who knows, but it worked for me):
    1) It shows you very effectively that the races of the Land are separate and have their own traditions. Each developed a title for "him" that fits their own experience. So it's efficient world-building from that angle.
    2) All of these words and names hint to me of someone who doesn't have a name of his own. Bad guys, like good guys, don't often refer to themselves in the third person (we had to wait for the NBA to be invented for that to happen). To have only a name which is a quality suggests an evil version of "I Am Who Am", something Biblical and deeply rooted. And ancient, because it's been translated into "Common". Nobody's running in fear from a villain named Herman Taylorson.
    Great thoughts!
    Full disclosure- my villains are a liche named Wolga Vrule and an Earth Demon (they all have short names) called Kog.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts! And of course, I was being deliberately unfair. Though I never *quite* got on with the Covenant series... But it has its high points, and in its own way is as different from Tolkien as it resembled him.

    I like that you know all Earth Demons have short names. It figures!

  3. Tyrants living in oversized, drafty buildings in the midst of a wasteland? They wouldn't have to be teenagers, unless you see Mao, Ceausescu and fellow despots as perpetual teenagers.

    My punning tendency turns Foul's castle, Ridjeck Thome, into "Reject Home". Stephen Donaldson has confessed he's no good at making up names. I agree with you about Lord Foul, and in his heart of hearts he might too, I suspect. He solved the problem in his own lame way in the final sequence of Covenant novels by having a superpowerful spirit of destruction referred to as She Who Must Not Be Named. Needless to say, the way this is bandied about by the characters makes it just what it claims not to be: a name. Perhaps there's a handy idea for parents who can't agree on a decent name for their child: She Who Cannot Be Named.

    I too mispronounced Sauron when I first read the book, but the Appendices put me right long before Peter Jackson came along. My own minor problem with the name is that, as a lover of puns, I have allowed myself recently to play with the (entirely baseless) idea that Ronald Tolkien was writing about a bad-tempered alter ego, Sour Ron.

    We might chuckle to note that Tolkien and Donaldson effectively (and coincidentally) came up with the same name for their Dark Lords. According to Tolkien's 1930s "Etymologies" (not published until the 1980s), Sauron derives from a Quenya ("high-elven") word meaning "foul, evil-smelling, putrid". But Tolkien's wins for sonorousness and other factors (including the eye-pun on [dino-]saur). And Sauron's name fits him well as an embodiment of the physical corruption and waste that Tolkien encountered on the Somme.

  4. Thankyou, John, for this! I confess I never made it to the later Covenant books, and how interesting that SHE comes up yet again. With regard to Ceausescu and co. I have to agree; I mentioned to my husband in the course of writing this, that if you want to know what a real Dark Lord looks like, today's prime example would be Kim Jong Un.

  5. The thought of Dark Lords as teenage boys made me giggle. I hadn't realised that real world tyrants actually have lived in horrible places, but being human they would rightly fear assassins; Sauron wouldn't. It's the difference between a Dark Lord and a simple tyrant. If I were a Dark Lady(or evil Queen) I'd want to live somewhere nice or what's the point? Although Sauron has been defeated in the past and really can't afford to set up a nice house in the Shire or Gondor.

    I must admit I'm not much good at names, myself( the villain of my one novel to date is mostly just called the Baron). But Rowling is as careful of her names as Dickens. Voldemort means either "flight from death" or "steal from death", both appropriate for a man who wants to be immortal.

    Thanks for this post; it made me smile on my way to work.

  6. Excellent comparison between the way Tolkien created names, as opposed to Donaldson and indeed most other Tolkien imitators. The competition never really came close as regards the language, simply because they didn't have a clue what they were doing and Tolkien (as one of the world's foremost experts on the English language at the time) did.

    Many writers of fantasy assumed that inventing names was just about pulling letters out of a Scrabble bag until something came up. But you can drill down through any one of Tolkien's names, person or place, and find entire stories packed into their syllables like DNA into a cell nucleus.

    Tolkien was a perfect storm of circumstances that made him what he was. A brilliant philologist and lover of myths who also happened to fight in the most terrible of wars, for the practical experience side of things. Compare and contrast, say, George R R Martin. They're not on the same continent.

  7. Sue, absolutely, and I'm glad I made you smile - that was my hope! Nick - thankyou. And regarding George RR Martin, I read the first book so I'd know what it was about, but am not sufficiently interested to wade through the rest. I can see why he's become so popular, but - no, I agree.

  8. Of course no one can be blamed for not being as good as Tolkien. I would love to have his gifts, but not at the price of living his life.

  9. This is hilarious, learned and wise, Katherine. And what a brilliant question: at what age might immortal people stop growing older? There's enough to think about there for a whole series of books.

    By the way, has anyone written a book about a Dark Lord called Claud? Because I really think someone should.

  10. Fantasy names are fascinating! Dark Queens always seem scarier than Dark Lords to me, maybe because they are often beautiful too?

    I wonder if you are doing a post on heroic names as well? I remember an editor rejecting an early submission of mine with the comment: "your fantasy names don't sound otherworldly and beautiful, just rather odd." (Rather odd... that was about 20 years ago, and I still wonder what he meant!)

  11. The Dark Lord, Claud? But of course! You should so write it, Sally! Sue, thanks! Katherine - heroic names tempt me towards the iconic hero of 'The Eye of Argon', *Grignr* - but maybe not.

  12. Really enjoyed your post. What is it with unpronounceable names? If I can get it wrong I will. Every time. And to be completely unserious, don't you think Nogbad the Bad is a top name for a scheming villainous would be usurper (in the Noggin the Nog cartoons)?

  13. Oh, I loved Noggin the Nog! Yes indeed!

  14. How foolish of me. Of course you are a fan.

  15. We are ruled by a County Council based in a Northumberland town north east of here, and ever since the Peter Jackson films I have taken great pleasure in pronouncing it as Morrrpeth ...