Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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More griffins griffons gryphons gryfons …

Okay, first, every spelling up in the title of this post is considered correct except the last. Although normally a fan of the letter “y” in fantasy, I obviously prefer the spelling “griffin,” or at least I did when I was writing the Griffin Mage trilogy. I will add, I didn’t think about the spelling at all; this is the spelling that just fell off my fingers onto the keyboard. I still prefer it, if only because it’s the spelling I’m most used to.

It’s also the spelling Diana Wynne Jones used in her FANTASTIC books which Charlotte mentioned in a recent comment. I should have thought of those because they’re some of my favorite griffons. We see them in Dark Lord of Derkholm and Year of the Griffin. I don’t much care for the griffins pictured on the regular covers of that duology, but I like the audio cover:

The above griffin, incidentally, is really about what the adult male griffins from Nick O’Donohoe’s books ought to look like. BIG and rather SCARY and definitely like beasts of prey, not anything cuddly that you would want to pat. DWJ’s griffins are perhaps not really as large as the one shown above.

Okay, moving on:

“Griffon” is frequently used in the names of dog breeds, in which case it means ‘wire-coated.” The Petit Basset Griffon Vendeen is the small, short-legged, wire-coated dog from Vendee. There is indeed a Grand Basset Griffon Vendeen, if you would prefer a slightly larger dog.

The Brussels Griffon is a little wire-coated dog, quite charming. There is in fact a smooth Brussels Griffon variety, which is an oxymoronic statement and incidentally is probably going to be mistaken for a Pug or Pug mix except at a dog show.

Also, there’s a hunting breed called the Wirehaired Pointing Griffon, which is a redundant name rather than oxymoronic, but once again suggests that it might be nice if people think for a second about the words they’re using before naming a breed.

So, the point is, I don’t care for the “griffon” spelling when you’re talking about half-bird / half-cat mythological animals, because it makes me think of dog breeds and that’s distracting.

Now, “gryphon.” This is another accepted spelling, of course! It does look a little odd to me just because it’s not the spelling I’ve used myself. Several of you mentioned Andre Norton’s Crystal Gryphon series, which I’ve never read. It’s got some covers where the artist made a nod to the idea of gryphons:

The animal could easily be an eagle. The musculature and proportions are not quite right for an eagle, but the artist is nevertheless cheating by failing to show the lionine part of the gryphon, which is too bad.

However, the above artist’s cover is sooooo much better than this ludicrously unsuitable Polish cover, which Alan Shampine sent me over the weekend:

Uh huh, Crystal Gryphon, right. I’ll add that I bet that’s a Boris Vallejo cover. the style is very familiar and the book is probably from the era when Vallejo was doing a lot of covers. Oh, interestingly, if I’m reading this right, Vallejo did BOTH covers above. I wouldn’t have guessed that!

How about the “gryfon” spelling? That one is not standard! It’s used in some of the most artistically beautiful books, though:

That’s the complete artwork for the cover of Skyfire, from the Song of the Summer King series. I still think this is my favorite griffin/gryphon/gryfon cover ever. This is by Jennifer Miller, who has an extensive online portfolio and offers prints, in case you want to take a look.

Okay, so, if you have a strong preference for spelling this mythological animal, which spelling do you pick? And have you seen any other spellings?

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9 Comments More griffins griffons gryphons gryfons …

  1. Kim Aippersbach

    What about gryffin? Is JK Rowling the only author that uses that spelling?

    Why are ‘y’s so often used in fantasy names? Just to make them different, I suppose? Or is there a language authors are subconsciously (or consciously) trying to evoke? (Welsh?)(Tolkien didn’t use them excessively.)

  2. Rachel

    Kim, the letter “y” is just soooooo appealing! It’s pretty! For English readers, “y” is exotic-looking if placed anywhere but at the end of a word, and it’s (generally) easy to pronounce.It’s hard to come up with a lot of words that look good, don’t look ordinary, and seem relatively easy to pronounce. Change an “e” or “i” to a “y” in the middle of the word and there you go. I think that’s the entire reason … or most of the reason, though there may be a certain copy-cat tendency as well, as readers develop a feel that “y” looks like a fantasy letter.

    Welsh is a great-looking language, I have to say. Ymddiriedolaeth — ymhel — ymlyn — hwyl — dropping vowels out of the word also makes the word look neat, though doesn’t lend itself to the reader feeling the word is easy to pronounce. But “hwyl” is a neat-looking word compared to “howel.”

  3. Louise

    I think my favorite spelling is “gryphon,” solely for how it looks. The combination of the y + ph +o says “fantasy creature” to me and also just looks lovely. Of course, I’ve been learning Welsh for the last month, so that might be affecting my opinion as well.

  4. SarahZ

    I like Tamora Pierce’s gryphons (forget how she spells it), although they’re not characters, so much as part of the world-building

    I think Mercedes Lackey had some too? Hers made the cover art. It’s been a long time since I read those, though

  5. Megan

    I prefer the spelling gryphon, although griffin is also fine. The more exotic the spelling gets the more it feels like it’s trying too hard to be special.

  6. Vale Nagle

    Oooh, that Year of the Griffin audiobook cover is nice. I hadn’t seen that one.

    I grew up with Andre Norton/Lackey/etc., so “gryphon” felt like the right spelling, though my editor and I took a long, hard look at all of the options. (Norton also normalized eyrie for gryphons and aerie for birds for me.) For the most part, we found that “griffen” was a common Irish first name and “griffin” was a common last name, so you could get buried in search results on Amazon if you used those spellings. Griffon is pretty much as you already said—it’s the One True Spelling for some languages, but the dog and vulture breeds make it confusing.

    Nobody seemed to be using “gryfon” when they were looking for the fantasy creature novels, so we went with gryphon, which was more likely to be searched for (and not lost in the results) than the others.

    But a side note about gryfon that’s fascinating… gryphon books have been big for a long time, and one of the books Tolkien may have read as a kid was David & The Phoenix. By that point, fantasy books with different spellings of gryphon were so common that it had become a bit of a joke. So the protagonist arrives in a land with griffins, gryphons, and gryfons…. all of whom look cat+bird-like, but all of whom are different and get very mad if you mix them up. It’s a cute nod to the fact that we’ve had hundreds of years of fantasy authors choosing their own names =]

    And let’s not forget the books that are terrified to pick a side at all! Nobody can be upset about how you spell gryphon if you call them “flap cats” (Meredith Pierce) or “thunder tigers” (Jay Kristoff).

  7. Elaine

    Err. David and the Phoenix (which I have downstairs) is copyright 1957. The author was born in 1925. Tolkien was born in 1892. Possibly you’re thinking of Nesbit’s Phoenix & the Carpet? I don’t remember gryphons (of any spelling) in Nesbit but it’s been a long time.

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