*This post contains spoilers for all four ASOIAF books; please do not continue beyond the cut if you are wary of book spoilers.*
Some parents choose their children’s names because of their meanings. Others simply choose names they like and never bother with the significance. The name may end up fitting the child, or it may end up having an arbitrary meaning that doesn’t relate at all to the personality the child develops. Parents, when choosing a name, never know how their child will turn out.
Authors, meanwhile, do possess this knowledge before or during the naming process. George Martin, the father of ASOIAF, has a cast of hundreds of characters, all of whom he got to name. But what do characters’ names say about them? Do the meanings of their names match up with their personalities or deeds? In this article I will examine the etymologies of the names of several characters from the series and will analyze if and how the name fits with the character.
For this first batch, I have selected what is arguably the central family of ASOIAF: House Stark.
Note: All first names were researched using Behind the Name: The Etymology of History and First Names, unless otherwise cited.
Lords of Winterfell; former Kings in the North; Wardens of the North
First, a bit about the name Stark: The English/German surname Stark means “strong, brave.” As we know from reading, bravery is a primary trait of many of the Starks. In fact, it’s something that goes hand-in-hand with the honor Eddard tries to instill in his children.
Stark is also a common word in the English language meaning “harsh, grim or desolate; extremely simple or severe; bluntly or sternly plain.” The word comes from the Middle/Old English stearc (stiff, firm). It is similar to the German stark and the Old Norse sterkr (both meaning strong). This meaning fits perfectly with what we know about the House that bears the direwolf as its sigil. They are a practical family who live a rather simple life in the bleak northern castle of Winterfell. Their house words, “Winter is Coming,” suggest both a grim outlook for the future as well as a realistically blunt warning to prepare for what lies ahead. The Starks don’t favor extravagance or blind pride, instead relying on the strength of their family to get them through the winters of life.
Interestingly enough, stark also means, in an archaic sense, “strong, powerful, massive, robust.” Each of these seem to relate somehow to our Starks. The family is strong in its endurance through hardship, as evidenced in many instances in the series. It is powerful in that it has held the North for thousands of years. Massive can refer to Winterfell, which is said to be larger than even the Red Keep (although not so large as Harrenhal). Finally, robust can refer to the fact that Ned was one of four children and has six children of his own, all of whom survived past infancy. Also, to our knowledge, Catelyn Stark never miscarried a child, further demonstrating a sense of health and hardiness that more literally fits within the meaning of robust.
Patriarch of House Stark and Lord of Winterfell, also called Ned
Searching for Eddard produces no results, but it does call up a few similar names. A few examples are Edward (English, Polish), Eadweard (Anglo-Saxon), Eduard (German, Russian, Croatian and more), and Eideard (Scottish). All forms direct to the English Edward for the meaning of the name. Edward means “rich guard,” from the Old English ead (rich, blessed) and weard (guard). The entry also notes Saint Edward the Confessor, who was King of England before the Norman Invasion of 1066. It is said that because of his popularity, his name remained in use in England while most others were replaced by Norman names.
“Rich guard” could work to describe Ned’s role as the second line of defense for the Seven Kingdoms against the hazards of the lands beyond the Wall. In comparison to the Night’s Watch, the first guard, the Starks do seem quite rich. In a less literal sense, “rich” could also refer to Ned’s wealth of honor, which he guards ever so carefully. But the best parallel here is to the idea presented in Edward the Confessor – that of a just ruler. If he’s not that, what is Ned Stark? He’s essentially one of very few paragons of justice in the series, as evidence in his first appearance in A Game of Thrones. At the execution of a Night’s Watch deserter, after having cleaved the man’s head off himself, Ned tells his son Bran: “If you would take a man’s life, you owe it to him to look into his eyes and hear his final words. And if you can not do that, then perhaps the man does not deserve to die.” As a side note, although the title “Confessor” has a religious sense in the case of King Edward, it’s interesting that Ned becomes a literal confessor, albeit for the wrong reasons, in the wrong place at the wrong time.
née TULLY, Lady of Winterfell and wife of Ned, commonly called Cat
Like Eddard, a search for Catelyn does not pull up any entries, but it links to several similar names. A few examples are Caitlin (Irish), Caitlyn/Kaitlyn/Katelin/Katelyn (English), Catalin (Romania), Kattalin (Basque) and Catalina (Spanish). Most forms link back to the Irish form Caitlin, which in turn directs to Katherine. Katherine is the English form of the Greek name Aikaterine. The eytmology of Aikaterine is unclear; it could derive from a few places: (1) the earlier Greek name Hekaterine and word hekateros, (meaning “each of the two”); (2) Hecate, the Greek goddess of magic, witchcraft, necromancy and the crossroads; (3) the Greek word aikia (torture). However, the most lasting and current meaning of Katherine and its derivatives is pure, from the Greek word katharos, meaning the same.
Interestingly, each of these meanings relates to Cat in some way. Let’s first look at the last meaning- pure. Cat is not a virginal maiden dressed all in white. She is not naïvely innocent. She is not kind to Jon Snow. Yet she loves her husband dearly and has always been faithful to him. She loves her children, seems to believe in honor and justice, and is devoted to her faith in the Seven. For the most part, she goes through the story with a clean moral record, only using violence when she felt it was necessary to protect herself or her family. Cat Stark is the ideal noblewoman and exemplifies domestic purity by always living through the Tully words she was raised on: “Family. Duty. Honor.”
Let’s now fast-forward to ASOS/AFFC and consider her dual nature as Lady Stark and Lady Stoneheart in connection with the other three possible meanings of Katherine. The Greek hekateros suggests this duality, and the Greek aikia recalls the activities she pursues as Stoneheart (although she employs hanging, which we may think of as more of an execution than a torture, I think the connotations are similar enough to torture to warrant a mention). The connection to Hecate is strong. Hecate is the goddess of the crossroads, of boundaries between the worlds of the living and the dead. Catelyn Stark straddles this boundary as a real, live woman and a sentient corpse brought back from a seemingly true death. Further, Hecate has dominion over magic and necromancy (the branch of magic concerned with summoning dead people). Nothing says Stoneheart more! Although the magic used by Thoros of Myr and Beric Dondarrion does not seem to contain the same dark and morbid association that our modern society attaches to the word necromancy.
Oldest son of Eddard and Catelyn Stark, heir to Winterfell, later pronounced King in the North
The name Robb doesn’t have its own entry, but there are listings for Rob (English/Dutch), Robbe (Dutch), Robbie/Robby (English), all of which direct to Robert (English/French/German/Russian and more). I find this interesting, as I’ve always just assumed that Robb was named in honor of Robert, Ned’s best friend and king. Robert comes from Hrodebert, a German name meaning “bright fame.” It is derived from the Germanic elements hrod (fame) and beraht (bright). In England, it replaced the name Hreodbeorht after the Norman invasion.
Just as Robert Baratheon earned an illustrious position in Westerosi history, so too did Robb Stark. Robert Baratheon was the first non-Targaryen king to ever rule all Seven Kingdoms, and everyone in Westeros knows the story of how he crushed Rhaegar Targaryen on the Trident with his war hammer. Robb Stark, although just a teenage boy at the beginning of AGOT, became the first King in the North since Torrhen Stark, who surrendered to Aegon the Conqueror several hundred years before the story begins. Robb gained fame as a military prodigy, demonstrating a sense of strategy that bested even the most seasoned of foes. Unfortunately for The Young Wolf, he became even more famous after the Red Wedding.
Oldest daughter of Eddard and Catelyn Stark
There are unsurprisingly no results for Sansa. There aren’t even any names that very closely resemble Sansa. The best matches seem to be Sens (Medieval Spanish) and Sancha (Spanish), which both direct to the masculine form Sancho, from the Latin name Sanctius, meaning “saintly, holy.” There is also the Iranian name Sanaz, meaning “full of grace” in Persian.
Sansa’s gentle nature, naivete and sense of idealism could make her seem saintly or holy. Unlike her sister Arya, Sansa never resorts to violence, and instead uses her manners and courtesies as a shield against the ugliness that comes to surround her. In addition, her beauty, elegance and propensity for delicate activities such as needlework and dancing could mark her as “full of grace.”
However, I think there’s another important place we need to look while analyzing Sansa’s name. That is in the word sans itself. Sans literally means without, and in a lot of ways, Sansa is without throughout the book. In the beginning she is without understanding, and her naivete interferes in several important decisions she makes. After leaving Winterfell, she soon finds herself without her direwolf, Lady; this, when looked at symbolically, could show that Sansa lacks a connection to her family that all her other siblings retain (or that she chooses, even unwillingly, to go against her family, as evidenced in her decision to reveal Ned’s plans to Cersei while in King’s Landing). After chaos erupts in the capital, Sansa is alone, without her family or any of the people she’s grown up looking to as a caregiver. When she marries Tyrion she loses her name. But the biggest evidence that links sans to Sansa comes into play at the end of ASOS and continues throughout AFFC: When Petyr Baelish convinces her to act as his bastard daughter Alayne Stone, Sansa is without the most central, crucial thing of all – her identity.
Younger daughter of Eddard and Catelyn Stark; known as Arry, Weasel, Nan, Salty and Cat
Finally, a name that actually pulls up an entry! Arya is an Indian name that means “honorable, noble” in Sanskrit. On a separate note, the Italian word aria means “air” and also refers to a solo vocal performance usually performed in operas.
Arya may not be the first character we think of when we try to find someone honorable and noble; that assignment would probably go to her father. Arya has done a lot of bad things – she has killed several people, and perhaps more startlingly, has developed a hit list of people she still wants to kill. Despite her ability to seemingly kill with ease, Arya does uphold a sense of honor in an unusual way. Her hitlist is comprised of people who have committed acts she deems unjust. She killed Dareon because he was a deserter of the Night’s Watch; at the beginning of the series, her father executed Gared for the same crime. During that scene, Ned tells Bran that “the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword.” It’s clear that this belief is part of the honor that Ned Stark holds so dear. Ironically, Arya has no problem following this code (except when kills are “gifted” to her by Jaqen H’ghar). She seems to have some of the same honor as Ned, albeit she places herself outside the law and acts as a vigilante.
If we think of Arya in terms of air, we could note how she has been blown about from here to there across the Seven Kingdoms and the Narrow Sea. Most people aren’t even sure she still exists after she escapes The Red Keep. It’s also interesting to view her in relation to a vocal aria. Although Arya is joined by various companions at different times throughout her journey, she always finds herself alone once again. She’s singing a very long solo, just as an opera singer performs an aria alone.
On the other hand, Arya’s name could be ironic. She’s born a noblewoman, a role she rejects. An aria in opera is generally considered a beautiful, often romantic melody which would probably be much more pleasing to Sansa than her tomboy sister.
Middle son of Eddard and Catelyn Stark; called Bran
Brandon is an English name that comes from a surname derived from a place meaning “hill covered with broom.” Brandon can also be used in place of Brendan, an anglicized form of the Irish name Breanainn, which comes from the Welsh for “prince.”
While the connection to the name Brendan is evident (Bran is a prince once Robb becomes King in the North), the connection to the actual name Brandon is not so clear. Bran likes to climb high, and hills are high? That doesn’t work. I tried to research exactly what is meant by “broom” and discovered it refers to a “group of evergreen, semi-evergreen, and deciduous shrubs.” Brooms also thrive in “poor soils and growing conditions.” There are a few possible connections here. If one considers the notion of an evergreen, we can perhaps hypothesize that even in winter, Bran will be green – not only alive, but with his greensight. Poor soil and growing conditions could mean Bran’s crippled state and the ruins of the North; even though he’s endured a lot of hardship, Bran still strives to follow his visions and make his way to the three-eyed crow. Also, broom can allegedly be used to tame wild horses and dogs. This could reference Bran’s abilities as a warg who effectively “tames” Summer by walking in his skin.
Another interesting note about broom is a traditional English rhyme: “Sweep the house with blossed broom in May/sweep the head of household away.” Bran’s fall is one event that helps set off the feud between the Starks and Lannisters, which in turn leads to war, which in turns leads to the death of Ned, Cat and Robb, all of who could have been called the head of House Stark at some point.
On a note unrelated to etymology, I find it interesting that Bran shares the name Brandon with several other Starks. I believe he is named after his uncle Brandon, Ned’s older brother who died at the hands of Aerys Targaryen. However, he also shares his name with several legendary figures, most prominently Brandon the Builder. I can’t help but think that our Bran will do something to thrust himself into the list of legendary Brandon Starks as well. Possibly something to defend the North against the troubles that lie beyond the Wall, just as the Builder did?
Youngest son of Eddard and Catelyn Stark
No results for Rickon. The most similar name is Riagan (Old Irish), which may mean “impulsive.” Does anything sound more like Rickon? 🙂
Other sources, including Meaning-of-Names, states that Riagan signifies “little king.” This too matches well with the young Rickon, even though he’s more of a little prince. Although if we consider Bran the new King in the North after Robb’s death, then Rickon is pretty close to being a little king.
Bastard son of Ned Stark and an unknown mother; a Night’s Watch recruit, later named Lord Commander
Jon is a variant of the English/Biblical name John. The name comes from Ioannes, the Greek form of the Hebrew Yochanan, which means “Yahweh (God) is gracious.” In the Bible, two important figures are named John: (1) John the Baptist, a forerunner of Christ; and (2) John the Apostle, who wrote the Gospel of John and Revelation.
The obvious meaning in Jon’s name lies in his surname – Snow, the name used by bastards born to the North. Snow signifies winter and it abounds at the Wall, perfectly aligning with Jon’s role as a man of the Night’s Watch. Many readers believe Jon Snow will be a major player in the overarching events of ASOIAF. With his appointment as Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, he’s already on his way. If Jon becomes a savior of Westeros in the war against the Others, the idea of “God is gracious” will fit well with his role in the story. Alternatively, the Internet is rife with theories that say Daenerys Targaryen will return to Westeros and defeat the Others with her dragons to assume a savior-like role. Jon, having already been at the battle front waging war before her, could be seen as her forerunner- someone who, like John the Baptist, was waging war against evil and darkness before the true savior arrived. It is also possible that Jon’s help and friendship can “baptise” Dany into the culture and ways of Westeros. Remember that John the Baptist was a cousin of Jesus, and consider the fact that Jon may be a nephew to Dany (if you are confused, please stop reading for your own good; if not, R+L is below). As for connections with the Apostle, Jon could come to be viewed as Dany’s closest follower.
I can’t write about Jon Snow and not mention R+L=J. In brief, this ever-popular theory promotes the idea that Jon Snow is not Ned’s bastard, but instead the son of Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen. Jon would have been born to Lyanna in Dorne amidst the remnants of war, after Rhaegar had been killed by Robert Baratheon on the Trident. He could possibly be the fulfillment of several prophecies that Rhaegar had been studying before his death. If any of this is true, the god(s) certainly are gracious: A child born from a union that should have never occurred, against unfavorable circumstances, will become the man who will save Westeros from the icy grip of the Others and another Long Night.