By GW Thomas
"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.
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.
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.
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 gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.