Arthur’s Eternal Triangle

Assessing the Problem

The “Eternal Triangle” gets its name from its reliable omnipresence as a romantic trope.  Two men love the same woman, or two women love the same man; and the two may themselves be friends.

Triangle illustration (Pixabay)There’s endless fuel for drama here.  As Wikipedia observes, “The term ‘love triangle’ generally connotes an arrangement unsuitable to one or more of the people involved.”  As a result, some kind of resolution seems to be needed.  (In the Western tradition, at least, simply setting up a menage à trois isn’t generally regarded as an option.)

Typically, a storyteller resolves the situation by having one “leg” of the triangle win out.  It’s easier to do this if the third party, the one left out, is painted as undesirable or disreputable—they deserve to lose.  But, on the other hand, the dramatic effect is heightened when the competing persons are each worthy of respect.  Thus Aragorn says of Éowyn in The Lord of the Rings:  “Few other griefs among the ill chances of this world have more bitterness and shame for a man’s heart than to behold the love of a lady so fair and brave that cannot be returned.”  (Return of the King, V.8, “The Houses of Healing)

We’ve touched lightly before on the central role of the Eternal Triangle in the Arthurian tales.  One of the reasons we continue to be fascinated with the Arthuriad is the unresolvable romance at its center.  Typically we like and admire all three characters—Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot.  But there seems to be no way to bring about a happy ending for everybody.  This part of the tragedy tends to preoccupy modern audiences more than the political or social tragedy of the fall of Camelot; it’s more personal.

The ways in which various authors have tried to manage the matter thus provides a useful survey of ways to address a romantic triangle generally.


Camelot movie posterOne perfectly viable option is to give up the idea of a happy ending and treat the story as an unresolvable tragedy.  This is how the basic Arthurian story works in Malory.  T.H. White’s The Once and Future King (1958) follows the same path.  White’s sympathy for all three characters is evident.  But he doesn’t allow them an easy out.  The story concludes as a tragedy—and a very good one.  I believe the musical Camelot (1960), based on White, follows a similar course:  no romance survives the ending.

The thoroughly weird movie Excalibur (1981) also follows Malory in this respect and accepts the tragic ending.  Lancelot dies.  Arthur, of course, dies too—or at least sails off to Avalon; as usual, whether Arthur will actually return in some fashion remains a mystery.  (In C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra (1943), Arthur is mentioned as residing with other luminaries on the paradisiacal planet Venus, awaiting his return at the Second Coming.)  Guinevere joins a nunnery, as per the basic legend.  The characters are disposed of, but no romance remains.

There is, however, a curious scene toward the end of Excalibur, at about 1:59, in which Arthur visits Guinevere in her nunnery, just before the final battle.  She says she loved him as a king, sometimes as a husband.  He says that someday, when he has finished his kingly duty of making a myth that will inspire later generations, he likes to think that he could come back to her, to meet her merely as a man.  She nods.  The scene hints that the romance might somehow be resolved after their deaths.  We’ll consider that idea further below.

Taliessin Through Logres coverBut the distinction between Arthur’s roles as king and as husband also illustrates a different approach:  one can write the story in such a way that Arthur transcends romance.  This seems to have been Charles Williams’ view in his uncompleted essay The Figure of Arthur (published in 1974 in the combined volume Taliessin through Logres; The Region of the Summer Stars; Arthurian Torso).  In Williams’ view of the myth, Arthur “was not to love, in that kind, at all” (p. 230).  Arthur may be destined purely to serve as a model of the Good King, not to fall in love.

Yet the romancers continue to treat Arthur’s and Guinevere’s marriage as a love story.  The triangle is not so easily disposed of.

Saving a Romance

First Knight (movie) - Arthur, Guinevere, LancelotIf we do want a genuine romance, one way is to give Lancelot and Guinevere a happy ending, and essentially write off Arthur.  We see this in First Knight (1995).  Arthur, played by the redoubtable Sean Connery, seems genuinely fond of Guinevere (Julia Ormond).  But he’s much older than she is (Connery was 65 at the time, Ormond 30).  Lancelot (Richard Gere), much nearer her age, plays his usual role in rescuing Guinevere from various distresses.  When Arthur dies, he commends Guinevere to Lancelot’s care.  At the conclusion, contrary to the usual storyline, those two seem free to pair off, giving the audience the qualified satisfaction of a fulfilled romance.  (Exactly what would have happened to the polity of Camelot in this alternate Arthurian history isn’t discussed.)

Another way is to dodge the issue entirely by simply leaving Lancelot out of the triangle.  King Arthur (2004) depicts Arthur and Guinevere as true lovers, what TV Tropes calls a “Battle Couple.”  After adventures, heroic last stands, and the arrival of The Cavalry, the movie ends with the wedding of Arthur and Guinevere.  Lancelot is in the band of knights, but he doesn’t yet have a crush on Guinevere, or vice versa; so we have the rare case where the Arthur-Guinevere relationship is preserved.  It’s a conventional happy ending, but it requires a considerable departure from the basic Arthurian story.

Arthur’s Alternative

A different way to resolve the triangle is to add a fourth party, who can take over the member of the triangle who’s left behind.  I’ve seen a couple of cases where the author gives Arthur an alternative love, letting Lancelot and Guinevere fall where they may.  Ideally, the alternative is really Arthur’s first love, predating the whole Guinevere-Lancelot thing.  Joan Wolf’s The Road to Avalon (1988) has Arthur growing up with a strong and admirable girl named Morgan—a complete rewrite of Morgan le Fay, who usually serves as a villain.  Arthur falls in love with this Morgan, and she with him.  Things look bright until, just after pledging their troth, they discover that Morgan is actually his half-aunt, too closely related for marriage.  Oops.

Arthur’s marriage to Guinevere is a political necessity; it’s not a betrayal, because he cannot marry Morgan.  In this version, Guinevere (Gwenhwyfar) is a not-especially-likable nonentity, who finds her love with Bedwyr (or Bedivere), a historically earlier version of Lancelot.  While the story cleaves close enough to the myth to prohibit a really happy ending, Arthur does at least find his true love, of sorts, with Morgan.

Mary Jo Putney takes a more romantic tack with her short story Avalon (1998).  This time “Morgana” is identified with the Lady of the Lake, the mysterious personage frequently depicted as giving Arthur Excalibur.  She dwells in Avalon, a faerie realm set apart from the mundane world.  In this story, Arthur sleeps with Morgana at the beginning, long before his political marriage to Guinevere, and returns to her at the end, at his “death.”  But he can be healed in Avalon, as some of the older tales suggest, and thus survives to a genuine “happy ever after” with Morgana.

The Fionavar Tapestry

I’ve saved for last this powerful and daunting trilogy (1984-86) by Guy Gavriel Kay, who helped Christopher Tolkien prepare The Silmarillion for publication.  Kay’s approach is unique:  he takes up the tragedy head-on, but offers a strange kind of hope at the end.

Fionavar Trilogy covers (Tor)

Five college students from our world are transported to another universe, Fionavar, which is said to be the first or most fundamental of all worlds—a little like Roger Zelazny’s Amber.  To win the battle against evil in Fionavar, they must summon “The Warrior.  Who always dies, and is not allowed to rest” (Summer Tree, p. 123).  He fights in many worlds, because of “a great wrong done at the very beginning of his days,” but can only be called at darkest need, by magic, by his secret name.  This Warrior is Arthur, and his secret name (rather unexpectedly) is “Childslayer”—based on an episode from Malory (Chapter I.XXVII) that is usually omitted from an Arthurian tale, in which the young Arthur, panicked at discovering that Mordred has been born, orders a whole set of newborns sent off in a ship to their deaths, rather like Herod.

It’s revealed in the second volume, The Wandering Fire, that one of the five students, Jennifer Lowell, is actually a reincarnation of Guinevere.  Moreover, it becomes necessary to summon Lancelot, as well, awakened from an enchanted sleep.  These three have met and fought the Dark heroically in many worlds, but always suffering in their doomed triangular relationship, as a punishment for their several sins (Arthur here is guilty of an even worse crime than his betrayal by the other two).  All three love each other; “making all the angles equal, shaped most perfectly for grief” (Wandering Fire, p. 122).  Indeed, theirs is the “[s]addest story of all the long tales told” (Wandering Fire, p. 187).

Kay doesn’t blink the tragedy.  It would be an understatement to say that there’s enormous suffering and sorrow in this story.  But there is astonishing moral and physical courage and heroism as well—as in The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion.  And Kay stresses (in his idiosyncratic way) the factor of free will in the “weaving” of the universe.  Even the fate of Arthur and his companions is not forever foredoomed.

Once the threat to Fionavar has been vanquished, a new way opens.  All three of them can leave the worlds forever, together, and fight no more.  In the most Tolkien-like moment of the story, the three sail off into eternity, rising along what Tolkien called the Straight Road into the West (The Darkest Road, p. 332).

The scene is so moving that one hardly notices Kay has not actually resolved the romantic triangle at all.  Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot are surely worthy of Paradise—but we have no clue as to who ends up with whom.  Is the only way to resolve this triangle to transcend it to some conclusion beyond mortal comprehension?

Lancelot’s Alternative?

I want to mention one possibility that I haven’t seen tried in a modern story (although, in the innumerable variations on the Arthuriad, it’s quite possible that there’s an instance out there).  Instead of coming up with an alternative for Arthur, one might try presenting an alternative for Lancelot, allowing Arthur and Guinevere to come back together as true lovers—perhaps sadder and wiser after what, in such a plot, would be a temporary breach of faith among the three of them.

The concept can in fact be found in a very old source:  Williams mentions a French lay called Lanval (ca. 1170-1215), in which a Lancelot-equivalent, desired by the queen, ends up himself riding off to Avalon with a fairy mistress.  But this is a quite different version of the Arthurian story.  Is there an opening for a Lancelot-mate in the more canonical range of variations?

Lancelot and ElaineThere’s Elaine.  In Malory, Elaine falls in love with Lancelot and tricks him into sleeping with her thinking she’s Guinevere.  Their son is Galahad, and in Malory they actually live together for some time as man and wife.  Could something be made of this?

White’s Once and Future King treats Elaine as a weak and helpless character, hardly worthy of Lancelot.  But she could easily be amped up to modern standards as a stronger individual.  If Guinevere can be a Celtic warrior maid or a Canadian college student, Elaine could certainly be revised to an inventive author’s taste.  Her relationship with Lancelot need not be the failed, one-sided romance depicted by White; she could become Lancelot’s real love.

Actually, there’s an interesting hint in The Fionavar Tapestry.  A seemingly pointless side story concerns a kind of Luthien-figure, the supernally beautiful elf Leyse of the Swan Mark.  She meets Lancelot briefly in the woods and falls in love with him—but of course he’s otherwise occupied.  Leyse then herself sails off into the West (The Darkest Road, p. 233).  It occurred to me that the name “Leyse” faintly resembles “Elaine”; and in preparing this post, I noticed her description on Wikipedia specifically refers to Elaine—although not necessarily the same Elaine (there are several characters by that name in the Arthuriad).  If she too ends up in the West, the Isles of the Blest, or whatever unearthly paradise Kay’s world accommodates—is it conceivable that she provides a quadrilateral solution to the Eternal Triangle?

There always seem to be more possibilities to be explored—which is what makes this myth so fruitful.




Recently I started listening to Mike Duncan’s podcasts on the History of Rome (2007-2012).  It’s interesting that he takes seriously the story of the founding of Rome by Aeneas.  Not that he believes it actually happened that way; but he does recount the tale as if it were history.  Of course, Duncan observes that we don’t have much of anything except legends to go on for the early history.  And it does make a good yarn.

The Aeneid, cover (Penguin)I’ve always had a fondness for Aeneas.  It dates back to when I took fourth-year Latin in high school.  That class—which turned out to be a sort of independent study, since no one else signed up for the course—consisted largely of translating parts of the Aeneid.  As it happened, my encounter with the Aeneid was also the occasion for a kind of epiphany.

So what makes Aeneas, and his story, so cool?

The Poem

The Aeneid is an epic poem, the Romans’ answer to the Greeks’ Iliad and Odyssey.  Unlike the Greek epics, which are attributed to the near-legendary Homer, the Aeneid was composed within recorded history, between 29 and 19 B.C., by Publius Vergilius Maro, generally referred to in English as Vergil or Virgil.  The work was seen as celebrating Roman history and its culmination in the Empire of Augustus Caesar, and became a kind of national mythology of Rome.

Vergil developed his epic out of a scattering of legendary sources, including some mentions of Aeneas in the Iliad.  Wikipedia summarizes the work this way, incorporating some useful cross-references:

Virgil took the disconnected tales of Aeneas’s wanderings, his vague association with the foundation of Rome and a personage of no fixed characteristics other than a scrupulous pietas, and fashioned the Aeneid into a compelling founding myth or national epic that tied Rome to the legends of Troy, explained the Punic Wars, glorified traditional Roman virtues, and legitimized the Julio-Claudian dynasty as descendants of the founders, heroes, and gods of Rome and Troy.

Painting of Aeneas recounting the fall of Troy to Dido

Aeneas tells Dido of the Trojan War (Pierre-Narcisse Guérin)

The Aeneid describes how Aeneas and his followers, escaping from the fall of Troy, set out on extended wanderings about the Mediterranean in search of the new home they are destined to find.  They stop for a while at Carthage (Rome’s traditional enemy), which is actually where the poem begins.  Aeneas tells the story so far to the attentive Queen Dido of Carthage, who is enamored of him.  It’s a classic example of starting a story “in medias res” (into the midst of things).

When he’s reminded that he has not yet arrived at his destined kingdom, Aeneas reluctantly leaves Dido, who kills herself out of frustrated love.  Eventually he arrives in Italy, where his people join forces with the native Latins, sealing the union by the marriage of Aeneas and the princess Lavinia—but first they have to defeat the local Rutuli, to whose king, Turnus, Lavinia had previously been promised.

The Story

Aeneas and his father flee Troy (Vouet)

Aeneas and his Father Fleeing Troy, by Simon Vouet (c. 1635)

The Aeneid is a story of the underdog—something that always appeals.  Rather than seizing on some glorious victor as the founder of Rome, Vergil started with the defeated refugees fleeing from the fall of Troy.  It takes some nerve to proclaim yourself the descendant of the losers.  But it bespeaks a certain humility that’s refreshing in a national epic.


On the other hand, Aeneas is not exactly a common man:  he’s the son of the goddess Venus and his human father Anchises.  Thus, Aeneas is frequently addressed in the poem as “goddess-born” (nāte deā).  Aeneas is in fact a demigod by ancestry—but he’s sympathetically human in character.  So he may be from the losing side in the Trojan War, but he’s definitely the Chosen One.

The Aeneid is not the tale of an essentially pointless war, like the Iliad, or the monster-ridden journey of the Odyssey.  Rather, it has a plot that moves definitely toward an end:  a victorious war (redeeming the defeat of Troy, perhaps) that results in a new beginning, the origin of Rome.  (Wikipedia says rather coyly:  “A strong teleology, or drive towards a climax, has been detected in the poem.”)  This gives the Aeneid a note of hope and uplift that’s harder to find in the Greek predecessors.

The Hero

I like Aeneas better than most of the heroes of Homer.  He makes mistakes; he hesitates at times to step up to his destiny; he has his moments of weakness with Dido; but he’s essentially well-intentioned and honorable.

Vergil depicts Aeneas as an exemplar of pietas, a central virtue for the Romans.  It’s not quite the same thing as the cognate “piety” in English.  The root sense seems to be a kind of filial respect, but read broadly pietas becomes almost equivalent to “justice”—in the equally broad sense often given to “justice” by Plato and Aristotle, where the term encompasses the whole of morality.  Aeneas is a “good guy”—and I always have a weakness for the decent person who strives to do the right thing.

One wouldn’t be far wrong to think of Aeneas as a potential knight of the Round Table.  In fact, the original descriptions of Arthur do make a legendary connection to the family of Aeneas (in the Historia Brittonum).

The Romantic

Another favorable feature, to my taste, is that Aeneas is more prone to romance than most of the Homeric heroes.  (Maybe it’s his mom’s influence at work.)

Aeneas and Anchises in Troy movieOf course, the Iliad does give us Hector and Andromache, and the Odyssey is after all the tale of Odysseus’ attempts to return to his faithful wife.  But romantic love is not the main matter of those works (I read the intrigue of Paris and Helen as more a matter of lust than love).  This is somewhat obscured in the movie Troy, where Hollywood characteristically amps up the romances of Paris and Helen, Achilles and Briseis.  (Incidentally, Aeneas appears in that movie too—for about sixteen seconds; though he does take possession of an heirloom sword to carry forward into mythical history.)

Aeneas is involved in three romances in the course of his voyaging.  To begin with, he’s portrayed as loyal to his first wife Creusa.  When she’s lost in the flight through burning Troy, he goes back at great risk to find her, but he’s too late.  He meets her shade instead, and though he tries to hold her, he can’t.  Instead, she foretells he’ll marry another.

The poem treats the idyll in Carthage as a weakness in Aeneas, because it distracts him from his destiny:  he’s tempted to settle down with Dido and give up all this strife and conflict.  But it’s the kind of weakness we moderns rather sympathize with.  When he leaves Dido, it’s for an irresistible reason—the call of destiny—and Dido’s heartbreak is portrayed as an overreaction (her dying curse provides a mythical explanation for the traditional enmity between Rome and Carthage).

Finally, Aeneas’ destined marriage to Lavinia can be interpreted as a romantic happy ending.  He names a city for her—perhaps not the typical gift to one’s wife, but certainly a grand gesture.  Not that the Aeneid treats of their relationship in any great detail.  But that leaves the field open for improvisation.  Wikipedia observes that “[t]he perceived deficiency of any account of Aeneas’s marriage to Lavinia or his founding of the Roman race led some writers . . . to compose their own supplements.”

I recently read one of those follow-up stories, Ursula K. LeGuin’s Lavinia.  It’s a good story, although it has peculiarly “meta” qualities:  LeGuin depicts Lavinia as spending a lot of time chatting with Vergil himself and pondering whether she’s real or fictional.  We still don’t get to see as much of Aeneas or their romance as I’d have liked, though LeGuin does depict the hero and their love favorably—a step in the right direction.

The Epiphany

Arma virumque cano, blue tile coasterTranslating something into another language can trigger reflections on language itself.

In high school, I would have said that plot was more important than character in a story—feeling a bit daring and iconoclastic in taking that position, since in those days the doctrine in English Lit classes was that Character Is Everything.  Style, or the handling of language I would have considered a distant third, at best.

But I remember going over my English rendition at one point, and not being quite satisfied.  The lines were accurate enough; but I wanted something more.  The lines didn’t sing.  I wanted them to sound better.  In fact—I was amused to realize—I wanted them to sound like The Lord of the Rings.  It’s an epic, with a heroic sword-and-sorcery setting, right?  Of course it should sound like Tolkien!

That was the point at which I became aware how much the language matters.  You can have a fine plot, you can have wonderful characters, but how that comes through to the reader depends on how you say it.  How you tell the story can be as important, in how it affects the reader, as what story you choose to tell.

A Character By Any Other Name

Last time we talked about the complications of naming babies.  Of course, parents have only a few children.  But writers have to name a lot of characters.  Coming up with the right names is tricky; some writers are better at it than others.  Let’s look at how they meet the challenge.

The Familiar

If you’re writing a contemporary story, you’re in much the same position as a proud parent—except that you know how the person turns out, and you can pick a name that carries the implications you want for the character.  Dickens can name one pleasant pair the Cheeryble Brothers and a less prepossessing soul Scrooge to underline their personalities, in case the reader needs to be hit over the head with a sledgehammer to get the point.  Not all authors have to be quite so explicit about it.

As we noted, there are plenty of books and pamphlets to suggest character names, as well as sites like Behind the Names, BabyNameWizard, or Nameberry.  The pamphlets have become a bit more international over the years:  today’s versions contain names from more countries and languages than they used to.  This can help us avoid what you might call “WASP Name Syndrome,” in which all the names tend to be blandly Anglo-Saxon.

Kamala Khan, Ms. Marvel

Kamala Khan, Ms. Marvel

Consider, for example, early super-heroes, who tended to have white-bread names like Clark Kent, Lois Lane, Bruce Wayne, Barry Allen—not to mention the compulsively alliterative Marvel characters like Reed Richards, Peter Parker, Sue Storm, Bruce Banner…  We see at least a little more cultural variety these days, even if it’s still hard to shake the alliteration, as with the current Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan.

We’re still in pretty familiar territory when we visit the realm of the historic, or faux-historic—legendary figures living in real or imagined ancient times.  In the Arthurian tales we get ordinary-sounding names like, well, Arthur, as well as less common names (at least at this point in history) like Lancelot, Galahad, Tristan and Isolde, which may at least be familiar through repetition.  An author who wants to be (perhaps) historically more accurate as well as exotic can go for Celtic-style spellings:  Bedwyr instead of Bedivere, for example.  I’ve seen such imaginative renditions of “Guinevere” that you can get halfway through the book before you realize who the author is talking about.  (“Gwenhwyfar,” anyone?)

The Semi-Fantastic

We can do the same thing in F&SF—name our hero Luke, our wizard Ben, pedestrian names like that.  We may want the effect of the plain, traditional name for a particular character—for example, to suggest homeliness or familiarity.  (“His real name is Obi-Wan, but I know him as Ben.”)  This is fine if the story is set, say, twenty years from now, when you’d expect names to be relatively unchanged.  But it’s harder to justify—to make believable—if we’re thousands of years in the future, or in a completely separate alternate world, as with much heroic fantasy.

Note this can also be true in SF:  Star Wars looks futuristic, but we’re clearly asked to dissociate ourselves from any specific connection to the present when we’re told, “Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away…”  The curious reader is likely to wonder, how did these people happen to come up with exactly the same names we use, even without any common (recent) history or heritage?

Pilgrimage: The Book of the People, coverIn Zenna Henderson’s stories of The People, refugees from another planet come to Earth and struggle to fit in.  The stories are excellent, but the names sometimes give me pause.  In a story set on the home planet, before they’ve had any contact with Earth, the characters have names such as David, Eve, and Timmy—as well as the less familiar Lytha and ‘Chell (Michelle?).  Why so similar to common Terrestrial names?

Or take the hobbits.  Alongside Sam, Bob, and Rosie we have characters like Frodo, Bilbo, Meriadoc and Pippin.  Tolkien, the master linguist, can explain this—exhaustively (see Appendix F to The Lord of the Rings).  From a narrative point of view, the name-mixture gives us a sense of earthy rustic culture, but also of something a little different from Merrie Olde England.  Tolkien succeeds by being both quaint and quirky.

I’m less sympathetic to George R.R. Martin, who seems determined to give his characters in A Song of Ice and Fire names that are mostly familiar, but misspelled.  If we’re going to have people named Eddard, Catelyn, and Rickard, why not just call them Edward, Cathleen, and Richard—or are we expected to believe that languages in Westeros evolved in almost exact parallel to ours, but not quite?  (I have the same problem with the pseudo-Latin spells in Harry Potter—if you’re going to use Latin, just do it, don’t fake it—though I recently read an article by someone who’s examined Rowling’s quasi-Latin more closely than I and is more forgiving.)

Inventing Fantasy Names

If we’re going for traditional semi-medieval high fantasy, we may want names that are somewhat familiar, but have an antique ring to them.  How do I come up with a fitting title for the mighty barbarian I just rolled up for Dungeons and Dragons?  There are a number of tried-and-true approaches.  As it turns out, TV Tropes has a gallery of naming tropes that cover much of the territory (there’s a list-of-lists at Naming Conventions).

A descriptive name picks out some distinguishing feature:  Erik the Red, Catherine the Great.  Or Charles the Bald, or Pepin the Short, if I’m aiming for humorous or mundane rather than grand and dramatic.  If we don’t like “the,” we can fix on a name like Blackbeard.  Or Bluebeard.  (TV Tropes summarizes the pattern as Captain Colorbeard.)

Naming someone by place of origin (especially in place of a last name) also has a healthy yeomanlike sound to it.  I fondly recall a sturdy D&D character I named John of Redcliff.  A lot of ordinary last names, like Lake or Hill or Rivers, probably started out that way.  If the background allows for it, we can vary the effect by using French (de) or German (von) or other languages’ equivalents.

Occupations also gave us a lot of familiar last names.  “William the Farmer” (to distinguish him from the three other Williams in the village) easily becomes “William Farmer.”  Some of these are less obvious than others:  we may not recall that “sawyer” is what you call someone who wields a saw.

Names that indicate one’s parents—patronymics and matronymics—occur in many languages.  The English have their Josephsons and Richardsons, the Russians their Petrovs and Ivanovnas.

Random alphabet diceScorning these expedients, we can also strike off into the unknown by inventing a name purely from scratch, just for its sound.  This can produce semi-random results—but not entirely random, since speakers of a given language will tend toward combinations of letters and sounds that “make sense” in their language.  TV Tropes’ Law of Alien Names makes some interesting observations about how writers in different genres often approach name generation.

A doctor friend of mine, feeling he wasn’t up to the task of coining a lot of names, used a novel expedient in his D&D campaign:  he used the names of drugs.  This strategy works surprisingly well as long as you stick to obscure pharmaceuticals, which often seem to have been named by plucking letters out of the air (“erenumab”) or by phonetically respelling a chemical term (“Sudafed”).  On the other hand, a fierce warrior character named “Xanax” is going to create some cognitive dissonance for those who know the term in question.

A Variety of Effects

Different writers take different approaches to naming, which contribute to the distinctiveness of their worlds.

At the extreme end of systematic invention stands Tolkien, who once said that he invented his stories and realms only as a place to put his invented languages.  His names add noticeably to the integrity of his imagined world; they hold together so well because they really were derived from a number of separate, fully-developed languages.  We have a pretty good idea whether a name is hobbitish, elven, or dwarven from the sound alone.

Llana of Gathol, coverOr take Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom (Mars) stories.  Martian heroes and heroines (especially the heroines) tend to have relatively graceful names:  Dejah Thoris, Gahan of Gathol (a place-reference name), Carthoris, Llana.  Male supporting characters and savage green Martians are tougher-sounding:  Tars Tarkas, Mors Kajak, Kantos Kan, Xodar.  Villains’ names are still less graceful:  Phor Tak, Tul Axtar, Luud, U-Dor.  There’s no clear linguistic background for the names, but there’s enough commonality to give us a sense that Barsoomian nomenclature does hold together on a cultural basis.

Telzey Amberdon, book coverThe far future of SF writer James Schmitz yields a completely different style of naming.  Rather than being mellifluously Elvish, like Galadriel or Aragorn, or barbarically guttural, like Tars Tarkas, Schmitz’s names strike me as quintessentially American:  with a contemporary English sound and a sort of casual feel—yet unfamiliar enough to remind us we’re not in Kansas any more.  Recurring character Telzey Amberdon is a good example.  “Telzey,” with the diminutive –ey ending, sounds like a nickname somebody today might bear, but as far as I know, no one actually does.

This laid-back style is characteristic of Schmitz’s Federation of the Hub.  The names have a familiar contemporary sound, but they aren’t actually familiar.  The first names also tend to give few gender clues—which might be related to the fact that Schmitz stories often featured strong female leads.  Nile Etland and Heslet Quillan, along with the single-named Captain Pausert and Goth of The Witches of Karres or Iliff and Pagadan of Agent of Vega, all sound like people we might run into on any street—until we bypass the familiarity of sound and realize we’ve never heard these names before.  The names give Schmitz’s stories a unique feel.


We can see how the names help establish the mood and ambiance of a story.  It says something about The Lord of the Rings that it contains both Gandalf the Grey and Freddy Bolger.  As with other aspects of worldbuilding, the names contribute to the “willing suspension of disbelief” when they help us feel the believable solidity of a consistent background—even if it’s a consistency that includes species or cultural variation.

TV Tropes lists a number of ways anomalies can crop up.  There’s “Aerith and Bob,” where familiar conventional names are mixed in unaccountably with unusual ones.  If a particular character’s name is unlike any of the others, we have “Odd Name Out.”  Using a mix of Earthly languages as sources for names gives us “Melting-Pot Nomenclature”—which may be justified if we envision a future in which today’s nations and ethnic groups have intermixed, as in H. Beam Piper’s future history.

The most thoroughgoing way of establishing a solid background for your names is Tolkien’s:  invent your own languages.  But few of us have the time, patience and talent for that kind of detail.  In practice, we don’t need to go that far.  It’s possible to do the same thing on a small scale by starting from the grass roots:  come up with an interesting name or two and decide to emphasize certain sounds or forms for that language’s words, inventing the rules and common elements (like “de” or “von”) as we go along.

However writers may go about the business of naming, we can appreciate the distinctive flavor given to their stories by how they choose names for their “children”—and if we’re so inclined, we can try out that creative wordplay for ourselves.

The Naming of Names

I love names.  Words of all sorts, but especially names; people’s names, as well as names of places and things.  Even with ordinary first names, one may always ask “Why did the parents pick that name for that child?”—whether one asks with a note of puzzlement, admiration, or horror.  But fantasy and science fiction provide wider scope for inquiry, because so many of the names in those stories are made up by the authors, rather than picked from the usual stash of baby names.

First, though, let’s look at the mundane questions faced by parents.

Name That Baby

Ariella baby name decorative blockA year ago, when my daughter was expecting her first child, she canvassed family members for name suggestions.  I was happy to comply.  Ecstatic, in fact.  I pored through a number of baby name booklets and sources, which I keep for reference in inventing fictional characters, and (naturally) made a list.

As I was putting the list together, I realized I was subliminally applying a whole set of criteria for evaluating possible candidates.  When I tried to tease out what kinds of considerations I had in mind, I came up with this set.

(1)  First and last names.  First of all, the first and last name have to go together.  Bob Levey, a Washington Post columnist, used to collect “Perfect Fit Last Names” (PFLN).  Sometimes these were simply last names that turned out to be appropriate for someone’s occupation; I once had a swimming teacher named Mr. Drown.  A Levey collection from 2000 mentions a funeral home director named Graves, a midwife named Borner, and horseback riding instructors named Sadler, Mount, and Paddock.  But sometimes it’s the coordination of first and last names that’s especially apt.  The same article, for example, cites an Ivy Plant.  The first question for parents is, do you want to saddle your child with a name that will always invite snickers?

A subtler point is whether first and last names sound good together.  For example, when my children were born, I decided that names ending in an “-el” sound would elide too smoothly into the first syllable of “Ellrod.”  That knocked out a lot of girls’ names with forms like Michelle or Annabelle.  On the plus side, it also removed the temptation to indulge in a Tolkien name like “Galadriel Ellrod.”  (More on that below.)

(2)  Too common.  You may not want a name that’s too common.  Both my children shared first names with other kids in their grade-school classes—in one case, a first and middle name.  If you’re curious what names have been most used in recent years, you can consult a Web site like Behind the Name, which also provides great etymologies.

Beren, by Elena Kukanova

Beren (sketch by Elena Kukanova)

(3)  Too weird.  At the same time, you don’t necessarily want a name that’s too exotic.  No matter how geeky you (or your kids) may be, it’s going to be tough going through life named “Aragorn Ellrod” or “Frodo Ellrod.”  (Not to mention “Kal-El Ellrod,” which fails on multiple counts.)  I almost succumbed to the Tolkien temptation when I considered the name “Beren,” a hero from the Silmarillion.  It sounds almost normal; and maybe I could bury it as a middle name.  I started trying out the name “Christopher Beren” on people, but I stopped when someone asked:  “You mean, like the Baron of so-and-so?”  Uh-oh.  The poor kid would never get his middle name spelled right, ever.

Fashion matters, too.  Names go in and out of style.  It sometimes seems that about twenty percent of the heroines in eighteenth- or nineteenth-century novels were named “Fanny.”  But it’s hard to imagine giving a child that name today.  (Behind the Names confirms my gut reaction, showing the statistical incidence of “Fanny” dropping off the chart after about 1940 in the U.S.)

(4)  Misspelled or mispronounced.  A name that will always be misspelled or mispronounced is going to be a burden for the child.  In this category we have the innovative spellings one sometimes see for commonplace names.  “Megan,” for example, is pretty common nowadays (though there were no Megans around when I was growing up).  But a girl named “Megyn” is going to be wearily correcting the spelling all her life.  And people will dither over whether “Megyn” should get some equally novel pronunciation, or just sound like “Megan.”

Colbie Caillat at the Malibu Inn

Colbie Caillat at the Malibu Inn

Names from other languages (which may be perfectly well-known in their own tongues) can fall into this category.  I’m reminded of singer Colbie Caillat, though I’m thinking more of the last name than the first.  “Caillat” looks French to me, and in French it would come out something like “kye-aw” (as she says in this interview).  But the name as it’s actually used is said “cal-lay” (there’s an audio link on the Wikipedia page), which sounds as if someone threw up their hands and said “I can’t figure it out, but it’s French, so it must end in ‘ay.’”

(5)  Commemoration.  Names that duplicate those of other family members are appealing.  We may like the idea of commemorating a parent, sibling, or more distant relative in a child’s name.  On the other hand, having the same names constantly recur breeds confusion.  I’ve torn my hair out at times trying to make sense of old family Bible genealogy pages in which every third individual is named Robert or William, and nobody at the time bothered to specify which William or Robert they were referring to.  I feel it’s more interesting to give family members distinctive names—which is one reason there’s no Frederick E. Ellrod IV.

You may also want to honor famous historical or fictional characters.  Even if their names are not weird, though, we want to be careful about how they come across.  Different people may have different associations with the same name; we can’t control that, but sometimes we can anticipate it, especially if the name is distinctive.  I might want to name a boy after Albert Einstein, but a listener might think of Fat Albert or Uncle Albert.

Emergence cover, first edition(6)  Age-appropriateness.  There are names that can become incongruous depending on the age or character of the child.  For example, “Edith” might be attractive for Tolkien fans (it was J.R.R. Tolkien’s wife’s name); but it seems so staid that I can’t picture a small child named Edith.  Conversely, it might be cute to name a girl Candace and call her “Candy.”  But that inherently trivial-sounding monicker might seem embarrassing to a teenager, and positively annoying to a grown woman who wanted to be taken seriously.  David R. Palmer’s engaging post-apocalyptic novel Emergence (1984) plays off that factor by giving us an eleven-year-old first-person heroine named Candy (Candidia)—who also happens to be a genius, an advanced karate master, and generally as formidable as any Heinlein female lead.  In this case, the very incongruity is part of the fun.

(7)  Ambiguity.  Names that are ambiguous as to gender, like “Morgan,” “Lindsay,” or “Leslie,” may appeal to some parents for exactly that reason, but they’ll also make it harder for strangers to know how to address the person later on.  When you’re writing a formal letter, it doesn’t help if you can’t tell whether the salutation should be “Dear Mr.” or “Dear Ms.”

Anne of Green Gables book cover(8)  Nicknames.  What are you actually going to call the kid?  Some names support multiple nicknames, some only one, and some are unnicknameable.  And to me at least, “Anne” has quite a different sound and resonance than “Annie.”  (Anne Shirley famously insisted on “Anne” even as opposed to “Ann.”)  You can name someone “Elizabeth” and make available a plethora of diminutives and variants, from Lizzie to Beth to Lisa.  But give a baby the name “Faith” and that’s pretty much the only possibility.  Unless, of course, the nickname comes completely out of left field.  I once was introduced to the wife of a partner at a law firm whose name tag read “Winkie.”  There was no predicting that one.

(9)  Initials.  We should at least try out the full name’s initials before we decide.  A friend of my sister’s grew up with the initials “B.O.,” and naturally at a certain age she was razzed about that.  I once put my full name’s initials—FEE—on something in an office refrigerator, and puzzled some people who thought there was a charge for that item.  If nothing else, I’ve always favored giving the members of a family different first-name initials, so it’s easy to list them on a miniature golf scorecard just by their letters.

Of course, if a person ends up changing their last name later in life, all bets are off—as if it wasn’t complicated enough already.


So even in the sphere of ordinary Tom-Dick-and-Harry contemporary names, there are a lot of angles to think about.  Next time, we’ll venture into naming conventions in fantastic worlds, where things only get more complicated.

Lost World-Ships

Lost Universes

Suppose it turns out that the world in which you and your ancestors have lived isn’t a natural world at all, but a construct.  All you know of reality is the interior of a vast spacecraft.  If the truth ever becomes apparent, you’re going to be in for a shock:  the universe is vaster and stranger than you ever imagined.

Warp Drive exit signThe immense distances between the stars, and the speed-of-light limit, make this kind of situation a staple of modern science fiction.  Barring some as-yet-undiscovered method for faster-than-light travel, like the Star Wars hyperdrive or Star Trek warp drive, an interstellar voyage is likely to take many years.

The “generation ship” is a common SF assumption.  What I call “lost world-ship” stories, in which the inhabitants have forgotten they are even on a spaceship, form a subset of generation ship stories.  The generation ships, in turn, are a subset of the broader category of what might be called “sealed environment” tales:  people live for generations in an restricted artificial environment, but it isn’t a spaceship (as for instance in the movie City of Ember).  The sealed environment stories can in turn be seen as a subset of “exotic environment” SF tales, where an unnatural situation places unique pressures on the people who live there.


. . . And Where To Find Them

I find the lost world-ship plot particularly fascinating, so I’ve accumulated a number of examples over the years.

The Star Seekers coverMy first exposure to the idea as a child was in Milton Lesser’s The Star Seekers (1953), one of the distinctive Winston Science Fiction publications that introduced so many kids in that era to SF.  I recently obtained a Kindle copy and was charmed to encounter the story again, after all these years.  On a 200-year trip to Alpha Centauri, the four levels of the starship have separated into four different cultures, three of which are no longer aware they are on a spacecraft.  The setup is not entirely convincing; there’s no real explanation as to how most of the inhabitants simply “forgot” their origins.  But the book conveyed to me the mystery of discovering something that changed one’s whole world-view.

Orphans of the Sky coverIn pursuing the stories in Heinlein’s Future History, I ran across the real bellwether of the lost world-ship tale, the two novellas “Universe” and “Common Sense” (1941) that form the book Orphans of the Sky.  It may not be the earliest treatment— Don Wilcox was a year ahead with “The Voyage That Lasted 600 Years” (1940).  But in the Wilcox story, as in The Star Seekers, there was still someone on board who remembered the ship’s purpose.  In Heinlein’s starship Vanguard, no one preserved that memory.  A mutiny long ago had killed off the technically skilled, and their descendants preserved the story of the “Trip” to “Centaurus” only as mythology—which they interpreted as pure allegory, not to be taken literally.

Orphans of the Sky focuses on how hard it is for those raised in the artificial environment even to conceive that there could be an outside.  The escape of a few characters to make landfall on a planet, at the end, is a dramedy of errors.

Aldiss Starship coverAnother lost world-ship story that fascinated me in my misspent youth was the Brian Aldiss book Non-Stop (1958), published as Starship in the U.S.  As in Heinlein’s case, Aldiss’s travelers have reverted to barbarism.  The artificial nature of their surroundings is masked by the fact that much of the ship is filled with “ponics” – mutated hydroponic plants that have spread through the corridors.  The real story does not emerge until close to the end, mediated, as in Orphans, by a diary left over from earlier times.  The ship had been ravaged by a disease of sorts, the result of a previously-unknown amino acid picked up on their destination world, from which the ship was now returning.  This plague, and the long unpiloted voyage, has rendered the inhabitants far different from their ancestors, rendering their hopes for escape from the degenerating vessel problematic.

Strangers in the Universe coverI encountered Clifford D. Simak’s Target Generation (1953), originally published as Spacebred Generations, in Simak’s collection Strangers in the Universe.  There’s a well-done summary and analysis of the story by Zachary Kendal on his Web site.  When Simak’s automated starship reaches its destination, it triggers a sequence of events that lead the main character to open a sealed book of instructions that has been waiting for that moment—rather like the instruction page in City of Ember.  He concludes that the builders of the ship had deliberately caused the travelers to forget their origins, except as a vague quasi-religious observance, because that was the only way they could (in Kendal’s words) “survive the journey without terrible psychological trauma.”

All these stories affected me with a sense of vast, brooding spans of time and forgotten lore.  The settings tended to be gloomy, the societies stunted or degraded, the environments worn-down and cramped.  But the tales also raised a sense of hope—that the travelers could somehow break free of their limited universe in the end, and recover the way humans were meant to live.


Other Media and Sources

The lost world-ship trope has turned up in other media too.  The original Star Trek series included a third-season episode (1968) with the cumbersome but evocative title “For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky,” in which the Enterprise crew discovers that an “asteroid” approaching a Federation planet is actually a generation ship.  There was a mercifully short-lived TV series in 1973 called The Starlost, a decent concept (by Harlan Ellison) with a completely botched execution—an entertaining story in itself.  The Pixar film WALL-E incorporates the idea that the remaining human beings have been living for generations aboard a luxury starship and have almost, if not entirely, forgotten what it’s like to live on a planet.  There was even a 1976 role-playing game called Metamorphosis Alpha set on a generation ship afflicted by an unknown cataclysm.

There’s more.  The Wikipedia and TV Tropes pages on generation ships provide useful lists.  Still more are summarized in a study by Simone Caroti, The Generation Starship in Science Fiction:  A Critical History, 1934-2001 (2011)—though Caroti’s study is a little heavy on the academic Marxist/deconstructionist attitudes for my taste.

For the broader categories I mentioned above, examples of non-spaceborne sealed environments include Hugh Howey’s Wool, James White’s The Watch Below (which pairs an alien fleet of generation ships with a human group trapped in a sunken oceangoing vessel), and Daniel F. Galouye’s Dark Universe.  TV Tropes lists others under the headings City in a Bottle and Small, Secluded World.  Other “exotic environment” stories include Ray Bradbury’s memorable “Frost and Fire” and Christopher Priest’s Inverted World.



What is it that’s so compelling about the lost world-ship stories as to explain my lifelong love affair with them?

Sense of Wonder.  The strangeness of the environment—the union of familiar human concerns with surpassingly unnatural situations—evokes the “sense of wonder” that is characteristic of F&SF.  But we can point to more specific themes that arise in the lost world-ship setting.

Loss and Forgetfulness.  A sense of loss pervades these stories—a loss not fully appreciated by the characters, but clear to the reader.  The starship inhabitants have lost their history, and with it, their sense of who they really are.  They have lost other kinds of knowledge as well, especially technological knowledge, often existing as barbarians in the ruins of a superscientific construct (again, a wider SF trope).

This sense of loss is like that of another subgenre, the post-apocalyptic story.  The disaster that afflicts the starship is a sort of localized apocalypse; this is what differentiates the lost world-ship from a functioning generation ship.  Pondering the causes—whether mutiny, plague, accident, or even deliberate obliteration of the past—makes us reflect on the fragility of our own histories and societies.

Illusion.  In these stories, the world is never what we think it is.  One need not live on a starship to share that experience; the whole history of modern science can be read as a progressive penetration of appearances.  (Heinlein has a character in Orphans unknowingly echo Galileo as he tries fruitlessly to convince others of how their world really works:  “Nevertheless—Nevertheless—it still moves!”)  The lost world-ship story brings home the way our knowledge is bounded by our experience—or by our assumptions.

The Natural and the Artificial.  This dichotomy can play out in two ways.  Either the inhabitants take their artificial world so matter-of-factly that it seems perfectly natural to them, and they can hardly imagine anything else (Heinlein); or the unnaturalness of their world subtly warps or frustrates them (Aldiss).

The former may seem more plausible to those who prefer “nurture” to “nature” as an explanation.  When you grow up with something, why wouldn’t you take it for granted as normal and natural?  The latter approach may appeal more to those with a strong sense of the natural as fundamental and superior to the artificial.  For example, a character in Non-Stop tries to show his companions that the ponic plants are natural, but corridors are not.  The key question, of course, is how he knows that plants are more natural than walls:  is the difference somehow wired into the human brain?  In Howey’s Dust, part of the Wool series, a knowledgeable character says of their underground sealed environment:  “They don’t know anything beyond their walls, so I guess they don’t have some of the stress about what’s out there that you and I feel.  But I think they have something else that we don’t have, this deep feeling that something is wrong with how they’re living.”

We frequently encounter such nature-nurture arguments in more conventional sociological contexts.  But the lost world-ship story brings us face to face with them in novel ways.

Incongruity.  The lost world-ship is a fertile ground for irony and “cognitive dissonance,” where the reader knows things the characters do not.  In principle this sort of incongruity could be played for light comedy or farce—but I don’t know that I’ve ever seen it done that way, except perhaps toward the middle of The Star Seekers, a young adult novel and thus somewhat lighter in tone.  The starship stories tend to be too grim for farce.

Escape.  The somberness of the classic lost world-ship is alleviated by the possibility of getting out, into a freer and better world.  Once the characters realize there is somewhere else to go, they may be able to escape.

Flammarion cosmos paintingEscape is a major preoccupation in Non-Stop, and contributes much of the story’s emotional force.  It fits in with the fact that we encounter the starships in Target Generation and The Star Seekers just as they arrive at their destinations:  a hoped-for new world, a natural world free of the constraints of the world-ship.

The last generation is in a far better position, in this respect, than their ancestors.  As TV Tropes puts it, commenting on Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora:  “A major theme of the book is the fact that while the original generation-ship crew may have consented to their risky mission, their children don’t get a choice.”  The writer of the ancient diary in Non-Stop, facing the beginning of the generations-long return trip, bursts out:  “Only a technological age could condemn unborn generations to exist in [the ship], as if man were mere protoplasm, without emotion or aspiration.”

But the characters we’ve come to know in the story do have the possibility of emerging into something wider and greater.  This hope is not quite the same as what Tolkien means by “Escape” in On Fairy-Stories (a topic for another day), although there is some common ground.

The contrast between the all-too-human characters and the artificial environment has still more resonance, perhaps, with the common human feeling that we don’t really belong in this world.  Some of the twentieth-century existentialists took this reaction as a sign of despair and meaninglessness.  But the notion of escape suggests instead that such emotions may instead point to another place where we do belong, evoking hope rather than despair.  The plight of the lost world-ship traveler may recall Chesterton’s lines in “The House of Christmas”:

For men are homesick in their homes,
And strangers under the sun,
. . . . .
But our homes are under miraculous skies
Where the yule tale was begun.