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Fantasy Baby Names: A Peake into Gormenghast

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By K. M. Sheard, Nook of Names

The first volume of the magnificent Gormenghast trilogy by British novelist Mervyn Peake was published in 1946, and his books are still widely read today. Here are some of the best names (and characters!) from the trilogy:

Titus. Titus Groan, 77th Earl of Groan is the hero of the series, and Titus Groan is the title of the first book, despite the fact that Titus is only a baby in it. He becomes the major protagonist, however, in the following novels, and though he doesn’t actually do much in Titus Groan, he is the pivot around whom the story unfolds. Titus was a Roman praenomen — i.e. the closest thing Romans had to a first name. Probably the best-known bearer was the Emperor Titus (39-81 CE). The origins are very obscure; it may possibly be related to Latin titulus ‘title’ or titio ‘fire-brand’. It was first used as a given name in the English-speaking world in the sixteenth century.

Fuchsia. Lady Fuchsia Groan is Titus’s sister, a girl on the cusp of womanhood. Virtually ignored by her parents, she is half-feral,  fiercely proud and passionate. Her name is taken from the delicate, ballerina-like flower, named in the eighteenth century in honor of the sixteenth century German botanist Leonhard Fuchs — a surname meaning ‘fox’ in German. Fuchsia is first found as a given name in the nineteenth century, when flower names first came into fashion.

Gertrude. Countess Gertrude, whom Peake described as ‘of huge clay’, is the flame-haired, distant mother of Titus and Fuchsia. Though she cares more for her cats than her children, she is a good ally when the chips are down. She definitely suits her name; deriving from the Old German gêr ‘spear’ + drudi ‘strength’. The original bearer was one of the Valkyrie, and Peake was clearly giving a nod in the direction of the earliest of the seventh century German saints of the name, who is the patron saint of cats (and mice). The twelfth century St Gertrude — St Gertrude the Great — was a famous mystic. The name didn’t really take off in England until the fifteenth century, when the cult of St Gertrude (the cat and mouse one), spread to Britain from the Continent. Although Gertrude is still quite a heavy name, its pet- forms Gertie and Trudy both have charm.

Alfred. Alfred Prunesquallor is the kindly doctor at the vast and ancient Gormenghast Castle. Alfred is one of a small number of Old English first names that is still in regular use – at least in the UK, and in the pet-form Alfie. This has actually been immensely popular in recent years, largely because of popular character of the name in the soap Eastenders.  Alfred could barely be less popular in the States, and Alfie is completely off the radar. Most people don’t realise that the modern Alfred actually represents two Saxon names: Ælfræd, from ælf ‘elf’ + r?d ‘counsel’ — as borne by one of the most famous of all the Kings of Anglo-Saxon England, King Alfred the Great of Wessex (849-99.

Clarice. Lady Clarice Groan is the twin of Lady Cora, the snobbish, very simple spinster aunts of Titus. The Machiavellian Steerpike uses them in his plans to gain control of the castle — and is responsible for their very sorry end. These days, Clarice is mostly associated with Clarice Starling and The Silence of the Lambs. It is a very old name, a medieval elaboration of Clara (meaning ‘clear’ and ‘famous’ in Latin). The US pronunciation is ‘clah-REES’, but the traditional UK way is ‘CLAH-ris’.

Cora. Lady Cora Groan — the other twin, and identical to her sister. Cora is essentially a Latinized form of the Greek korê ‘maiden’, but the form demonstrates influence from Corinna and Coralie, both already around at the time it first appeared at the end of the eighteenth century. It became popular in America during the nineteenth century after it featured in James Fenimore Cooper’s novel, The Last of the Mohicans (1826). There is also the Inca mother and fertility Goddess Mama Cora Ocllo.

Irma. Irma Prunesquallor is the doctor’s spinster sister. Her name is German, originating as a short form of names beginning with Irm-, representing the Old German element ermen ‘whole’.

Keda. Keda is Titus’s wet-nurse, the widow of one of the ‘bright carvers’ who live in the shantytown beneath the walls of Gormenghast. The names seems to be pure invention on Peake’s part.

Barquentine is the elderly and and rather repulsive Master of Ritual. A barquentine is a small boat, deriving from bark, itself from the French barque and ultimately from Latin barca ‘small boat’.

Sepulchrave. The 76th Lord Groan, and father to Titus. He is a sad, lonely man, worn down by years of attending to the pointless ritual which accompanies his position as Lord Groan. The name is another of Peake’s inventions, based on English sepulchre ‘tomb’, emphasizing how completely Sepulchrave is trapped by stagnant tradition — a major theme of the trilogy.

This blog appeared previously in Nook of Names, so our thanks once again to Kay Sheard

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About the author

Nook of Names

A graduate of the University of Cambridge, K. M. Sheard is the author of the encyclopedic reference Llewellyn’s Complete Book of Names, and writes Nook of Names, a blog on all things onomastic.
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