Becoming More Like Themselves: Naming in The Southern Reach Trilogy and The Pilgrim’s Progress

Names and naming are a fascination in literature in general, and fantasy in particular but sometimes the lack of naming can convey an even stronger message bout the characters. Some names have symbolism or convey inherent character traits such as the JK Rowling’s incredibly literal Wolf-Wolf in Remus Lupin while other characters remain largely nameless like C.S Lewis’s White Witch who’s first name is rarely mentioned. Religious allegory is another place in which names serve a very particular purpose and the characters are identified by the singular trait that they represent in the story. Both allegory and science fiction rely heavily on symbolism and the way the reader engages with the created worlds of the texts which makes the role of naming clearer than it is in other genres. Examining the way characters are identified in the John Bunyan’s allegorical Pilgrim’s Progress and Jeff VanderMeer’s science fiction The Southern Reach Trilogy shows how the namelessness of a character can communicate their journey to the reader.

These are characters that are one dimensional and who’s entire being can be summed up in the singular word that serves to identify them. They rely on the reader’s preconceived notions that accompany the identify whether that be a trait like Virtue or Christian like in The Pilgrim’s Progress or professions like the biologist or surveyor in The Southern Reach Trilogy. These characters do not expand beyond the singular characteristics identified by their title and the reader may find it harder to attach a personality to their existent ideas attached to that title. Namelessness restricts the ways in which a character can grow and the ability of the reader to connect with that character which is often used intentionally by the author to further thematic aspects of their work.

Reading the Southern Reach Trilogy the reader finds themselves searching for names that just do not appear. The Biologist is not really a person, her story isn’t even happening in real time and it isn’t until she is replaced by a more complex creature that Ghost Bird begins to truly function as a name that is associated with a particular person. She is separate from the biologist of the first novel and the other characters view her as a distinct being. The biologist on the other hand is trapped nameless in her journals and remains in that state even as she transitions into the creature that is identified as a monster who was once the biologist. She is a watcher of nature as identified by her title but she is no more than that even as the plot advances around her.

Ghost Bird and the biologist have very linear trajectories in relation to their names but there are other more complex uses of naming in VanderMeer’s trilogy. Control’s journey from namelessness is a complete circle, he begins as Control and he ends as Control but much his arc revolves around this transition. The second book of the trilogy, the first in which he appears, is his progression from the brainwashed Control through his fight back to the moment where he ultimately reclaims his name while standing in the wilderness with the also recently named Ghost Bird. However, the complexity and self determination that Control gains when he takes back John Rodriguez is quickly lost as he is consumed by Area X. His departure as Control is in fact what brings Area X into a new, perhaps more stable state, and just as the allegorical figures in The Pilgrim’s Progress live into their identifiers so to does Control.

Contrary to the audience of The Southern Reach Trilogy, the readers of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress the challenges of reading an allegory would be familiar as it was a key part of the Christian tradition. This means that for the original readers of the story there would be no search for other names or characters in the same way that the modern readers of VanderMeer’s work do. There is also no expectation of growth in an allegorical text like Bunyan’s. Christian’s journey is not one to acquire a name like Ghost Bird but rather he is simply growing into the title he begins the story with. The name is true of villainous figures in the text like Formalist or Hypocrisy, the identifiers assure the reader of exactly what kind of behavior to expect. Where VanderMeer uses namelessness to show character journey Bunyan – and allegory in general – use namelessness to create static characters who do not develop.

The decisions that authors make about what to call their characters is central to how the reader with interact with those creations. Ghost Bird grows on the reader as she develops beyond the biologist and earns a name of her own while Christian’s journey into his faith feels inevitable and probably comforting to Bunyan’s original readers. When names come full circle like with Control it is a demonstration of how closely tied naming, even of fictional characters, is to a sense of identity. Allegory as utilized by writers of the past uses identifiers rather than names to show a character claiming of the traits that tied to that word while restricting their ability to develop beyond that trait. In modern fiction however, those who are nameless are without depth or identity, while the journey into a name is a journey of growth into person hood.