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. 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

  2. First of all, I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed reading this post. What caught my interest in particular was your closing statement: “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.” This has made me curious about situations where the reverse occurs – a named weapon that boosts the lesser or nonexistent skill of its master, which is also a common occurrence in fantasy and adventure works. An example that springs to mind is the sword Caudimordax, more commonly known as Tailbiter, which appears in Farmer Giles of Ham. At the beginning of the story Farmer Giles, far from being heroic material, is perfectly content leading a slow life and “keeping himself as fat and comfortable as his father before him.” He defeats a giant mostly through luck and receives Tailbiter from the King in thanks. The parson identifies Tailbiter as the former possession of the great dragon slayer Bellomarius. Tailbiter will not stay sheathed if within five miles of a dragon, which proves useful for Farmer Giles when he is forced to join the inept knights in their journey to defeat the dragon Chrysophylax. Tailbiter also enhances its wielder’s skill, enabling Farmer Giles to defeat Chrysophylax despite a lack of ability: “Of course Giles knew very little about the right methods of killing a dragon or the sword might have landed in a tenderer spot; but Tailbiter did the best it could in inexperienced hands.” The more Farmer Giles wields Tailbiter, the more confident and assertive he becomes. Farmer Giles forces Crysophylax to give up a portion of his treasure and remain in Ham to guard him, defies the king, amasses a great fortune, and ends up a wealthy king, all of which would not have been possible without Tailbiter. In many cases, it appears that the strength of the weapons-bearer sustains the strength of the named weapon, especially if the weapon was named by the bearer. However, it appears that the reverse can also occur, when an experienced named weapon assists an inexperienced wielder.

  3. Perhaps the reason why weapons tend to be called by only one name is that we only really hear their names in the context of one set of people. The names for people are all given to them by different groups. For instance Gandalf is called Olorin in Valinor, Mithrandir in Gondor, and Gandalf in the Shire. However for swords, we primarily only hear them called one name because they are spoken about by their owners and not by anyone else. Supporting this theory is the fact that several named swords actually do have multiple names, or are called multiple things by different people. Anduril is also called “Flame of the West.” The goblins have different names for Glamdring and Orcrist, calling the “Beater” and “Biter,” respectively. Additionally, Glamdring and Orcrist do have other names than just those given by the goblins. Glamdring is also called Foe-Hammer, and Orcrist is also called Goblin-cleaver. I think it’s also important to note that some of the villains do have multiple real names that are not just monikers. For instance, Melkor is also called Morgoth and Sauron was originally called Mairon, as well as being called Gorthaur the Cruel by the other Maiar.

  4. I agree with the others here in that you are hitting on a key point here. I really like the idea that the weapons and other objects in The Lord of the Rings are in fact elements of sub creation and carry all of the baggage that goes along with that. However, I’m not sure I agree that they perish along with their maker, but rather that they take on a new role – they “turn a new page” in their story, so to speak. It is true that Narsil breaks when Elendil dies, and that it is reforged along with Aragorn. I’m not convinced that this really entails an entirely new creation, though. Narsil is Anduril, in a different context and time. Viewing these objects in this fashion allows them to play a more central role to the story, I think, in that they can serve as links between the Elder days of story and the “present” of the Third Age.

    You limited your discussion to weapons, but I think other objects can be viewed in the same way. The phial of Galadrial comes to mind as an example: it is this object that makes Sam realize his place in the old stories. It serves as a link to the heroes of old – he realizes that the light of Earendil and of the two trees is contained in the phial, and that he has been placed in the same stories he heard about as a young hobbit. These objects in Middle Earth act a little bit like words in the sense that Tolkien sees them. Tolkien indicated that along with a word comes its entire history, and that by choosing certain words you are linking yourself with those histories. I think the same is true here for many of the weapons and objects at play – something that would not necessarily be possible if the identity of a weapon ended along with its master.

  5. I think the purpose of the weapons is to accentuate each individual wielder as a true hero. As you mentioned, naming one’s weapon was a common theme in epics such as Beowulf. By a character obtaining a weapon with a name or naming it himself, the reader automatically starts thinking about the ancient heroes and the possible heroic future of this new character.

    I also do not think that it is a coincidence that the main swords of the fellowship were fashioned by the elves. Glamdring and Sting were both Elven-made and Anduril was reforged by the elves in Rivendell. Aragorn was later given a scabbard, which prevented any sword that was drawn from it to be broken or stained. The genesis of these swords coming from the mystical creatures, the elves, only heightens the reader’s anticipation that these powerful swords have a greater destiny than to be gazed upon during peacetime.

    Peter L. (Blog post #3)

  6. To a large extent, I think that names appear to be correlated with the role of the person or thing within the story. Melkor, for example, is known as Morgoth "the Dark Enemy," once he actually becomes the dark enemy. It may be that characters like Gandalf have many names like Mithrandir or Olorin because they have different functions at different times.