What Can I Call This World?

Like many fantasy writers, I have a world I come back to over and over again. It has plenty of space for stories, after all, what with seven continents and thousands of years of history. And it’s name is… the Traveller’s World.

Not very inspiring, really. It just refers to the fact that the most recurring character I write about in it is called the Traveller. No fancy, evocative name, as so many fantasy worlds have.

Or do they?

There’s actually absolutely no reason why most fantasy worlds should have a name — other than the convenience of referring to them. And “the Traveller’s World” fits that requirement.

Who Calls It That?

From time to time, on fantasy writing forums, someone will introduce an idea with “My world is called X or Y.” And my first reaction is always “Who calls it that?”

That’s not a frivolous question.. Think about our own world. We call it Earth — or do we? If we were speaking French, we’d called it Terre, an entirely different name. Multiply that by the dozens of major languages spoken on Earth (or Terre), let alone the thousands of languages overall, and the difficulty of pinning down a single name becomes apparent.

One solution, especially used in science fiction, has been to use the Latin Terra, on the assumption that Latin is the “universal language”. That’s a very Eurocentric view, though. Latin isn’t the universal language in Asia or Africa, or among the indigenous peoples of Australia or the Americas. Nor even in eastern Europe.

No, there’s no common name for our planet, and the same would be true of any world that’s anything like it. A world that consists of more than a handful of countries, where everyone inexplicably speaks the same language.

But Don’t All Worlds Have a Name?

People who insist that fantasy worlds should have a name usually start with the big ones — Middle Earth, Narnia, Westeros. None of which is actually the name of a world. Narnia and Westeros are both kingdoms, while Middle Earth is a continent.

Some worlds do have a name. For example, Fritz Leiber used the name Nehwon (“nowhen” backwards) for the world of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. Leiber, though, was writing in omniscient, and Nehwon is what he tells us the world is called. As far as I remember (though I may be wrong) none of his characters actually refer to their world by that name.

There are other exceptions, but not many. Many of the “world names” are, like the first three I mentioned, merely a convenient way of referring to the worlds the stories take place in.

Why Should a World Have a Name?

In her first book, the SF novel Rocannon’s World, the wonderful Ursula Le Guin makes a reference to “planets without names, called by their people simply The World…”

This applies to worlds as much as to planets, if not more so. The point is that you only give a place a name if you need to contrast it with other places. Long ago, a primitive tribe living in the centre of Asia wouldn’t have needed to know their territory was part of a continent, and so wouldn’t have had a name for that continent.

The same is true of a planet whose people can’t conceive of anywhere else. The name we use for ours originally just mean the ground, as opposed to the sky — it’s only since we’ve began to think of ourselves as a planet among others that we’ve started using the name in a planetary sense.

As for worlds that are separated from us by more than space, why would they need a name? A world’s name is only likely to evolve if its inhabitants become aware of others, whether that’s the mortal and faery worlds or locations elsewhere in the multiverse. Even if you never made the journey between the worlds, knowing would be enough to change your view — just like that primitive tribe when they became aware of peoples further away than their own continent.

Tolkien’s naming system illustrates this perfectly. The events of most of his stories take place on the continent of Middle Earth, whose inhabitants know (if only hazily) that there are others. However, he does have a more general name — Arda, which refers to the Earth as a whole. But, crucially, this is only ever used from the perspective of the Valar, who know the wider universe. None of Arda’s inhabitants, even the Elves, have any use for the name.

So what’s the point of giving a name to a fantasy world? Usually, just one: marketing. People need to be able to refer to the location, but this doesn’t need to be a practical name. Andre Norton, for instance, set many novels in the Witch World, but that was never meant to be anything more than a phrase to stick on the books.

Like… the Traveller’s World, for instance.

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