It’s widely known that novelists, including George RR Martin, agonize over the naming of their characters: names represent much more than just a handy handle. Classic literature often uses symbolic names to foreshadow the destiny of characters, amplify theme, or simply cement the character’s identity in the reader’s mind. As Alastair Fowler writes on the Oxford University Press’ blog, “In literature, names are often doors to meaning, and words giving glimpses of the writer’s intentions.”
Charles Dickens not only invested significant time in selecting names, he collected names he spotted in newspapers, in literature, in official lists, and even on the sides of vans for future use. In fact, Dickens often baptized his characters with monikers that symbolized a character trait.
In A Tale of Two Cities, the surname of the antagonist Madame Therese Defarge is a variant of la forge, the French word for a forge — the intensely hot fire blacksmiths use to melt metal. Defarge is an earthy name, fitting for the working-class revolutionary leader who galvanizes the peasants. Yet Defarge also evokes flames — appropriate for Dickens’ hell-sent antagonist.
Dickens also used symbolic or thematic names to help readers remember minor secondary characters. Case in point: his A Tale of Two Cities’ character the “resurrection man” grave digger is named Jerry Cruncher — as in bone cruncher.
Even though A Song of Ice and Fire is “popular” fiction, George RR Martin uses literary devices and techniques in his work. He has acknowledged he spends a lot of time selecting character names. Martin bestows symbolic names on some of his characters whereas other names are literary allusions.
George RR Martin also names characters after friends and people to whom he wants to pay tribute — fantasy writers and football players are two examples. Recently, Martin recently even offered to name a character in a donor’s honor — and, in classic Martin style, kill him or her off — in exchange for a $20,000 donation to a Sante Fe New Mexico wolf sanctuary. He ended up receiving a $200,000 donation from a Facebook employee.
George RR Martin has noted the names of the inhabitants of a fantasy land like Westeros can’t resemble everyday names in our world, “Coming up with the names for the characters is very tough. They can’t be too weird (with like apostrophes and stuff) and they can’t be too “real”, like Francois or Patrick or any kind of a name that is tied to a place (Sandor being a Hungarian name was unintentional).” Martin does use some names with roots in the real world, however, such as Robert, Eddard (Edward), and Joffrey (Geoffrey).
Do some of George RR Martin’s names provide insight into the character’s ultimate fate? I’d say they almost certainly do, but you be the judge. Here are a few interpretations I’ve come up with either through research (linked) or my own interpretations. The lists aren’t meant to be a comprehensive for each house. When I didn’t have ideas or couldn’t find any research information, I didn’t list the character.
House Stark Names
Stark is a German adverb for strongly1 . Also, as many people have pointed out, House Stark rhymes with the House of York: the dynastic house of Edward IV and Richard III of England during the Wars of the Roses. The House of York overthrew the usurping House of Lancaster when Edward IV became king in 1461. Stark feels like an edgy, more serious variation of York.
It’s also worth noting much of the A Song of Ice and Fire series is told from House Stark’s perspective, and this house often has the “moral authority” throughout the series.
There are many possible historical inspirations for Ned Stark, including Richard of York, Francis Lovell, and William Hastings (as I’ve discussed here). However, given Ned’s role as the leader of House Stark, his name may derive from the leader of the House of York: King Edward IV of England.
The Celtic name Caitlin means “pure.” (Although I can’t find the reference anymore, I believe Martin named her after a real person whose name is a variant of Catherine or Kate.)
Possibly an homage to Robert the Bruce, who reigned from 1306-1329. Robert the Bruce was the Scottish king who lead Scotland during the Scottish Wars of Independence against England. As such, Robert the Bruce was the Scottish king just before the Hundred Years War began. He won control of much of Scotland in a series of dazzling military victories, including the famous Battle of Bannockburn.
Robb Stark — like his older counterpart, or foil even, Robert Baratheon — dies as a result of his choice in wife.
Sansa is a Sanskrit word for charm.
Arya is actually a boy’s name, which suits a young girl who aspires to play a male role. This statement on Westeros.org may be a corrupted quote from Martin about the meaning of the Stark girls’ names: “The names Arya and Sansa are meant to represent the polar opposites of their characters, Arya being a hard sounding name, Sansa a softer more pretty name, etc.”
An aria is also a solo performance in an opera, typically by a soprano. Arias tend to carry the “emotional freight” of the story rather than the story line. Arguably, Aria’s character embodies the psychological and emotional motivations underpinning the Wars of the Roses. Like many of the sons who lost fathers and brothers at the 1455 Battle of St. Albans (during the Wars of the Roses), for Arya, the war is about more than just a struggle for power. She wants revenge for all those she has lost.
Rickon is a more transparent variation of the medieval nickname Dickon. This maybe a kind of a pun implying that Richard III being as innocent as a babe.
House Lannister Names
In contrast with House Stark is House Lannister, which rhymes with Lancaster. The Lannisters — especially Cersei and Tywin — are often the villains.
The real House of Lancaster usurped the throne in 1399 when Richard II was ousted by Henry Bolingbroke (later Henry IV). The Lancastrians usurped the throne again in 1485 when Henry Tudor overthrew Richard III. When the Lancastrians sat on the throne, the house fielded the usurping Henry IV, the bellicose Henry V, who filled his coffers by slaughtering French peasants, and the insane and inept Henry VI, whose weakness led to civil war. This is to say nothing of Henry VII, who may not have been quite as bad, but food prices rose to 90% of the average laborer’s wage in his reign. (Although the inflation was not Henry’s fault, mitigating its effects certainly wasn’t his focus.) Suffice it to say, the Lancastrians were not necessarily great for the people.
I can’t speak for George RR Martin, but I’d willing to bet he’s more sympathetic to the Yorks than the Tudors. One piece of evidence: in the A Song of Ice and Fire novels, relatively few chapters are told from the Lannister perspective. This is especially true if you discount the Tyrion chapters since he may not be a real Lannister anyway.
Tywin’s name foreshadows his destiny: Tie/Win. Tywin wins the war against the Starks, but ultimately it is a Pyrrhic victory for the man who only cares about his legacy. At his death, he has no male heir, his grandchildren are the product of incest, and he is killed by his own son.
As discussed in this article, the name Tyrion might be an allusion to the color of Roman and Byzantine royalty: Tyrian purple. If this is the case, it means that Tyrion may be the only Lannister with true nobility. This name may imply that the heart of George RR Martin’s stories may be more Roman than English.
Cersei is a variation on Circe, the mythological sorceress who fed men wine and turned them into swine. Given how a pig impales King Robert after Cersei’s “agent” (Lancel) induces him to drink too much wine, Cersei’s name foreshadows her defining moment: murdering a king through wine and pig.
- Stark as the German adverb for strongly is pointed out on http://scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/37293/how-did-george-r-r-martin-come-up-with-the-names-of-his-characters. See also Google Translator. [↩]