In a particularly poignant moment in The Notion Club Papers, Alwin Arundel Lowdham likens the dual naming of ‘Ëarendil’ in Avallonian and ‘Azrubel’ in Adunaic to “if a man could be called Godwin, Theophilus, and Amadeus” (Notion 241). These three names, although they come from archaic English, Greek, and Latin respectively, all mean essentially the same thing: “Friend of God.” J.R.R. Tolkien’s choice to include these examples of synonymy piqued my interest, as they stand in a unique position to illuminate his own views on the mutability and intrinsic nature of language. These names serve as a perfect medium through which to investigate this, as proper names are the quintessential focus of debate on the validity of ‘true names,’ and their existence as actual secular names existing outside of a legendarium makes them relatable. In exploring these names and others that Tolkien invokes, we can see a clearer picture of his own principles for characterizing language.
In reflecting on our in-class discussions, I was first drawn to the fundamental linguistic debate occurring in the background of Tolkien’s musings. This debate on the meaning of names being conventional or natural goes back at least to the writings of Plato, and is nicely portrayed by him as such:
HERMOGENES: I should explain to you, Socrates, that our friend Cratylus has been arguing about names; he says that they are natural and not conventional; not a portion of the human voice which men agree to use; but that there is a truth or correctness in them, which is the same for Hellenes as for barbarians. Whereupon I ask him, whether his own name of Cratylus is a true name or not, and he answers ‘Yes.’ And Socrates? ‘Yes.’ Then every man’s name, as I tell him, is that which he is called (Cratylus).
In this dialogue excerpt, the position of naturalism is espoused by Cratylus, who ascribes “truth or correctness” to names, while the conventionalist position is defended by Hermogenes, who sees names as nothing more than “that which he is called,” framing them thus as constructs dependent on a meaning ascribed to them. This dichotomy carries on through the ages to modern linguists and writers. We see the naturalist position manifesting itself with Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, wherein calling something by its ‘true name’ is what permits a wizard to exercise mystical power over it. Conversely, the conventionalist position, as it can be seen in Robert Graves’ The White Goddess: A Historic Grammar of Poetic Myth and even contemporary academic publications, has become more codified in the disciplines of computational and comparative linguistics. In applying these diverging linguistic opinions to the case of Godwin/Theophilus/Amadeus, we can reasonably assume that a classical naturalist would consider either one or none of these names to be a complete rendition of the absolute form of “Friend of God” as a concept, while a proper conventionalist might see these nominal distinctions as convincing proof for the relativity of meaning ascribed to names.
With this linguistic background in hand, one can begin to isolate Tolkien’s own opinion on whether there truly are ‘true names.’ As a lauded and astute professional philologist, it is not surprising that J.R.R. Tolkien was academically committed to the conventionalist stance prevalent in his field; this is well-portrayed in a drafted letter to one “Mr. Rang” that shows both the breadth of his etymological understanding and his own assertion that he could apply his own meaning to words through linguistic construction (Letters 379-384). That said, I would be hard-pressed to call Tolkien an orthodox conventionalist, as clues in his work indicate a much more unique vision of the importance of names. Most importantly, Tolkien’s own conventionalism considers the significance of names as indicators of different relationships. This trait was discussed extensively in class discussion, and can be noticed in Lord of the Rings throughout the various names given to Gandalf and Aragorn. Some of these names simply convey similar meanings in different tongues (see ‘Tharkûn’ in Khuzdul and ‘Mithrandir’ in Sindarin), but many others embody the relational dynamics present between a character and others, such as the revelation of ‘Strider’ as a nickname of sorts, ‘Aragorn’ as a given name, and ‘Elessar’ as a royal title. Each of these names is true in a deeper sense than is normally afforded by conventionalism, as each difference in name actually reflects the perfect form not of an abstract concept, but of a dynamic relationship. Tolkien’s conception of conventionalism boasts one more unique aspect: he does not recognize one singular ‘true name,’ but he does recognize the importance of a ‘first name.’ Examples of such original naming moments can be found in The Lhammas when the Valar bestow the gift of language on the newly-born Quendi, who in turn form their own words and variations not as devaluing mutations, but out of “love (for) the making of words” (Lost Road 184). The importance of an original name of a thing, as if it were the seed of a language tree, does not invalidate the beauty and reality of the many names that spring out of it.
Returning finally to the case of Godwin/Theophilus/Amadeus, we can now see why J.R.R. Tolkien felt inclined to include this curious example in The Notion Club Papers at all. I posit that this juxtaposition reveals the primacy of relationship in understanding language and names. None of the three is imagined to be a more ‘true’ name than the other, but how we encounter them matters. In order to even understand that the names relate to each other in shared meaning, one must first have enough knowledge of each (which could be seen as a linguistic relationship) to interpret them. Furthermore, one could seem to be a more real name to an individual based on their personal relationship to it, as I am confident that someone given the birth name “Amadeus” would be unlikely to also consider himself a “Godwin” under any normal circumstance. In the end, Tolkien unpacks all of this in a manner that not only shows differences in names as estimable, but also shows the immense beauty of the larger picture of interconnectivity and diversity in the relationship of languages.
Plato. Cratylus. University of Adelaide, 2016. Print.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lost Road and Other Writings. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. Ballantine Books, 1996. Print.
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Edited by Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000. Print.