David C. Downing
R. W. Schlosser Professor of English
From Into the Wardrobe: C. S .Lewis and the
Narnia Chronicles (
CHAPER SIX: What’s in a Narnian Name?
All his life Lewis had a fascination for names and nicknames. He began by naming himself, of course, deciding at the age of three that he would be called Jack, not Clive. A few years later he began calling his brother Warren Badger or Badge. In their teen years, the two boys called their father the Pudaita, based on his rounded Irish pronunciation of the word “potato.” (Eventually this moniker evolved into Pudaitabird.) They also referred to the senior Lewis as “His Excellenz,” after his imperious manner, or the “Old Air Balloon,” after his bombastic style of speaking. Lewis christened his childhood friend Arthur Greeves “Galahad,” because of Arthur’s idealistic turn of mind. In his teens, Lewis even advised “Galahad” on what to name his new puppy. He warned against commonplace names, saying a dog’s name should “suit his character and appearance.” He added that if the dog were brisk and war-like, it might be called Sigurd or Mars. If it were quaint and homely, it could go by Bickernocker or Knutt.
Later on in life, when he began publishing fiction, Lewis took the same care that his characters’ names should suit their personality and appearance. In The Screwtape Letters (1942) he introduces a senior devil, Screwtape, offering advice to his nephew, an apprentice tempter called Wormwood. Some of their infernal colleagues have witty diabolical names such as Toadpipe, Triptweeze, Slumtrimpet, and Slubgob. In Perelandra (1943), Lewis imagines Venus as a still unfallen world; its Adam and Eve have the lilting names of Tor and Tinidril. The god-figure in Perelandra, the second book of the Space trilogy, is called “Maleldil.” Though Lewis critics have expended a great deal of ingenuity trying to interpret the meaning of the word, Lewis wrote that he chose the name for its “liquidity.”
When he began writing the Narnia stories, Lewis showcased his talent for naming, creating nearly two hundred characters with names drawn from Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French, Old English, Norse, Celtic—or sometimes just “made up.” It’s a shame Lewis didn’t include a fellow named Xerxes, or other X name, in one of the Narnia books. If so, he would have used every letter of the alphabet to name something or someone in the Chronicles. Apart from meeting the main characters, readers visiting Narnia will also encounter Arsheesh the fisherman, Bricklethumb the dwarf, Camillo the hare, Drinian the sea-captain, Edith the bully, Farsight the eagle, Golg the gnome, Hogglestock the hedgehog, Ilgamuth the warrior, Jewel the unicorn, Kidrash the Calormene ruler, Lilygloves the mole, Moonwood the hare, Nikabrik the dwarf, Olvin the Archenland king, Prunaprismia the stepmother of Caspian, various nefarious Queens, Ramandu the retired star, Sallowpad the raven, Thornbut the dwarf, Uvilas the Telmarine lord, Voltinus the faun, Wimbleweather the giant, Yggdrasil the World Ash Tree, and Zardeenah the Calormene goddess of the moon.
Names as allusions
As to the world in which we meet all these
characters, there is an actual place called Narnia. It is best reached, not
by climbing into a wardrobe, but by boarding a northbound bus from
Lewis’s non-fiction books provide the best clues as to where he found names
for his other Narnia characters. The
In The Last Battle there is a similar richness of meaning in the name of the Calormene prince Emeth, a word that means “true, faithful” in Hebrew. Lewis discussed the term in Reflections on the Psalms, where he explains that it refers to “rock-bottom reality,” the firmness of the true path which is a delight to find after one has been lost in muddy fields. His analogy of reaching the true road, emeth, after wandering on the wrong path, fits perfectly the destiny of Emeth, finding at last the Truth he has been faithfully seeking all his life.
Lewis was working on his
scholarly survey English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding
Drama (1954) at the same time he was composing the Chronicles, and
sometimes his scholarly work enlivened his creative work. For example, in his
literary tome, Lewis mentioned a minor sixteenth-century poet named John
Studley, whose word choices were sometimes unintentionally comical. Studley
used terms such as “frostyface” and “topsy turvy” in passages meant to be
serious, and he described the hellish river
In English Literature, Lewis also discussed an Anglican cleric named Jewel whose heart was good, but who was too easily drawn into rash controversies and who even advocated violence to suppress enemies of the Church. In The Last Battle we meet another Jewel, the unicorn who, with his friend King Tirian, attacks and kills the Calormenes who are treating Talking Beasts as slaves. The narrator uses the same word, “rash,” to describe their action and says that, even though they were sorely provoked, “much evil” came of their attacking the Calormenes without giving them any warning or challenge first. Despite this ill-considered moment of righteous rage, Lewis generally portrays Jewel as one of the noblest creatures in all the Narnia books. When the unicorn reaches the new, eternal Narnia, he cries out in joy, “I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now.” In these words Jewel sounds very much like Lewis himself when he vows in Mere Christianity, “I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death.”
Sometimes readers who recognize an allusion in the Chronicles have an early clue as to a character’s moral qualities. In Prince Caspian, when the young prince’s nurse is banished, we are not sure at first what to make of his new tutor, the short, stout Cornelius. But he turns out to be the right sort, one who confirms the truth of “nursery tales” about fauns and Talking Beasts. Cornelius dabbles a bit in “white magic” (not the evil kind that so fascinates Andrew Ketterley in The Magician’s Nephew). And the faithful tutor’s name hints that he is on the right side. It calls to mind Cornelius Agrippa, the fifteenth-century Christian scholar who believed one could practice a certain amount of white magic without danger to one’s soul.
By contrast, the Queen of Underland in The Silver Chair calls herself “The Lady of the Green Kirtle” when traveling overland. Prince Rilian’s mother was killed by a green serpent, and he himself became entranced by a woman whose garment was “green as poison.” So Eustace and Polly should probably have been suspicious of the charming, mysterious lady they meet in the Northern Wastes with her “Color Me Sinister” attire. That archaic word kirtle is also revealing, as it usually refers to a man’s tunic. One of the few texts where a lady’s gown is called a kirtle is the medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, edited by Lewis’s friend J. R. R. Tolkien. There the wife of Bercilak, the Green Knight, wears a dress called a “kirtle” when she tries to seduce the noble Gawain. He resists her charms, but unwisely accepts a green sash from her that she claims will offer him magical protection from harm. Perhaps if Eustace and Polly had read the same romances Lewis did, they would have known better than to trust a woman with the disquieting title “Lady of the Green Kirtle.”
Many of the allusions in the Chronicles are inserted there just for fun. Clodsley Shovel sounds like a good name for a master digger, one of the moles in Prince Caspian. But it so happens there was a 17th-century British naval hero Sir Cloudesley Shovel. And Caspian’s grim stepmother in the same book is named Prunaprismia, probably a variant of the exclamation often repeated in Charles Dickens’ Little Dorritt: “Prunes and prisms!” The name may seem even more apt when one recalls that Lewis himself thoroughly disliked prunes.
Lewis’s allusions in the Chronicles are not intrusive, and they may or may not be recognized without detracting from the storyline. In The Silver Chair when Eustace and Jill are carried off to a secret meeting of night birds, Lewis names the chapter “A Parliament of Owls.” Some readers will recognize this as an echo of the title of Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem The Parliament of Fowls (1382). But readers who don’t recognize the reference will still learn from the birds what happened to Prince Rilian and what must be done to seek him out.
Names from classical languages
Greek and Latin at an early age, and a good many names in the Chronicles
suggest his familiarity with classical languages. The royal galleon of Narnia
is called Splendour Hyaline, which
combines the Latin word for “shining” with the Greek word hyalinos, “glassy.” Lewis probably
recalled the unusual word hyaline
Some of Lewis’s classical borrowings are rather obvious, such as the deep underground world of Bism, “deep pit” in Greek, akin to our words abyss and abysmal. The name of the desert kingdom Calormen suggests Latin calor, “heat,” as in our word calorie (a measure of heat, of course, not weight.) Other names may require a bit more research. Chervy is a good name for the stag in The Horse and His Boy, since Latin chervus means “deer.” And that dull grammar text in Prince Caspian was written by someone called Pulverulentus Siccus, whose Latin name tells us that his book is literally “dry as dust.”
Later in the same book, Caspian meets a whole host of fauns—Mentius, Obentius, Nimienus, Dumnus, Voltinus, Girbius, Oscuns and others. Lewis scholars have dutifully hauled out their Latin dictionaries and tried to guess the meaning of these names. But unless one is a specialist in faunology and can prove they are by nature deceivers (mentitus), kissers (osculare), and overindulgers (nimietas), it may be safest to assume that Lewis simply created Latin-sounding names for these woodland gods from Roman myth.
Names chosen for their sound
Like his faun’s names, Lewis seemed to choose Calormene names based on their sound rather than meaning. Several critics note that Tash means “taint or blot” in Scottish, but that seems a rather mild descriptor and an odd source for such a hideous being. Like many other Calormene names—Shasta, Arsheesh, Rabadash, Kidrash—the word Tash features a short a vowel sound and a sh consonant sound. These are two common features of Middle Eastern languages, as seen in English words borrowed from that region—shah, sherbet, hashish, and shishkabob. The Calormene title Tishroc has an authentic Middle Eastern ring, but Lewis probably picked it up, perhaps unconsciously, from a completely different source. In Edith Nesbit’s The Story of the Amulet, there is a fictional Egyptian ruler called the “Nisroch.”
When asked about names he created in his Space trilogy, such as Glund (Jupiter) and Viritrilbia (Mercury), Lewis replied that they weren’t connected to any actual language. He explained, “I am always playing with syllables and fitting them together (purely by ear) to see if I can hatch up new words that please me. I want them to have an emotional, not intellectual, suggestiveness.” In a similar vein, Lewis wrote to a child named Joan that he was “in love with syllables.” He noted how much he enjoyed names in Tolkien’s stories such as Tinuviel and Silmaril. He added that he thought the name Northumberland glorious and wished the phrase silver salver meant something interesting, since it had such a lovely sound.
Lewis admitted to having old-fashioned tastes in poetry, and his preferences in sounds reflect traditional poetics. The consonants l and r (called liquids) and m and n (called nasals) are usually considered the most musical, soft-sounding tones. In all of Lewis’s books, characters and places associated with the Good are dominated by these more melodious consonants: Maleldil, Aslan, Ramandu. Other consonants such as f, v and z (called fricatives) and p, b, j, k, t, and d (called plosives) are considered more prosaic and harsh-sounding. And Lewis’s bad characters tend to have dissonant-sounding names. Those devils in Screwtape with names like Toadpipe and Slubgob illustrate the point. But so do negative characters in the Chronicles with names such as Gumpas, Nikabrik, and Edith Jackle.
Kings of Narnia generally have “liquid” names—Rilian, Erlian, Tirian. So when someone comes along called Jadis or Miraz and claims to be the rightful ruler of Narnia, the very sound of the name should arouse suspicion. Caspian is a good Narnian king with a bad lineage (Telmarine pirates), and the sound of his name, poetically speaking, begins badly but ends well.
One of the names Lewis had suggested as a teenager for a dog that was “quaint and homely” was Knutt, a word with a short u vowel-sound. When Lewis wrote the Chronicles forty years later, he continued to favor names with short u vowels for his quaint and homely characters. Besides Trumpkin the dwarf and Tumnus the faun, there are Trufflehunter the badger, the comical Dufflepuds, and Rumblebuffin the giant. Setting the record with four short u’s in his name is the obsequious gnome Mullugutherum in The Silver Chair.
Other characters in the Chronicles are named after the sounds they make. Reepicheep and Peepicheek have names, of course, which call to mind the squeaky voices of mice. The two Talking Horses, Bree and Hwin, also have names based upon the sounds they make. Bree explains to Shasta that his full name is “Breehy-hinny-brinny-hoohy-hah,” something like the sound of a whinny. Hwin’s name is also based on the word whinny. Like many words now beginning with a wh-, this word was spelled in Old English (and is still properly pronounced) as hw-.
Names of other Talking Beasts
Though Bree and Hwin are the two most prominent equine characters in the Chronicles, horses and centaurs figure prominently in several other Narnia books, and many of these have memorable names. Some names are self-explaining, such as Snowflake, the Queen of Underland’s white horse, and Coalblack, Rilian’s dark horse in The Silver Chair. The London cabby’s horse Strawberry in The Magician’s Nephew is probably also named after his appearance, as that is a common name for horses whose mix of chestnut and white hairs give them a pinkish tone. When Aslan turns Strawberry into a winged horse, he renames him Fledge, the word for growing feathers needed for flying. (A fledgling is a young bird just getting its feathers; full-fledged means literally “fully feathered.”) The horses mentioned in Prince Caspian have French names. Caspian’s horse Destrier takes his name from the Old French word for “warhorse.” Lord Glozelle’s horse, Pomely, means “dappled.”
Though centaurs come from classical mythology, Narnian centaurs have solid English names: Glenstorm, Cloudbirth, and Roonwit. These compound creatures--half man, half horse—have compound names, imitating Anglo-Saxon kennings (poetic paraphrases such as “whale-road” to name the sea). The most famous centaur in classical mythology was Chiron, who taught music, medicine, and hunting to Achilles, Hercules, and other fabled heroes. Lewis seems to model his centaurs after Chiron, as they are noble creatures of wisdom, strength, and learning. Glenstorm is a prophet and stargazer in Prince Caspian who aids the young prince in regaining his rightful throne. The meaning of the centaur’s name becomes clear the first time he appears in the story. As Caspian and his companions enter a “great glen or wooded gorge,” they call the centaur’s name and suddenly they hear the sound of hoofs, which grow louder “till the valley trembled.” There amid trampled thickets, they see Glenstorm and his three sons, great warriors who literally came storming down the glen when they were called by their king. Cloudbirth, whose name suggests almost celestial origins, is a renowned healer called to help mend Puddleglum’s burnt foot at the end of The Silver Chair. And Roonwit in The Last Battle has the “wit” to read “roons.” That is, he is knowledgeable in mysteries and ancient letters (runes.) Like Glenstorm, Roonwit can read the stars; he is the one who sees great trouble in the skies and who suspects that the imperious new “Aslan” who has appeared recently in Narnia is a false one.
While Reepicheep the mouse and Hwin the horse are named after the way they sound, other Talking Beasts in Narnia are named for the way they look or the way they act. Glimfeather is a great white owl whose feathers glimmer in the moonlight. Lilygloves the mole is never described, but it may be safely guessed this prodigious digger has white forepaws. Similarly, the raven’s name Sallowpad means “pale-footed.” Ginger the conniving tomcat in The Last Battle is also named for his coloring, orangy-brown like the spice. (Lewis owned a tomcat named Ginger at the time he was writing the Chronicles.)
Another furtive furball in The Last Battle is Slinkey the fox, an ally of the Calormenes, who presumably slinks around betraying his fellow Narnians. The name of Pattertwig the squirrel in Prince Caspian suggests both his pattering feet along the branches of trees and his chattering tongue. Trufflehunter the badger in the same book is someone who would like to go looking for truffles, underground tubers regarded as a delicacy. Badgers are known for their powerful jaws, so it makes sense that their clan in Narnia is called the Hardbiters. Trufflehunter explains his own steadfastness as part of his nature: “I’m a beast and we don’t change. I’m a badger, what’s more, and we hold on.”
Names of Evil Beings
When the White Witch prepares to slay Aslan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, she gathers about her a regular parliament of foul creatures, including ghouls, ogres and wolves as well as “Cruels and Hags and Incubuses, Wraiths, Horrors, Efreets, Sprites, Orknies, Wooses, and Ettins.” This menacing menagerie includes evil beings from classical, Germanic, Celtic, and Islamic mythologies. Cruels and Horrors are cruel and horrible, of course. Lewis sometimes enjoyed playing with words, turning modifiers into nouns. In The Great Divorce, for example, he describes a lady who had been grumbling so long, she just turned into a grumble.
Hags are not just ugly old women, but actual witches. The name is a shortened form of “hedge-rider,” from the old belief that witches rode their brooms along hedgerows at night. Incubuses are also spirits of the night, demons who lie down on people as they sleep. (Oddly, the same Latin root provides the word “incubate,” originally to lie on an egg till it hatches.) Sprite is a variant of “spirit”—obviously in this context not effervescent, but evil.
Since Horrors bring on horror, some readers of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
assume that Wooses make people woozy. But wooses
is most likely a variant form of the archaic term woses, wild people of the woods. Orknies are monsters mentioned
in the Anglo-Saxon saga Beowulf, spelled
orcneas in Old English. (Tolkien’s
orcs are derived from the same source.) Also from Anglo-Saxon is ettin, an archaic name for an evil
giant. This word appears again in The
Silver Chair, where Eustace, Jill, and Puddleglum are forced to cross the
Ettinsmoor, the plain of giants. Wraith
is a Celtic word, the name for a phantom or apparition. (This term also
appears in The Lord of the Rings epic,
the Ringwraiths who have become spectral slaves of Sauron.) The Efreets who
join the White Witch come all the way from the
The White Witch seems also to be a new embodiment of Jadis, the evil queen in The Magician’s Nephew. Lewis explained in Studies in Words that the word villain was from French (referring originally to a peasant villager, someone not at all frank). And in the Chronicles, many of Lewis’s villains take their names from French. As noted earlier, Jadis comes from the French word for “times of yore,” perhaps a reference to the dead world of Charn she has destroyed. Charn is also from French, suggesting a graveyard. (The phrase “charnel house,” a depository of bodies or bones, is from the same source.) The White Witch’s chief of police is called Maugrim in the original English editions, a name which combines Old French maugre, “ill will” with grim. In Prince Caspian there is a new usurper to be defeated, whose name, Miraz, suggests mirage, a false appearance. And this false king’s treacherous aide is named Glozelle, French for “flatterer, deceiver.”
Names of the children
Early in 1949, C. S. Lewis’s friend and fellow author Sister Penelope said she was thinking of adopting a pen name for one of her books and asked if he had any suggestions. Lewis replied with several names for her to consider, one of which was “Pevensey.” He didn’t give any reason for the name; he probably just liked the sound of it. Sister Penelope never used the nom de plume, but it didn’t go to waste. When The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was published the following year, the four children who first entered Narnia were the Pevensies. Apparently, Lewis found a name he liked before he created the characters to go with it.
As for their given names, Lewis seemed to choose what he
considered common English names most young readers would find familiar. In
his early draft, the four evacuees were called Ann, Martin, Rose and Peter,
the last one being the youngest. When Lewis returned to the project nearly
ten years later, the names became Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy, with Peter
now the oldest. The one passage where Peter’s name takes on added
significance is in The Last Battle, when
Aslan commands Peter, as High King, to shut the door on the dark, cold space
that had once been the old Narnia. Peter pulls the door closed and locks it
with a golden key, a gesture which calls to mind the scene in the Gospels in
which Jesus tells his disciple Peter he will give him the keys to the
Lewis dedicated the first Narnia story to be published, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,
to his god-child Lucy Barfield, the daughter of his lifelong friend Owen
Barfield. Surely, it is no accident that the most pure-hearted character in
the Chronicles is also named Lucy. Eustace’s co-adventurer Jill in The Silver Chair may also be named in honor of someone Lewis knew. One of
the evacuees who came to the Kilns during World War Two was Jill Flewett, who
lived there for two years and won the hearts of everyone in the household.
The Lewis brothers stayed in touch with Jill after she left
Of course, Eustace’s name stands out from among the
other, more common, children’s names. This is intentional, as Lewis makes
clear in the opening sentence of The
Voyage of the “Dawn Treader”: “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence
Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” That line has made several critics wonder
about a boy called Clive Staples Lewis, who felt he didn’t deserve it. (The
other character in the series who most resembles Lewis has the “funny name”
of Digory.) Eustace is portrayed as a
cad and a snob in the early chapters of Voyage, and Lewis admitted to being something
of a “fop, a cad, and a snob” during his time away at boarding school. Though
he was never a utilitarian fact-monger like Eustace, the young Lewis did write
There also seems to be a bit of the author in Eustace’s “undragoning” episode later in The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader.” Eustace wanders away from the others and falls asleep on a dragon’s horde, thinking greedy, dragonish thoughts. Turned into a dragon himself by some unknown spell, he realizes he has become “a monster cut off from the whole human race” and admits to himself that he has been a self-centered brat the whole voyage. Though the narrator explains that everyone noticed that “Eustace’s character had been rather improved by becoming a dragon,” he is eager to resume his human form but doesn’t know how. Then one night Aslan appears to him by moonlight, as in a dream, and carries him off to a place with fruit trees and a wide well like a great marble bath. Eustace tries to scratch off his dragon scales, only to find yet another layer of scales underneath, and then another. Finally, he agrees to let Aslan take over, and the great lion seems to rip his dragon flesh to the very core of his being. Then Aslan picks him up and tosses him him into the water, which stings at first, but then feels delightful. Through great fear and pain, Eustace is given back his human form. The story goes on to explain that, though he still had his bad days, Eustace from that time on “began to be a different boy” because “the cure had begun.”
Eustace’s undragoning is a kind of symbolic baptism, an experience of self-transformation he could not accomplish on his own. He comes to see that the secret of change lies in submission not self-effort. This is a lesson very similar to one found in Lewis’s letters during his period of spiritual transition in his early thirties. About six months after his turn towards Theism, Lewis wrote his friend Arthur that things were going well for him spiritually, yet he had to admit to being something of a “conceited ass” (the same term used to describe Eustace in The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader”). Lewis told Arthur he was still struggling especially with pride and willfulness: "There seems to be no end to it. Depth under depth of self-love and self-admiration. Closely connected with this is the difficulty I find in making even the faintest approach to giving up my own will." A few years later, Lewis would write that all such regimens of self-effort were ultimately futile. In The Pilgrim's Regress, the first book he wrote after his conversion to Christianity, Lewis quoted Augustine’s advice that you must "Throw yourself down safely," to let go and trust yourself to Another.
When Eustace returns in The Silver Chair, the narrator introduces him by saying, “His name unfortunately was Eustace Scrubb, but he wasn’t a bad sort.” The priggish name hasn’t changed, but the little boy has. Thinking of his own spiritual journey, the writer may have felt the same way about Clive Staples Lewis.
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