Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Hobbit Names

There’s no denying that names are important, particularly in a world like Tolkien’s. Consistency is more important in fantasy than it is in reality—whereas an inconsistency in reality can be brushed off as weirdness, as the world not making sense—as it too often does—in a fantasy world, one false move, one inconsistent name or phrase, can shatter the whole illusion and break the secondary reality irreparably. What if, as we discussed earlier, Sam had been short for Samuel, not Samwise? What if Pippin was a nickname for Philip, or what if Peregrin had been shortened to Perry instead? What if Frodo was Fred? Conversely, what if it had been the elves who’d had names like Fredegar “Fatty” Bolger and Rosie Cotton, and the hobbits who’d been called Glorfindel and Celeborn?

Names need to evoke a certain feel, and because Tolkien created his own, he had a unique ability to give his characters names that fit them perfectly and provoked in his readers the reactions which he wanted to create. Because the names all had behind them the advantage of the deep philological and mythical basis that Tolkien had crafted for his world—indeed, the linguistic basis that gave birth to his world—he had the ability to make names that sounded pleasant or simple or coarse, and, at the same time, to be able to match their meanings to their sounds. This is not to say that he threw names together willy-nilly—indeed, it’s quite the opposite, and naming a hero something like Frodo is a much more circuitous, difficult route than simply calling him “Fred” and being done with it. But “Fred” would not fit as Frodo does. This is not because it is a mundane name that might be found in our primary reality—“Sam” works well enough for Mr. Gamgee, and we meet a Rosie and a Bill, among others—but because there must be a distinction made between Frodo the Elf-friend and the Ring-bearer, Frodo who becomes part of another world more than he continues to belong to the simple sphere of the Shire, and the rest of the hobbits.

While “Meriadoc” and “Peregrin” may have similar levels of distinction, neither of them go by those names, instead (of course) preferring the much simpler, much less formal Merry and Pippin. Both of them, later on after the events of Lord of the Rings, become prominent hobbits in their families, in the Shire, and in world affairs as well, and then they are known as Meriadoc and Peregrin (for example, in the appendices). Their names, too, reflect on their nature by their use, placing them high in rank among the hobbits and in high respect from others. But there’s still a hint of the young, foolish Merry and Pippin there, and it is in that way that they were introduced to the readers; nicknames can provide a truer sense of who the characters are, at times.

I am not by any means a linguist, but the way that words sound still conveys its own meaning, and names even more so than ‘ordinary’ words (although I have my doubts as to whether or not there actually exists such a thing as an ordinary word). Whether because of the vowels echoing each other or because of the consonantal combinations, or simply the way that those two elements interact, Frodo’s name alone puts him on a separate, slightly higher plane from most of the other Hobbits—while their country nature is contained in their appellations, Frodo’s instead relates the connections that he has to other beings; he is different from them, and by the time that he has fulfilled his destiny as the Ring-bearer, Frodo no longer belongs in the Shire. He has more connections to the Elven-kind, whose sorrows and whose stories he has shared in by taking on the Ring quest, than he has with his own people, who by and large prefer their lives to be simple and uninterrupted. Even after they suffer the trauma of Saruman’s takeover, the hobbits put the Shire back to rights and return to their own way of life. Frodo cannot, and he sails to the West, accompanying the Elves with whom he now belongs to their place of rest.

Interestingly, Samwise with his simple, commoner’s name is also an Elf-friend of sorts, but while Sam is the sort of Elf-friend who hears and tells the stories of the Elves, he is not as irrevocably entwined with those same stories as Frodo is. True, he did a lot of the work, and is in the opinion of many (including me!) the real hero of Lord of the Rings, but Frodo’s bearing of the Ring opened him up to experiences, injuries, and vulnerabilities that the simple, stolid Sam was lucky enough to escape. He remains in nature entirely, quintessentially hobbit, but with an exposure to others that allows him to relate, to connect without becoming one. Sam is just Samwise, but there’s nothing at all wrong with that—he is very much a hobbit, which is more than enough for one as brave and loyal as he. His nature as an Elf-friend lies primarily in his role as storyteller, as the inheritor of the Red Book of the Westmarch and in his actions in completing it and passing it down to his children, letting the tale live on and be remembered by generations of hobbits. Frodo’s status as Elf-friend, as a sort of hobbit nobility is reflected in his name because it is in his nature; Sam’s Elf-friend status comes to him by action and interest, and his nature remains thoroughly that of a simple hobbit. -MEJ


  1. Very good point about the ways in which the names carry hints or suggestions about the characters, but I would have liked to hear more about why "Frodo" as such sounds more appropriate to an Elf-friend than "Fred", which might be short for Frederick and thus a very imperial name (in our Primary Reality). Is it simply the coincidence of "Fr" and "d" that you were thinking about? You might find Shippey's discussion of the "Myth of Frodo" (Author of the Century, pp, 182-87) helpful here. I'd be interested to know what you think after reading what he has to say there!


  2. While Tolkien's names were undoubtedly carefully chosen, I would hesitate to put so much weight on the role that a name plays for the character himself. Frodo's more distinctive name could be reflective of his importance to the story, but it could also be traced back to Frodo's ancestry. Sam was a poorer, more common hobbit, whereas Frodo, Peregin and Meriadoc were closer to "nobility" (although hobbits don't have much of a class system). Perhaps, instead of Frodo being used in place of Fred in order to make it more unusual, Frodo's name WOULD have been Fred if he lived in the modern era. As RFLB pointed out, Frederik and Frodo share primary consanants. Perhaps Frederik and Frodo are meant to have the same relationship that Samuel and Samwise are meant to: a "hobbit version" of that name (similar to how Fadei is a "Russian version" of Fred).

  3. Oops -- forgot to initial. That last post was by Reed

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. I personally found no “inate” power of meaning in the names Tolkien assigned to his characters. Frodo, like Bilbo, sounds kind of weird to me rather than like hobbit nobility. When I first read LotR, Legolas always sounded like a girl’s name. And don’t get me started on the dwarves Gimli, Thorin, Oin, Gloin, Balin, Dwalin, Bifur, Bofur, Fili, Kili, Sleepy, Doc, Curly, and Moe :P “The dark lord, Aragorn…” would sound just as menacing to me as Sauron, Doriath, Dungortheb, or Melkor if I didn’t know better now. What helped, was that Tolkien did explain (if you bothered to read the preface and appendices) that there was a reason for the names given, rather than it being the result of throwing scrabble pieces on the floor.

    I am no linguist and I know next to nothing about Anglo-Saxon, Finnish, Old Frissian, Welsh and what sounds this way or that way in those languages. I am also not inclined to attempt fluency in two or three imaginary languages just for the purpose of getting all of the meanings of every name and place. Knowing that there is a meaning, and taking what Tolkien gives in the text is enough for me.

    Tolkien’s naming process, in fact his whole linguistic enterprise with the legendarium was an intensely personal thing. That the names and places sounded right and made sense to him was the most important. Besides let us not forget that Pippin=Peregrin=Raznar or Sam=Samwise=Banazir. So to say that the names sound right or fit the person, which translation are you referring to? The real trick is conveying this purposefulness and meaning in the text. He does a lot of this through the context of the narrative. The importance of people and places are conveyed not simply through the sound of the names but in how the story is shaped around them.

    I agree the names of the hobbits stand out. But as opposed to Frodo, the younger hobbits’ names are unusual. Alone among all of the characters in the story, Sam, Merry, and Pippin are the ones with the most familiar names. They too are far and away, the youngest most childlike of all of the characters. Is this to give the reader a greater connection to those characters, or to demonstrate the relative infancy of our time, and things familiar to us, with that of Middle Earth?

    -Jason A Banks.