NANP: The Power of Names

Everybody give a warm welcome to author and poet Helen Lowe, who is joining us all the way from Christchurch, New Zealand. Helen has worked on several books so far, and is the winner of the 2012 Morningstar Award as well which was given in recognition of her debut novel Heir of Night from last year. I read the novel back in August and loved it (my review) so much that I’ve marked her down as one of the most promising authors of the new generation. No mild exaggeration that. Helen was really excited about the topic for this post and as you will see down under, she is very passionate about it too. Here’s what she had to say.

The Power of Names

by Helen Lowe


The power of names is an important them in Fantasy literature, one I first became aware when reading Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. Similar themes crept into later favourites, such as Patricia McKillip’s The Riddlemaster of Hed trilogy and standalones such as The Forgotten Beast of Eld. The magic of names has a strong basis in traditional lore as well, one I became increasingly aware of through research and non fiction reading. Nonetheless, when I began writing my first novel, The Heir of Night (Heir), names were not part of my vision for the magic system of either the alien Derai Alliance or the world of Haarth.

The Heir of Night and an Early Lesson in the Power of Names

I did, however, feel—and still do—that names are an important way to give coherency to cultures and societies within a world, and so consciously sought to use common root syllables for names within the Derai Alliance. I also thought—and think—a lot about how the name both looks and sounds, often writing down several variants and also speaking them aloud with the “picture” of the character in my mind, to make sure that the name and character “fit.” Yet I quickly found, very early in writing Heir, that regardless of what role names play in the magic of a ‘verse, they nonetheless have power and influence within a story.

When I commenced Heir, the Honor Captain was one of the minor characters in the book and intended to remain so. Yet in trying to give Derai names a commonality for coherency purposes, I ended up with too many names that looked and sounded similar. Blithely, I decided to “just change a few names” to resolve the problem, and started with the Honor Captain, deciding that the name “Asantir” would do the trick. But as soon as I started using the new name, the Honor Captain transformed into a completely different character. She not only looked different, she also had a completely different personality and she certainly wasn’t going to be a bit player anymore.  On the contrary, she took a metaphorical step forward, put her hands on her hips and said: “I’m here, I’m important to this story, and you’d better pay attention.” Needless to say, I’ve been paying attention ever since.

Thornspell and the Link Between Names and Worldbuilding:

Similarly, although not quite so dramatically, the name of the main character in my standalone YA novel, Thornspell, also came to me in a creative ‘flash’ that also revealed the story arc and the essential character of the world. Thornspell is a retelling of Sleeping Beauty from the perspective of the prince and the story “began” for me when I was at a ballet performance of Sleeping Beauty. I recall sitting up in my seat when the prince first came leaping onto the stage and thinking: “What about the prince? What’s his story?”

Almost immediately, I also had a vision of a boy, around age eleven, growing up in a small castle next to a mysterious and dangerous forest, and knew that his name was “Sigismund”—which instantly linked me into a world that was very “Holy Roman Empire” in feel. As the world and the cast of characters evolved, all the names retained that same Holy Roman Empire flavour, but also opened doors into a mythological backdrop for the story. This backdrop was grounded in the Middle European legends of Parsifal, in particular von Eschenbach’s Parzival, and the slightly later Lohengrin by “Nouhuwius.” It also drew on the European traditions of the Arthurian cycle, and the Grail quest in particular, via such works as Chretien de Troyes’ Le Roman de Perceval ou le Conte de Graal (ca. 1175.)

The Gathering of the Lost and the Influence of the Burgundian Knights

In The Gathering of the Lost (Gathering), the sequel to The Heir of Night and second in The Wall of Night series, the story moves away from the Wall of Night and the Derai Alliance, which dominated the first book, into the wider world of Haarth. This transition opens up new societies and landscapes, and once again I have used names to help create a coherent identity for each culture. For example, much of the action in the second book takes place in the dukedom of Emer, famous for its armored knights. But the very fact that Emer is a dukedom, is a hint to those versed in their history, that the Emerian knights are loosely based on those of Burgundy.

Building on the Burgundian element, I chose a pattern of names that is largely French in origin. The heyday of the Burgundian knights was the late-middle to late Middle Ages, but because Burgundy was for a long time a quasi-autonomous fief of the Holy Roman Empire, I felt that Old French forms of the names, such as Raher and Hirluin for example, were most appropriate. Recognising the Norse influence on regions such as Normandy at that time, I also included some names, such as Audin, that reference that influence. Other names, such as Ghiselaine, speak to the diversity of the Holy Roman Empire—and Burgundy’s relationships within that—by bringing in a more Bohemian influence.

Given the marrying of both French and Burgundian influences however, the era of the troubadors and minnesingers could not be left out, so in addition to introducing a tradition of “springtime love”, Emerian society also includes names such as Alianor.

Although these influences have been deliberately blurred both geographically and time-wise, I believe there is enough of a “French/Burgundian” and “Middle Ages” core to provide cultural coherence and distinguish Emer from other realms within Haarth. The reason I believe the geographic and temporal influences need to be blurred, i.e. to allude rather than being definitive, is because I am writing Fantasy, not History (not even alternate history.) Haarth is a completely “other” world, not this world, and Emer is not Burgundy, so allusion adds colour and texture, but does not define the society or map out its history.

Do Names Have Deeper Meanings?

Aside from developing naming systems to enhance and complement world-building, sometimes I do deliberately choose names to convey additional understanding around character or identity. Sometimes this meaning comes through sound, sometimes spelling; often it’s both. In Thornspell, for example, it is no accident that the arch-villain is the Margravine zu Malvolin. The title of Margravine, like the nobiliary particle “zu”, ties into the Middle-European flavour of the world—but it is no accident that “Malvolin” echoes “malevolent” in particular. Similarly, the name of another character, Flor, provides a double allusion. At one level, the name is a shortening of Florizel and Florian, romantic fairytale names for princes—but the pronunciatian is “flaw”, a signal that there may be more to this character than first meets the eye.

I note, though, that Thornspell is a story for younger readers and so I feel free to have fun playing with names and their allusions in a way I would not do so overtly in an adult series such as The Wall of Night. Yet even then, spelling may still comprise an allusion. I could, for example, have spelt the name of a young female knight in The Gathering of the Lost as Jana—but I made it “Jarna”, the echo being to “jarn” or “iron” in modern Swedish, derived from Old Norse. And of course the symbol for iron in the traditional periodic table of elements is the same symbol often used to denote a man. The allusion is not intended to suggest that Jarna is in any way a man, but she is very much a young woman in a man’s world, that of the heavily amored knights of Emer.


But are there deeper meanings still? Again in Gathering, the prologue to the book opens with a riddle around a name, that of the main character, Malian of Night:

“… a riddle for a riddle, an answer for an answer, a gift for a gift. You know my name already for it is also your name—although you might not recognize it as such  […] I would be interested to learn who it was that gave it to you … When you find out, you must return and tell me.”

So although when I began writing The Heir of Night, names were not part of my vision for its magic system, their power has played a part in the telling of the story from its outset. Now that power has woven its way into the plot as well, with the mystery of Malian’s name having yet to be answered—proof, if proof is required, that Tolkien, Le Guin and McKillip did their work well. I believe though, that they too are part of a continuum, one that stretches back to the origins of human mythology and storytelling, where both names and the act of naming were always imbued with power.



What sets Heir of Night apart from other such fantasy novels I’ve read over the years is that Helen’s worldbuilding is very different in terms of its content. The names are a big part of this difference and they all conjure a very alien mood and atmosphere to the novel. Very apt considering that the Derai aren’t even native to the world of Haarth and arrived there generations ago, much in the same way that the Tsuranuanni arrived on Kelewan in Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts’ Empire novels.

The world they created had a very Japanese feel to it, given that the Tsurani were so obsessed with their honour, their clans and families, with war, not to mention the cultural similarities such as killing oneself to preserve family/clan honour much in the same way that the samurai used to commit sepukku. That contrasted well against the Euro-medieval setting of Midkemia in Feist’s larger saga. Heir of Night doesn’t have that contrast working for it but there are ample hints of these differences between the Derai and the natives of Haarth.

The Derai names come across as very Nordic to me because the mood that Helen creates is of a grand Nordic saga, through the dialogue largely, and from the bits and pieces of lore that are revealed. I’m no expert on Norse mythology, being nothing but a dabbler, but names such as Asantir, Malian, Kalan etc evoke that same style for me.

To that end, I’m looking forward to the second novel, Gathering of the Lost, to see how Helen develops Haarth further and how she contrasts the Derai against their adopted world’s natives.


Helen Lowe on TwitterWebsite.

The next contributor to the series is friend and author Anne Lyle on 15th October. You can find a full schedule of here.

Posted on October 11, 2012, in Debut Authors Guest Series, Guest Posts and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. Thank you for the opportunity to be part of this series, Abhinav: I had a lot of fun writing the post (as you can probably tell. 😉 ) I enjoyed your commentary as well and you are right to point to a Nordic influence, what Australia’s “Specusphere” described as “…a Nordic doom pervading the tale…an unrelentingly dark haunting atmosphere” but in fact the root of Malian’s name is from the Greek (another important mythic influence) word for “dark” — which I hope, having read HEIR, you will agree is fitting. 🙂


  2. Human beings are social animals, and as such names are always going to interest and influence us. So I guess Helen’s story about Asantir does not surprise me!

    As a role player (since 1979!) I know how important my character names are in determining what sort of person they turn out to be.

    Iain M Banks also uses names extremely well in his Culture stories. I almost fell off my chair laughing when the ship “No more Mr Nice Guy” hove in to view in Consider Phlebas…


  3. Very apt considering that the Derai aren’t even native to the world of Haarth and arrived there generations ago, much in the same way that the Tsuranuanni arrived on Kelewan in Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts’ Empire novels.

    That’s a great comparison!


    • I’m a big fan of their work so its always foremost in my mind!


    • It is, although sadly, not unique even to that! As we were discussing the other day on Twitter with Courtney, there are a number of other tales that also work with the whole ‘people from the stars’ premise–I think we mentioned CJ Cherryh’s Morgaine series and the ‘very much SF’ idea of the gates in that, and there is also Andre Norton’s Witch World and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover, as well as Julian May’s ‘Many Colored Land’ premise—all very different stories, of course, as I hope my Wall seires is as well, but the fundamental idea of a people that orginate beyond the world they dwell on is somewhere lurking in all of them. (There are probably many more too… wormholes, anyone?) Nonetheless, I am very happy indeed to be ‘seen’ in the company of the Empire series which is a classic imho (although I think the origins of the Kelewan and Midkemia peoples may come first in A Darkness at Sethanon, the third in the initial Magican trilogy…)


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