This entirety of this post began with a very simple question: how does the fact that most people in our culture today are habitually referred to by just one name make them different from the characters in Tolkien with many names? Because I only go by “Ian” am I less multifaceted than Aragorn/Thorongil/Dúnadan/Strider/Elessar? The short answer is, of course not (or I should hope not… for all of Tolkien’s genius I should hope that as a real person I’m at least a little more complex than one imagined character!) With that conclusion reached, I next had to figure out why…and that’s where things get fun.
Answering that question effectively necessarily entails going back and examining some of the ideas which spawned the question in the first place. One of the key concepts behind this line of thought was the idea of names as adjectives, discussed in relation to the in-class readings, particularly Dana Gioia’s “Words.” Words are simply the identifiers we use for all the many things which surround us, and contain all of the various implications and associations which we have, not only with the things themselves, but the words also. Names are no exception. They are the means by which we identify people as individuals, and that identifier carries with it all of connections we have to that person, whether they are simple and straightforward, in which case we might call the person “that random cute girl from my chem. lecture” or they may have many years of many experiences built into them, as with the one we call “dad.”
Additionally, the stories which make up this understanding of someone’s name are infinitely variable, and I really mean infinitely. I liken this to an essay written by the science fiction writer Orson Scott Card where he discussed his preference for writing stories with relatively few major characters because with every character the story becomes exponentially more complicated. This is due to the fact that the “story” of a person varies based on their relationship to the one telling it. Character 1 is a different person to Character 2 than he is to Character 3, which is different again from who is to 2 and 3 together. Consider things in that sense, and you see where storytelling (or life) can get intensely complicated. It is also because of this fact that from here on out I will be primarily discussing individuals’ interactions with societies rather than individuals (because god knows, in a time when people’s average facebook friend count is often pushing 1000, we’d be here a long time if I didn’t.) This approach to the question is also more relevant, given that the different names associated with Tolkien’s characters are primarily those given by different races or cultures.
Now, from these prior examples I was able to thoroughly justify to myself that I was indeed just as multidimensional as any of Tolkien’s characters, because my very me-ness is contained in all of the stories of my life, and the infinite permutations of those stories as seen by different people. (I was however, unable to give myself the ego-trip of being “realer” and thus, in some small way, more awesome than Aragorn…since Tolkien seems to understand very well the vast multiplicity of “persondom,” and includes enough details in his world to make you truly believe that every character has these infinite stories surrounding them and connecting them to the rest of their reality.) So, the fact remains: why, if I am definitely seen by everyone in the world in different ways, do I not have multiple names, at least across cultural or language barriers? Or perhaps more to the point, does it really make sense, given this diversity of associations, for people to be known by only one name by everyone?
Quite simply, it doesn’t, but almost equally simply, the reason it doesn’t make sense is because it doesn’t happen. You probably caught on to this fact faster than I did, and probably thought long ago “Um...Ian…NICKNAMES. Your argument is invalid.” And I will admit, that fact did not occur to me as quickly as it probably should have, but in turn I will argue that despite this, the argument does still have a point because it is still exceedingly rare for any one person to be primarily identified by different people by different names, particularly at the outset of that relationship. If Aragorn were to be a modern high school student moving from, say, Dallas to Boston (arguably two very different cultures) it is quite likely that he would be known by the same name in both places. While it is certainly conceivable that some of his friends might have amusing nicknames for him, and he might habitually go by “Andy” because he (for whatever strange reason) feels dorky that his parents named him after a fantasy novel, it is very doubtful that he will be known as Strider in one place and Elessar in another.
However, while the obvious variation in names that we have in our society is not truly comparable to that of Tolkien’s world, there is still a recognizable difference, particularly across cultural/language barriers on an aesthetic level, if not on the level of definition or translation as is often the case with Tolkien’s characters. I came to this conclusion based on my experiences living in France, where the pronunciation of my name comes out to something like “Yahn” rather than “Ee-uhn.” Being familiar with the language and pronunciation, this wasn’t something I considered particularly strange until I came back to the United States and mentioned it to some of my friends, whose immediate reaction was “Yahn, (side note: there’s quite difference in the American and French pronunciation of this one syllable, the effect of which makes this anecdote somewhat more powerful, sadly, I can’t convey it through text.) that sounds like some sort of Viking name.” Yet, this difficulty of Americans to quite grasp the pronunciation of the French language is in a way revealing, especially given that I aspire to be a Viking when I grow up (kidding…mostly), and am sometimes referred to as such by those same friends. That is to say, despite their lack of understanding of the particular aesthetic given to my name by the French culture (also proof for Tolkien’s idea of the taste of a language, and the affinity or lack thereof for different ones) that name still revealed something about me and could still be connected to who I am.
Similarly, to Bree-folk, hearing their “Strider” referred to as “Elessar” may seem strange and foreign, yet, somehow right, as if something in the taste of the word speaks of who he is elsewhere. That taste may not give them the same impression that those who know him primarily by Elessar and who understand the language and meaning behind it, and will perhaps be more reminiscent of small details, half-remembered, about him among the rumors which tend to arise in inns like the Prancing Pony, yet it will speak truth about him: a story not yet told which may one day be heard.