Monday, April 28, 2014

True Names: A Counterexample

Several important conversations were started in our last discussion with regards to language and names. I was particularly struck by our discussion of how language and myth build one another, and how the stories themselves then come to arise from the land and the language in which they are situated. The languages of Middle Earth, of course, are an immense topic, and one I would like to learn about in greater detail. It stands to reason that our class does not have sufficient time to cover more than the basic grounds of language and names; to that end, I have done a bit of extra reading on the topic, some of which is included in the analysis below, although I hope most of the content is discernible from the readings we have done for class thus far.

On that note, I would like to return to our class discussion about the significance of Names and Naming, and the question of the ‘true’ name. To be clear, this is not to question whether or not names are significant in Tolkien’s work; rather, it is quite evident that everything is significant, not least of all those things concerning language and names. I simply believe that we were perhaps too quick in our discussion to dismiss the concept of the ‘true name’ in terms of its applicability to Lord of the Rings and in Tolkien’s ideology of names more generally. For the scope of this post, I will attempt to expand this concept via two main examples: Sauron, and naming customs among the Eldar.

First, the matter of Sauron – and some leading examples. During our in-class discussion, the closest we came to approximating indications of beings with true names were those who chose not to disclose a name (the Dwarves) or for whom saying their name would be impossible or impractical (the Ents.) In the case of the Dwarves, this secret name appears to be a private possession of the individual dwarf, and is known only to them, an inward kind of self-knowledge. The Ents, on the other hand, bear names that stretch into their long history, encompassing their entire being and experience. Treebeard, it should be noted, warns Merry and Pippin against revealing their true names as well (see: TT). In both accounts, the significance lies in the fact that the name is not spoken.

As for Sauron, Aragorn tells us in The Two Towers that, “Neither does he [Sauron] use his right name, nor permit it to be spelt or spoken,” by his servants. Beyond this apparently unbreakable rule, very few others will deign to speak Sauron’s name. Notable individuals who do not speak his name include Theoden, Denethor, Faramir, Gollum, all of the Hobbits, and Saruman himself. Aragorn and Gandalf are among the few who use the name, and use it frequently. To most, Sauron is referred to as ‘The Enemy,’ ‘The Dark Lord,’ ‘The Nameless One,’ or simply, ‘He.’

Why the deliberate avoidance? What are the implications of using Sauron’s name outright? The dangers – real or imagined – of using this name could perhaps be explained by the use of names as invocations; ‘Speak of the Devil, and he will appear.’ Invoking the name of Sauron draws the eye of Sauron, so to speak. Yet this power is not perceived to be inherent in the titles prescribed to Sauron; neither was it particularly dangerous to refer to Annatar, Sauron’s chosen name among the Elves. It seems that ‘Sauron,’ a name bestowed by the Eldar – and possibly derived from Valarin, a feature that I do not have the knowledge to expound upon – holds an undeniable potency. This brings me to my next point: The authority of naming, and a continuation of our ‘multiple names’ discussion.

Having discussed the naming of Sauron by the Eldar, I would like to address the names of the Eldar themselves. Specifically, child-naming practices, an account of which is provided in Morgoth’s Ring. The first name given to Noldor children, it says, was that bestowed by the father. A few years later (once they had discovered the pleasure of language) the child was considered old enough to choose its own name, which became private, for use among its kin and those outsiders granted permission to use the chosen name.

The most interesting names, and the most telling, were the mother-names, which could be given to a child by its mother at any time, and were often foretelling of the child’s future. All of these names were considered ‘true’ names, and all were compounded to form the full title of the Elf. Elves could be given other names, and these titles or nicknames could be included in the ‘full’ naming, but they were not considered ‘true’ names. These names, then, would equate to what we discussed in class. They were perceptions of an individual, and descriptive of the aspects of that individual’s personality or history that were relevant to the namer, but could be more or less accurate. Aragorn and Gandalf both have several such names – Strider or Mithrandir would fall in this category. Likewise, Sauron as Annatar was merely an inaccurately perceived persona.

I hope that this has covered some ground in explaining why I do not think we should speak so dismissively of ‘true’ names in Middle Earth. While names likely do not grant a tangible power, the attitudes of various characters towards both the naming process itself, and the act of speaking a name, indicate a greater symbolic power than we have perhaps allowed for. Certainly, it seems that Sauron himself considered his name to be no small matter of import, and even the Istari did not speak his name. A topic I touched upon briefly and would like to explore in greater depth is that of the approach to naming by different races of Middle Earth; further thoughts on that front are quite welcome, as well as (needless to say) any insight to the topics discussed here.


P.S. Apologies for lateness! Never say anything unless it is worth taking a long time to say, I suppose.


  1. I too think that we should not be too quick to dismiss the idea of true names completely. Although Tolkien seems not to have intended names to have been “true names” in the sense that Le Guin meant the term, they certainly have power. The taboo on speaking Sauron’s name provides on example of this. It might be that his name has power not over him but over others who hear it. Perhaps, because it is his right or true name, it has taken on the properties of his true nature and saying his name aloud is like calling forth an echo of his presence. Elbereth is an epithet for the Valar Varda, which is also the name of a particularly bright star, which she created. It certainly has power, driving of the Witch king when spoken. Elbereth translates to “star-queen”, by calling a source of powerful light Frodo banishes a great darkness. The idea of predictive elf names is also interesting. Many of the names in Tolkien’s legendarium are descriptive in nature, referring to some aspect already present. However if language, such as the “words of power” has affective force, people could become more like their names. Their names could shape them, acting predictively while becoming descriptive. Of course that could not apply to all names.

  2. AC, I think your argument is pretty persuasive. In Tolkien’s world, language is charged—hence the Sturm und Drang of Gandalf’s use of Black Speech in Rivendell. That names would be particularly significant seems very likely the case, given Tolkien’s own linguistic predilections, as well as the examples you give there as well.

    By contrast, though, there’s not much evidence that there are True Names for say, “rock,” or “tree,” or the like. Or, if there were—and there might well have been in the long-long-ago—they have since changed and multiplied and simply become names. Tolkien’s historical conception of language means that by the time we enter the story, the days of the Creation and its Names’ matching is long gone, though there might well be echoes of a distant mystery (à la his primary-world “éa éarendel” lines in The Notion Club Papers).

    Given, though, that his world was sung, rather than spoken into being, it might be that names are too mere to carry the burden of essence. But…it’s very much worth pondering, and you’ve made quite a good venture at it.

    Bill the Heliotrope

  3. Your point about not dismissing “true” names is very well taken. I think this ties in very well with our class discussion this past Monday with how words have power either within themselves or the ability to evoke power within the individual and that names are particularly important. This is certainly evident when Frodo calls upon Elbereth Gilthoniel to repel the Nazgul on Amon Sul. I think, however, that the fact that names which are used to describe a person do not make those names any less potent than “true” names, it really all depends on the power the person invokes in the speaker. For instance, Frodo could have called upon Varda instead of Elbereth in his fight against the Nazgul and it probably would have had the same effect. There are advantages to hiding your “true” name so that your enemy cannot identify you, which is why Aragorn hides his name throughout The Lord of the Rings or Bilbo hides his from Smaug in The Hobbit. Additionally, the names might be significant because of the emotions that come with them, such as the elation of Smeagol when Frodo gives him his name back, but the names themselves might not be as important as the individual person.

  4. I am very much in agreement with you, AC, and also my fellow commenters. I think that the power of names in Tolkien finds many parallels with the way we approach names in our own lives and in religion. On a basic level, we can understand why names hold power-- not necessarily in a magical way à la Harry Potter and He-Who-Literally-Must-Not-Be-Named-For-Fear-Of-Summoning-Him, but rather because of the question of intimacy. Your mother calls you by your first name, but the teller at a bank calls you Ms. X. You call your professor by their surname, but your TA by their first. The right to use a name implies a level of closeness and commensurate status. This is why in the antebellum South, for a slave to use his master's name was literally a hanging offense. This is why we jokingly (or seriously) say "That's Mr. Potato Head to you!" This is also, as AC pointed out, why Sauron commands his servants not to say his name-- by denying them the right to utter an intimate part of him, the Dark Lord raises himself above them. We also see this play out in religion, when God is referred to as "The Almighty", Jesus as "Christ", or Siddhārtha Gautama as “the Buddha”. Worshipers supplicate themselves even in the words they use to refer to their most holy. Names not give us the power to control a person, but the use or non-use of one certainty conveys an incredible amount of information about relevant social statuses.


  5. I of course agree with all of the above writers that names, language, etc. is portrayed as having power in Tolkien.
    Something I was specifically struck by was the mentioned fact that Sauron in particular is a name avoided by most characters; as you said, these include Theoden, Denethor, Gollum, all of the Hobbits, and Saruman; in contrast with Aragorn and Gandalf (the latter certainly seeming wiser, much like Dumbledore in the Harry Potter analogy that AGB brought up).
    This fits in really nicely with something that was emphasized recently in class: the idea that Tolkien is communicating the necessity of people remembering (though that was in the context more of the Valar, and forgetting goodness rather than ignoring evil). Perhaps the reason people use the name has to do with the relation between the people in question, as AGB suggests. The result, however, Is in my opinion more important: as Rowling is later, Tolkien is dealing with characters who too often want to hide from the past: in so doing, they miss out both on the benefits of remembering the Valar and, for a long time, on warnings of Sauron’s return.

    -H. A. K. Stone