Fantasy author J.R.R. Tolkein (Lord of the Rings) is among the literary heavyweights said to be particularly enamored of the words cellar door. The combination has often (and apocryphally) been called the most beautiful words in the English language; cited for their melodic quality and the way the musical sounds contrast with the ordinariness of the object they describe.
I happen to believe that Dejah Thoris is the most beautiful name for an SF/fantasy character ever. I remember hearing it and instantly being enamored long before I ever read the source material. Dejah Thoris is, of course, the title character in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ seminal novel A Princess of Mars, which introduced the Earth to swashbuckling hero John Carter — who would go on to become the Warlord of Mars.
ERB is best-known as the creator of Tarzan of the Apes, and that’s another name that works really well, but not as well as Dejah Thoris, princess of the twin cities of Helium. As a writer myself, I can vouch for the importance of getting a character’s name just right. The perfect name can help convey a lot of information about your characters. Just look at all the heroes with stereotypically masculine names like “Nick” or “Jack” or “Jake,” or who boast last names like “Stryker” or “Hunter,” or even “James T. Kirk” — a square-jawed hero name if there ever was one. And then there was Conan, a hard-edged, forceful name for a barbarian character. Compare those to “John Carter,” a name that sounds simple, honest and unpretentious — like the man himself. He sounds like a “regular guy,” a decent man with values.
Dejah Thoris, with its lilting, lyrical, musical quality hints that you’re going to see a beautiful, ethereal character even before she is described. The four-beat rhythm of the name is perfectly balanced with alternating high and low sounds. The D kicks off the name with a hard, decisive sound, while the J and R provide the perfect pivots for the syllables. The name is even pleasing to look at, with the contrast of its descending j and the proud, uplifting combination of the Th.
I know that her original early 20th-century characterization is not in keeping with modern sensibilities exactly 100 years later, but Dejah Thoris was a product of the her times. While she was absolutely a prototypical damsel-in-distress who had to be rescued by John Carter several times in each novel, she was still a strong character. Dejah Thoris might come off as spoiled to some modern readers, but she stood defiantly in the face of her captors and refused to even contemplate the many offers of marriage from villains. She could defend herself with a knife; her chin was always up, and she was ever-ready with a biting riposte to spit in her tormentor’s face.
Lord Byron captured a sense of ephemeral grace with his line, “She walks in beauty, like the night,” but ERB did something similar with just two words: Dejah Thoris. Of course, he didn’t stop there, describing her physically thus:
And the sight which met my eyes was that of a slender, girlish figure, similar in every detail to the earthly women of my past life… Her face was oval and beautiful in the extreme, her every feature was finely chiseled and exquisite, her eyes large and lustrous and her head surmounted by a mass of coal black, waving hair, caught loosely into a strange yet becoming coiffure. Her skin was of a light reddish copper color, against which the crimson glow of her cheeks and the ruby of her beautifully molded lips shone with a strangely enhancing effect.
She was as destitute of clothes as the green Martians who accompanied her; indeed, save for her highly wrought ornaments she was entirely naked, nor could any apparel have enhanced the beauty of her perfect and symmetrical figure.
But, seriously, don’t you sort of get that idea from just her name alone? It’s that effective. (And don’t worry, the forthcoming Disney adaptation, John Carter, will be family friendly —everybody is wearing clothes!)
Think of Dejah Thoris and you think of a woman who is worth literally crisscrossing a planet and fighting any number of hideous perils to win. Carter chased her from one end of the planet to the other, from desert to arctic wastes to underground oceans. And he respected her in a way few modern heroes ever would.
ERB tried, but he never created another name that equaled the mellifluous Dejah Thoris. Valla Dia, from The Master Mind of Mars, is close, but not quite there, while Phaidor and Thuvia simply don’t roll off the tongue quite as sweetly. Dejah Thoris will always be my princess.