Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The name and the master

In class, we discussed how the common fantasy idea of a "true name," which grants the knower dominion over the object or person, is antithetical to Tolkien's usage of names as communicating the stories which a person carries with it. Most of the names we discussed were those of people - Gandalf - Mithrandir - Stormcrow - Grey Pilgrim, for instance. But what about the names of objects? Of, for instance, weapons? The practice of naming centrally important swords isn't original to Tolkien: it's rather common throughout Northern European poems and stories (in Beowulf, the Volsunga Saga, etc.) Characters invoke the names of their weapons when attempting to defeat, or injure powerful enemies. Sometimes their weapons talk back - when Turin prepares to commit suicide upon his sword Gurthang, he hails it, saying "'No lord or loyalty dost thou know (...) wilt thou slay me swiftly?'" And then the sword makes response:
"And from the blade rang a cold voice in answer: 'Yea, I will drink thy blood gladly, that so I may forget the blood of Beleg my master, and the blood of Brandir slain unjustly. I will slay thee swiftly.'" 
Gurthang shatters after killing Turin, and they are buried together. The Children of Hurin (i.e. Narn i Hîn Húrin) isn't exactly uplifting.

This works nicely with our discussion of names as signifiers of stories. The sword Gurthang has its own stories, memories of its previous masters, and of its previous victims. It has its own voice and history. It, too, was a sword that was broken and now reforged: it was first called a Sindarin name from its Elvish maker, "Anglachel", when it was reforged for Turin, it was renamed "Gurthang." Different characters and races have it  secondary names for it. Its different names signify the influence and history of its different creators and masters. However, unlike characters, who seem to be known equally by any number of names, swords seem to only have one true name. Gurthang is the name by which it is known when carried by Turin and used to slay the dragon Glaurung. Actually, this single-name quality is true of many villains, too: they might have sub-names, monikers perhaps, but there's usually one name by which they are known, feared, and slain. Like I mentioned previously, this isn't remotely original to Middle-Earth: it's a common feature of epic poetry. My question is why did Tolkien adapt this feature of epic poetry? In a world that celebrates linguistic, racial, and cultural diversity, why do weapons have one name?

It seems that the one person that is able to wield a weapon by its true name is, indeed, its master. No one else is able to use it, only they seem to be able to make use of the full potential of their weapon. When a sword is reforged for a new master - or simply claimed by a new master - it acquires a new name. Aragorn names Andúril, when it emerges newly reforged from the shards of Narsil. In a way, is he re-creating it, and making it secondary to himself? Bilbo names the sword that he finds Sting, but interestingly, it retains the name when he passes it onto Frodo. Is this because Frodo's and Bilbo's story are essentially one and the same? Is there a difference between claiming a sword by violence or by force - what is more brutal or primal than reforging a sword - and passing it down to one's heir? Unlike other fantasy, there's no attempt to "hide" the name of an object so that it cannot be "owned" by someone else. Everyone knows the names of these weapons, but these one true names seem to be inherently linked to a master or owner. A weapon cannot bear more than one true name at a single time. It seems like weapons can choose to betray someone unworthy of them.

I've referenced swords - by far the most common example - but I should mention some other examples of weapons that seem to possess history and personality. Another dragon-slaying weapon appears in The Hobbit. Before Bard shoots Smaug, he calls to his arrow, entreating it to respect him as he has respected it. Again, he references its individual history, his own inheritance, and the integrity with which he has treated it:
"Arrow!" said the bowman. "Black arrow! I have saved you to the last. You have never failed me and always I have recovered you. I had you from my father and he from of old. If ever you came from the forges of the true king under the Mountain, go now and speed well!"
So, what does this say about the relationship between power and names? I think there is some claim of power and ownership inherent in being associated with its true name: it marks a person out as the sole person able to legitimately wield the sword. And swords break when their owners break: Narsil broke when Elendil perished in the fight against Sauron. Frodo's sword is broken by Witch-King at Weathertop; afterwards Frodo begins to succumb to his Morgul-blade wound, and his life can only be saved by Elrond. Nonetheless, the wound persists for the rest of his life. And as we mentioned, Gurthang and Turin are united in their redemption and deaths.

However, it seems that the singular power associated with a weapon's true name is still more akin to sub-creation than Le Guin's notion of possession. A truly named weapon becomes part of a character's story, they create their weapon's identity through their own experiences and lives. This is different from the idea of "naming" as worship of something beautiful outside of our power which we saw in Dana Gioia's poem - but one line from the poem does resonate: "To name is to know and remember." Weapons with names are sub-creations, extensions of their forgers and wielders, that take on personality and power of their own. Yet their active existence is wholly contingent upon having such a master: if the master is broken, they, too, perish.

- Elaine Yao

*I apologize for making reference to the Narn (contained in Unfinished Tales and later published on its own as the The Children of Húrin) though it wasn't in our readings. It's too beautiful and depressing to go unremarked upon.

1 comment:

  1. Beautifully observed on the relationship between weapons, their names, and the stories of their owners! I think you are on the right track here, about names of things that characters with free will use, as opposed to the characters themselves. Could it be that the monsters tend to have only one name when they are tools rather than creatures with the ability to sub-create in their own right? Orcs, for example, do not seem to have multiple names. RLFB