The Power of Names

One of the most common theme in Fantasy literature is names and the Power they command. Sometimes they are magical True Names – such as in The Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini, Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea Cycle, The Bartimaeus Sequence by Jonathan Stroud, and the Books of Pellinor by Alison Croggon – to name a few, where to know a person or things True Name gives you great power over it.

"Who knows a man's name, holds that man's life in his keeping." - Ursula K. Le Guin

"To change this rock into a jewel, you must change its true name." - Ursula K. Le Guin

They are effectively the words in which spells are cast, the Truth behind the names being what gives the spells power, which means there is almost-invariably a language in which they are a part. In the Earthsea and Inheritance Cycles is it the Language of Making and the Ancient Language respectively, in the Pellinor Quartet tis the Speech, but no language at all in Bartimaeus (names simply have power here and that's the end of it). This theme occurs often enough that any inveterate Fantasy reader is familiar with it, for it reaches far beyond the four named series' above.

Then there are names in their other sense, bearing a different yet still potent power. Recall in Harry Potter how much fear in invested in Voldemort's name, how good wizards refereed to him as You-Know-Who and He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, while the Death Eaters and their ilk called him simply the Dark Lord because their master forbade them call him Voldemort. 

"Call him Voldemort, Harry. Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself." - Albus Dumbledore

Well, Voldemort did this on purpose for he knew the power names have and, ironically perhaps, hated his birth name to the extent that it gave Harry and Dumbledore an emotional edge over him. Perhaps the name Tom Riddle angered him because it reminded him of his past, his old fears and vulnerabilities, so he crafted a new name for his new self and them cloaked it in fear so it could never be used against him. Who knows? But those such as Voldemort who rule by fear and death as a rule fear death and the erosion of that fear more than anything in the world. Indeed, fear of death was Voldemort's undying fixation. More to the point, it was no accident that Voldemort's past as Tom Riddle proved so crucial in Harry and Dumbledore's efforts to defeat him for, as Terry Pratchett once said, "Before you can kill the monster you have to say its name." Indeed, characters with many and secret names is even more common than the True Name trope, and Voldemort is far from the first Evil to fall because the Heroes of Light dug deeply into their past. Perhaps that was another reason he took the name Voldemort, to cover his tracks. Regardless and again, taking the name Voldemort was a declaration that he was no longer Tom Riddle but something else instead. Not unlike how in Star Wars those who turn to the dark side of the Force take on a Sith name, the most famous example of course being Anakin Skywalker becoming Darth Vader.

"Twisted by the dark side young Skywalker has become. The boy you trained, gone he is. Consumed by Darth Vader." - Yoda to Obi-wan Kenobi

"Change the name, and you change the thing.” - Terry Pratchett

However, the importance of recognizing something's name and nature goes beyond fighting the Evil thing. "The wise man knows his own name," as said Patricia A. McKillip, and just as if not more often the main protagonists have to come to terms with a name that goes hand-in-glove with a destiny they never asked for or wanted. Morgon of Hed from McKillip's Riddle-Master Trilogy where the quotes above and below come from is a perfect example of this, but almost all Chosen Ones feel the same. Other beyond excellent examples are ta'verens Rand al'Thor, Mat Cauthon and Perrin Aybara from Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time, and Maerad of Pellinor from Alison Croggon's Books of Pellinor.

"If you have no faith in yourself, then have faith in the things you call truth. You know what must be done. You may not have courage or trust or understanding or the will to do it, but you know what must be done. You can't turn back. There is now answer behind you. You fear what you cannot name. So look at it and find a name for it. Turn your face forward and learn. Do what must be done." - Patricia A. McKillip

And then there are those names given to people by good intent or ill, and I speak not of magic but rather something that harks back to something we all hear as children, that sticks and stones can break our bones but names can never hurt us – which is invariably said to comfort those of us who fell victim to name-calling. I was called "weird" and "good-goody" more times than I care to count, but it never bothered me since I took both names as compliments.

In Fantasy literature, however, such names take on a deeper purpose and meaning, as Aragorn here so eloquently articulates. His name is Aragorn son of Arathorn son of Arador, sixteenth Chieftain of the Dúnedain of Arnor, but is content to be known as Strider and the Dúnedain as Rangers to those good people they live and die in secret to protect. As said Belgarath the Sorcerer from The Belgariad by David Eddings, "Some people collect names as they go along through their lives. Sometimes names wear out--just like clothes." Goodness knows this was true for Aragorn, as he was raised thinking his own name to be Estel ("Hope") before learning his heritage and over the course of his life picked up, among others, the names Thorongil ("Eagle of the Star"), Strider, and lastly Elessar ("Elfstone"), all names he was given by others. Nor is he the only one, and I turn now to the Istari, the Wizards.

"Many are my names in many countries. Mithrandir among the Elves, Tharkûn to the Dwarves, Olórin I was in my youth in the West that is forgotten, in the South Incánus, in the North Gandalf; to the East I go not." - Gandalf

The key being that Gandalf's real name is in fact Olorin. The rest of these names were given to him by others; Gandalf means "Elf of the Wand" for the Northmen initially believed he was an Elf due to his immortality, while Mithrandir is "Grey Pilgrim". Saruman's real name is Curumo, but the Elves called him Curunír, "Man of Skill", for his knowledge of crafts (namely Ring-lore) which translates in Westron to Saruman. J.R.R. Tolkien never used names in the magical sense, but they were key in matters of personal identity and taken quite seriously by his characters. In The Silmarillion, after Fëanor learns of Melkor's treachery he curses him, naming him Morgoth ("dark enemy") and by that name he is known ever after among the Elves. One will recall how in The Lord of the Rings the Hobbits are ever comparing Aragorn to Strider, knowing they are the same person but seeing one to represent the grim Ranger they first met and the other as Isildur's Heir.

"He wrapped his grey cloak about him, hiding his mail-shirt, and stretched out his long legs. Then he lay back and sent from his lips a thin stream of smoke. 'Look!' said Pippin. 'Strider the Ranger has come back!' 'He has never been away,' said Aragorn. 'I am Strider and Dúnadan too, and I belong both to Gondor and the North.'" - from The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers.

The bottom line being that names, even when no magic is imbued or or dark secrets hidden by them, matter a great deal and to the point that they are a hallmark of the Fantasy genre. But they go just a bit further still, for now we enter the realm of culture which I have touched up in both my above linked Rumors of the Wheel and now-linked Race in Fantasy page. In short, for this is truly brief, names help designate cultures in Fantasy much as they do in the real-world. For example, if we saw the names Menoeces, Diagoras, Aristophane and Phylo we would immediately and correctly surmise that they are Ancient Greek due to the sounds and word-constructions. Sacajawea is clearly Native American, Vladimir Russian, Abdur Muslim, Hinoka Japanese, and so on. Well, the same applies for both races and cultures in Fantasy literature. Galadriel, Fëanor, and Lúthien, are fairly clearly Elvish names since Elf names are usually melodic, longish, and sometimes hard to pronounce. The same goes for Dwarven ones only with the opposite naming conventions, typically short and blunt-sounding like Durin, Gimli, and Orik. Humans in Fantasy are a little different. Are Eärendil and Elwing humans or Elves? Both, actually, for they are a Half-Elves and thus their names conveys that Elvish side of them as well as human. Hence humans names convey race and well as culture when the human in question has non-human blood, but beyond that they convey culture as opposed to race. Harine din Togara Two Winds and Zaida din Parede Blackwing are characters from The Wheel of Time, the structure of their names revealing that they are Sea Folk (or more properly Atha'an Miere). A structure notably absent from Tenobia si Bashere Kazadi and her uncle Davram t'Ghaline Bashere, both of whom are Saldaeans. Same Fantasy series written by the same author, but from very different cultures. The same applies to Tarma shena Tale'sedrin and her oathsister Kethryveris of House Pheregrul from Mercedes Lackey's Vows and Honor duology. The Tayledras from Lackey's other Valdemar books (The Mage Winds Trilogy onward) are another excellent example, for while they are cousins to Shin'a'in like Tarma, they use names very differently: to convey the essence of their personality; Firesong k'Treva, for instance, is bright and showy, but strong and purposeful too.

“Old Tom Bombadil is a merry fellow,
Bright blue his jacket is, and his boots are yellow.
None has ever caught him yet, for Tom, he is the Master:
His songs are stronger songs, and his feet are faster.”
Bottom line? Names are meant to convey. Sometimes culture, other times race or creed, and the rest simply who a person is – and I can think of no finer example than Tom Bombadil.

"'Fair lady!' said Frodo again after a while. 'Tell me, if my asking does not seem foolish, who is Tom Bombadil?' 'He is,' said Goldberry, staying her swift movements and smiling. Frodo looked at her questioningly. 'He is, as you have seen him,' she said in answer to his look. 'He is the Master of wood, water, and hill.'" - from The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring.

Who he is I do not know, nor does any Tolkien fan or the wisest Elf. He is Tom Bombadil, the Eldest, who once said to Frodo "Tell me, who are you alone, yourself and nameless?" He is who he is and his name conveys all one needs to know for those who know him, though of course others in Middle-earth have given him other names; to the Elves he is the enigmatic Iarwain Ben-adar ("Oldest and Fatherless").

And last but not least there is the rule that every writer knows and is flawless said by Terry Pratchett: "Once you gave a thing a name, you gave it life.” Once you give a thing a name a personality develops around it, and it starts to do things. Tis not mere chance that Woodstock became a more important character in Peanuts after Charles Schulz named him. Even living things in the real-world reflect the power of a name. Why else would parents agonize over what to name their children? It is told by some that naming animals you are fostering makes one more attached to them. If one requires still more proof that names matter a great deal to people, please read The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde, a satire of society that is a tad and more absurd but quite funny. I will give Ursula K. Le Guin the final word here, in a quote that truly encapsulates and explains the Power of Names.

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