This article is continued from George RR Martin’s Symbolic Character Name Choices and looks at the names in Houses Bolton, Greyjoy, Baratheon, and Tyrell.
One of the interesting patterns in George RR Martin’s character name choices is how often Greek names come up. Out of the twelve first names in this article, at least three (25%) have Greek roots and there were three Greek names in the last article. This seems to be yet another connection to the Greek-Roman empire (Byzantium). Is this deliberate? Does this mean that the spirit of the Byzantine empire is the soul of A Song of Ice and Fire?
Depending on your accent, if you say “Bolton” quickly, it almost sounds like “bolting.” The name Bolton may be a reference to faithless fighters like Ralph Neville and Thomas Stanley. As described in our article, Stanley typically waited to see which side would win the battle before picking sides. The name Bolton reminds us that, like the loyal-to-no-one Stanley, Roose might bolt in the heat of battle.
The first name of Roose Bolton, the deadly and treacherous leader of House Bolton, rhymes with noose. A name reminiscent of the hangman’s knot is fitting for such a cold, slippery and menacing character.
The name Ramsay is an Old English name that means “garlic island,” which is an interesting tie-in to the fan theory, discussed in our article here, that Ramsay Bolton is based on Dracula/Vlad Tepes. (Swap out impalement for flaying.)
If Martin is actually alluding to Dracula and garlic with Ramsay, does this mean symbolically that Ramsay is allergic to his own name? He certainly loathed being a bastard and being called “Snow.”
Ramsay also means “raven island,” “ram island,” and “strong island.” Given Martin’s repeated raven motif, the name might have appealed to him for that reason as well.
Given Martin’s love of Scottish history, it is worth mentioning that Ramsay is also a place name that was once a common Scottish surname.
Grey-joy evokes a muted joy, or perhaps even joylessness, and nicely encapsulates the mood of this grim and overly serious house. The strongest images associated with House Greyjoy are grey in color: the ironborn, the grey overcast stormy sea, and rocky seat of Pyke to name a few.
“Theon” means godly in Greek. Perhaps, this is another nod to the stories’ Roman and Greek-Roman (Byzantine) roots. Does Theon’s name foreshadow his fate? Will the beaten, emasculated prince convert to the Faith of the Seven and become a septon and live in a septry? Does Theon have a higher calling? Is giving Theon a name that means “godly” just a coincidence?
Asha is the Sanskrit word for hope or wish. It also evokes ashes. Given that Theon’s sister spends so much time yearning (to be somebody else (a man), to save her baby brother), the name suits her.
Asha evokes the grey mood of the Iron Islands but also destroyed hopes. Will everything turn to ashes for Theon’s sister? Let’s hope not.
The house probably takes its name from the personality and interests of King Robert, who was presumably its first character. The name Bara-theon is a combination of theon, which is Greek for “godly,” and barra, which is another the word for fishing, croft — an appropriate name for somebody whom Martin has admitted is inspired by Edward IV.
Like Robert Baratheon, Edward IV loved hunting, fishing, and other outdoor pursuits. Edward died after a fishing trip under what some contemporaries believed was suspicious circumstances – an event Robert’s death closely parallels. Given Robert’s love of the rugged outdoorsy life of campaigning and hunting, it seems likely his higher power was the outdoors and hunting and fishing. His name ultimately foreshadows his fate: to met his maker outdoors.
Although Robert Baratheon may take after Edward IV more than Robert the Bruce, he still bears the Scottish king’s name. To connect Robert Baratheon to his younger counterpart, the man who is Edward IV’s junior half, the Baratheon king bears a variant of the same name as Robb Stark.
Joffrey is a variant of Geoffrey [Jeffrey]. Geoffrey means “pledge of peace” — ironic given the young tyrant’s bellicose ways.
By far, the most famous medieval man named Geoffrey was Geoffrey Chaucer, the first English fiction author to write in the vernacular. Chaucer was a contemporary of Edward III, the English king who initiated the Hundred Years War. Chaucer was very definitely in the orbit of the Hundred Years War king: Chaucer married a lady-in-waiting under Edward’s wife, Philippa of Hainault. His wife was also the sister John of Gaunt’s mistress and (later) second wife, Katherine Swynford.
Joffrey Baratheon doesn’t appear to have much in common with his possible namesake. Chaucer was neither a ruler nor a sadist. If Martin did name the sociopathic little king after Chaucer, it is probably mainly a tribute and nothing more. It’s worth noting, however, that Cersei did teach the young Joffrey to be a storyteller.
Stannis may be a variation of the Russian name Stanislav, which means glorious government. Robert Baratheon’s second brother is a just ruler but overly harsh and far too serious. It is as though his entire being is encompassed in his position as a governor.
Perhaps, Se-Lyse is a variation on the name of another disturbed mother and high lord’s wife, Lysa Arryn. Maybe the two women are meant to be foils for each other.
Lisa can also be spelled Lise. Lise is a German name that means “God is my oath,” so it is a good choice for the religious nut Selyse.
Martin might have chosen the name Renly due to its similarity to its similarity to the bird, the wren. A wren is a small perching song bird.
When Catelyn travels to broker an alliance with Renly, she finds him perched on his throne, “playing at war” rather than fighting one.1 Presiding over tourneys, Renly is the king of display. However, he is all talk and no action. Curiously, Wikipedia describes the wren as “small and rather inconspicuous, except for their loud and often complex songs.” Renly is also pretty good at drawing attention to himself:
“The golden rose of Highgarden was seen everywhere: sewn on the right breast of armsmen and servants, flapping and fluttering from the green silk banners that adorned lance and pike, painted upon the shields hung outside the pavilions of the sons and brothers and cousins and uncles of House Tyrell2 .”
Just as Renly was in two marriages — he wed Margaery but was essentially married to his lover and constant companion Loras Tyrell, some wrens are polygamous.
This blog notes that Renly is a play on raven, which is also a possibility, given Martin’s extensive use of the symbol. Perhaps, the question is was Renly a bad-ass raven or a meek wren?
Incidentally, the word ren refers to a kidney, an organ that purifies the blood. It is not clear, however, that Renly had any type of purifying role in terms of his conflict with Stannis over succession.
====After this Point… Book Spoilers and Historical Spoilers====
The name Tyrell maybe another Wars of the Roses reference. Perhaps, it is an homage to the falsely accused scapegoat James Tyrell, whom Henry VII executed for murdering the Princes in the Tower. Perhaps, House Tyrell is really the “House of the Falsely Accused”?
Olena is a Greek or Ukrainian variation of Helen. At least superficially, Helen means “sun ray”. As implied by the name Helen, however, Olena may be far more complex.
The most famous Helen is, of course, Helen of Troy. In legend, Helen of Troy’s father married her to King Menelaus. Instead of remaining with him, Helen forged her own path by choosing a different lover, Paris. This has a faint parallel with Olenna Tyrell’s story of how she seduced her sister’s intended over the man to whom she was engaged. More subtly, both Helen and Olenna’s actions start, or have the potential to start, wars.
Like many of the other names here, Olenna/Helen connects to Byzantium – not just through its Greek roots. The name Helen appears to mean some type of bright flame, such as “torch” or “St. Elmo’s fire.” St. Elmo’s fire is an electrical weather phenomenon that glows blue or violet around sharply pointed objects. According to Wikipedia, at least, St. Elmo’s fire can interfere with compass readings and some sailors regarded it as an ill omen.
During the 1453 Ottoman Siege of Constantinople — when Constantinople ultimately fell to the Muslims — contemporaries reported spotting St. Elmo’s fire emanating from the top of the Hippodrome. The Byzantines believed the St. Elmo’s fire prophesied that God would vanquish the Muslim army. The St. Elmo’s fire vanished just days before Constantinople fell, ending the Byzantine Empire.
By the way, George RR Martin counter-factually immortalized the fall of Constantinople with the Battle of the Blackwater — and with good reason. When the Ottoman armies captured Constantinople, it sent shock waves through Western Europe. The Byzantine (Greek-Roman) Empire lasted nearly 1000 years longer than the Roman empire and seemed unstoppable.
Constantinople was once one of the most sophisticated and wealthiest cities in Europe. At one point, it’s population was over 650,000 people making it over three times larger than the biggest Western European city, Paris. By 1453, Constantinople was not the glorious pearl it once was. Struggling to survive economically, its population had dwindled to 70,000. Still, after numerous failed sieges, people believed Constantinople, with its double Theodosian walls and underground water supply, was impregnable.
Incidentally, the name Oleanna, however, connotes a false utopia where bountiful crops of wheat (and corn) are grown. Maybe this is a curious coincidence, but it makes me wonder if everything at the Highgarden, the bread basket of Westeros, is as good as it looks.
All of this makes me wonder, does Olenna Tyrell’s name locate her at the center of an ominous defeat or disaster?
Olenna’s plodding son may take his name from the weapon a mace, a blunt instrument. Even Mace’s own mother, openly dismisses her dim-witted, dull son and regrets she didn’t have a chance to beat him more often when he was a child.
Colloquially, people use the phrase “blunt instrument” to refer to a person who is dull, not sharp, and has a fumbling, plodding way of getting things done.
Margery is a French name brought to England in the 1100s. However, Margery stems from the Greek name Margaret, which means pearl. Marjorie is also the name of an herb.
Margaery Tyrell’s name may come from a woman who was, in essence, falsely accused in the most famous trial in fifteenth century England and the first English biographer. The two most famous Margerys of the Middle Ages were Margery Kempe and Margery Jourdemayne – and, boy, what a contrast do they make.
Margery Kempe (c. 1373 – after 1438) was a medieval mystic revered as being so holy she is still honored in the Anglican Communion. Margery Kempe believed she conversed with God and authored what may be the first English-language autobiography, The Book of Margery Kempe, describing these conversations and recounting her pilgrimages. Martin may have chosen the name Maergery for the same reasons he might have chosen the name Joffrey: to pay tribute to one of the first English writers.
So far, at least, there are few traces of mysticism in Maergery Tyrell. She may, however, share some common ground with Margery Jourdemayne (1415 – 27 October 1441), a lowly woman charged with witchcraft at the tail end of the Hundred Years War and burned at the stake. Jourdemayne’s trial rocked medieval England since one of her co-accused, Eleanor Cobham, was the wife of the king’s heir (Humphrey of Lancaster, Duke of Gloucester).
Although Jourdemayne may have dabbled in witchcraft, her crimes were disproportionate to her offense, and, in effect, she was falsely accused. Humphrey’s enemies trumped up charges against his wife Eleanor in an effort to drag him through the muck – an oblique strike since he was too powerful to attack directly.
Perhaps, Martin chose the name Maergery, not only as a tribute to a writer, but also since it is associated with a medieval cause celebre trial in which a woman was falsely accused. (After all, calling Maergery “Anne” might be a bit too obvious.) In A Feast for Crows, Cersei falsely accuses Margery Tyrell of adultery and treason.
All images from Game of Thrones © HBO.