I grappled with a lot of issues in writing my new ebook To Create a World.
One of the biggest was elves.
The novel is contemporary fantasy rather than high fantasy, but it still needed elves in it and that presented an unforeseen challenge.
How do you write elves in a post-Tolkien context without becoming painfully, transparently derivative? I defy you to turn your hand to the task without suffering recurring nightmares of J.R.R. sitting smoking a pipe and wryly mocking you in Sindarin. You know, one of the Elvish languages he created before, during, and after writing his epic books.
If you’re not a professor of linguistics and you don’t already speak half a dozen languages, you’re at a disadvantage. I have a pretty good working knowledge of English and a passing familiarity with two other languages…and zero interest in creating new languages.
Not a problem, I decided. Nobody expects anyone to replicate Tolkien’s philological exploits. That’s clearly above and beyond.
And all was well, until the moment came in which an elvish character required a name, and I realised two things:
First, that all Elvish influences in the depths of my mind can be directly or indirectly traced back to Tolkien.
Second, that each and every Elvish name (make that every name) in Tolkien’s universe will undoubtedly have an etymological pedigree backed up by his enormous, unnecessary, unassailable body of fictional languages. I didn’t have to check. I just knew that names like Celeborn, Galadriel, and Glorfindel would have a watertight linguistic provenance.
For some authors this poses no problem. Just shrug your shoulders and come up with something that sounds cool. And if you need to name a second elf, just come up with something else that sounds cool. Bonus points if the two cool-sounding names are phonetically similar.
Which is all fine, until you discover that your idea of what a cool elf name should sound like is also transparently derivative of a certain over-achieving philologist.
If you still don’t see the problem, consider for a moment if someone asked you to come up with a Chinese-sounding name, or an American-sounding name, or a Scottish or Indian or Arabic-sounding name, without actually using existing names from those language groups, or using their languages to create new names.
What would you end up with? You would end up with an unspeakably shameful and racially provocative parody.
In contemporary fiction making human character names consistent with real cultural and linguistic sources is fine.
But try it with elves and dwarves and suddenly you’re writing LOTR fanfiction.
One solution that comes to mind is to have Tolkien’s fictitious peoples recognised as States under the UN, and his linguistic work rendered public domain forthwith, so we can all pretend it’s just part of our shared global culture.
The other solution is to not take it so seriously in the first place. Allow your elves to have whatever names they like, and not stress too much about their etymological integrity.
Incidentally, I think that’s why authors like J.K. Rowling began with overtly silly names for pretty much everything in their magical universe. The names seemed to become more serious as the series continued, matching the tone of the books (and increasing age of its readers). At the same time, names that were there from the beginning like Dumbeldore, and even Hogwarts itself took on different emotional resonance as our experience of them grew throughout the series.
Giving things silly names implicitly lowers expectations and takes the pressure off, as well as offsetting the shock of Harry’s entry into a parallel magical world. And if even a silly name like Hogwarts can become infused with meaning and gravitas, there’s no need to stress unduly about the quality and internal coherence of naming schemes for mythical races in the first place.
Just in case that’s what you were doing…
Now go buy my book. It has elves with linguistically arbitrary naming conventions!