Thursday, July 14, 2016

Sword and Sorcery Cliche No. 3: The Wizard With the Unpronounceable Name [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

The barbarian hero hacks his way through an army of undead to finally come face-to-face with the evil necromancer who has been terrorizing the countryside.

"Barbarian fool!" the old wizard croons.

"Die, fiend!" says the muscular swordsman. "Die, Xultot'ill'xiianx'ius!"

Now it was not quite that bad, but there is a legitimate cause for this parody. The alternative is a portmanteau name such as "Xardonax of the Secret Blood-Red Gods" or "Torbindardos of the Fourteen Dancing Dwarves of Hades." You get the idea. Sword-and-sorcery villains know the PR game better than the lunk-headed heroes of the one- or two-syllable names.

So where did this start? One would assume (incorrectly) that it began with Robert E Howard. REH's wizards often have simple names, or if not, they are at least easy to roll off the tongue. In the Conan saga there is Xaltotun, Thoth-Amon, Thugra Khotan and Khemsa. In the King Kull stories we have the Pictish wizard Ka-Nu, Kuthulos, Tuzun Thune with his evil mirror, and the grand-daddy of them all: Thulsa Doom. Howard's predilections tend toward three or four syllables (blank-blank-boom) as in Thulsa Doom. It doesn't hurt to have a power word in there like Doom or Thug.

Other sword-and-sorcery writers during Howard's time included CL Moore whose Jirel of Joiry featured a few wizards, but all with French or simple names such as Giraud, Andred, and Pav. Nictzin Dylahis (whose name looks like the proverbial wizard) wrote "The Sapphire Siren" and featured two wizards, Djl Grm and Agnar Halit. A little weirder, but still similar to Howard's 3-4 syllables.

The writer who perhaps could take the most credit for the weird wizard name was Clark Ashton Smith. A contemporary and friend of REH, he was considered a great poet and known for his colorful vocabulary. Smith wrote a hundred stories for WT and many feature wizards and magic-users, so with names we find a range. Some are lengthy and strange such as Mmatmuor, Mior Lumivix, and Abnon-tha while others less so as Vokal, Malygris, and Ulua show. Smith's poet ear drew him to melodious names that spoke of exotic and foreign places. A name like Namirrha or Malygris looks odd but once pronounced isn't so much (Nah-mir-ah, Mal-lig-ris).

Of the post-Howard Weird Tales writers, the most important were Clifford Ball, Henry Kuttner, and Fritz Leiber. Clifford Ball wrote only three sword-and-sorcery stories, but two feature Karlk the enchanter. Kuttner kept things simple in the Elak of Atlantis stories, calling his druid Dalan. In the Prince Raynor stories (the first sword-and-sorcery to appear outside Weird Tales, in Strange Tales) there is Necho and Ghiar and a mention of a Bleys of the Dark Pool. Fritz Leiber, who was inspired by ER Eddison and James Branch Cabell as much as Robert E Howard, begins the portmanteau names in earnest, with Ningauble of the Seven Eyes and Sheelba of the Eyeless Face, the two wizards the swordsmen work for. Leiber has his tongue firmly-in-cheek, in a way Robert E Howard never did, enjoying the silliness of the wizardly names. Leiber felt sword-and-sorcery should be fun as well as exciting. The first Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories appeared in Unknown, not Weird Tales, and this may explain a little the difference in attitude towards heroic fantasy.

We can't ignore JRR Tolkien as we move into the 1950s. He wrote The Hobbit in 1937 but with The Lord of the Rings we get more than just Gandalf the Grey, with Radagast the Brown and Saruman the White. Tolkien was quite transparent about where he got the name Gandalf, from an old Icelandic list of dwarf names. As for Saruman, some readers and critics complained about the similarity of Tolkien character names (Saruman/Sauron, Arwyn/Eowyn) but he defended these as the natural result of his history and languages he created for the series. The sword-and-sorcery hacks of the 1960s certainly didn't spend that kind of time and attention on naming characters.

The 1960s boom was established from the stories of the 1920-1950s. Lin Carter had Sharajsha the wizard in the Thongor novels. John Jakes, working in an acknowledged Howard homage, created the Roman sounding Septigundus and Valconius, but also had Pom and Ool. Roger Zelazny kept it simple with Shadd and Jelerak. L Sprague de Camp was rather anti-wizard whether writing about his own world of Pusad (Derezong Taash, Ugaph, Bokarri) or pastiching Conan (Diviatix, Nenaunir, Muru). Michael Moorcock, like de Camp, wasn't afraid to follow in Clark Ashton Smith's style with Jagreen Lern and Theleb K'aarna, but it was Jack Vance who takes on Smith's mantle in his Dying Earth books with Mazirian the Magician, Turjan of Miir, and Rhialto the Marvelous.

So where did the cliche come from? This list is odd - fantasy-scented, if you will - but not overly verbose. Part of it may come from the fact that Robert E Howard and Clark Ashton Smith were friends with HP Lovecraft, a writer known for his tongue-tying names and eldritch labels. Lovecraft, in turn, took a page from Lord Dunsany's Pegāna series with names like Plash-Goo, Tharagavverug Mana-Yood-Sushai, Wong Bongerok, though these weren't necessarily wizards. Howard certainly was a fan as well, while Smith admired more Arabesque works such as Vathek with characters like Firouzkah and Zulkais.

Sword-and-sorcery was created in 1929, but it has a long pre-history in myths and fairy tales before it. These ancestors include the fantasy of the previous generation that included Dunsany, Eddison, Cabell, and William Morris. It is fair to say that sword-and-sorcery inherited the weird sounding characters as much as it did dragons, sword fights, evil magicians and beautiful maidens. Where sword-and-sorcery differs is saving the strangest names for the wizardly, and specifically the evil bad guy. And this is where the pulp aspect of the sub-genre becomes evident. The pulps loved short-hand. Heroes were brawny and had names like Buck and Hawk, while beautiful women were good (or their fatale version, slutty and kinky) and ugly women bad, rich men corrupt, and old men who seek knowledge and power are wizards and they are always evil. And to prove it they have weird, exotic names. Strangely, none of them ever thought to hide their wicked natures by simply being called Bob. They are egomaniacs if nothing else.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

1 comment:

Jack Tyler said...

Bob the Wizard, I like that! An interesting treatise on the evolution of these often weird names. I was a big Jirel of Joiry fan, having acquired her collection at a garage sale in the 60s. Didn't like Conan until I saw the movie, then somehow the stories read better... speaking of weird! But a nice piece of research and presentation. Thanks for taking the time to provide a nice read with my morning coffee!


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