What’s in a Name?

Tolkien is well known for his careful choice of names in his works.  He made an effort to give them meaning, symbolism and authenticity.  They were built with etymological meaning.  It is hard to think any Tolkien has no name.  And yet there is one: Gollum. 

This name has no true meaning.  It is nothing more than onomatopoeia, mimicking the gurgling cough of Smeagol.  Why would Tolkien do this?  It is obvious to any reader, that he’s not the type to just toss in a name off-hand.  So there must be some meaning to this apparently meaningless title.

An interesting way to look at the origin of Gollum is to think of when it is first used as a name. Smeagol becomes Gollum after taking possession of the Ring. The fact that the name has no meaning is intrinsic to the uniqueness of the character. Gollum, in truth, no longer has meaning. His entire being is wrapped up in the power of the Ring. Essentially he is a shell, he becomes the personification of the Ring’s vices. From this, it is easy to see why Gollum calls himself “My Precious.” He is the Ring, it has consumed him.  The murder of Deagol is more; it is also the “death” of Smeagol. 

His existence becomes consumed by the obsessive need to protect his precious and nurture his hatred.  He begins his ownership of the Ring with murder, theft and treachery.  This is key.  Remember Tolkien’s initial conception of the power of the ring.  It gained dominance over the bearer through his or her wrong-doings.  Essentially, Gollum is nothing more than the host to a pernicious parasite.  He is an embodiment of evil.  In the world of Middle Earth, people avoid naming evil.  Sauron is the “shadow,” the “eye,” his name is anathema.  This can be interpreted in many ways.  The use of the name may draw his attention to the speaker.  OR, evil itself is nameless.

Gollum’s lot becomes a bit clearer when he becomes the guide of Frodo.  For a short time, he is brought back to life by the kindness and pity of Frodo.  Frodo’s insistence upon the use of the name Smeagol grants some level of dignity and respect to Gollum.  He is no longer the “thief,” the “murderer,” or the “sneak.”  He is a person.  No longer just a symbol or embodiment of vice.  For a short time he is Smeagol again.  He is his own, no longer dominated by another entity.  He regains his own name and his own being.  

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2 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?

  1. Great post! I have always hated the habit some people have of renaming someone because they cannot remember or pronounce his or her name. To take away someone’s name is dehumanizing (de-hobbitizing, in this case). When Smeagol becomes Gollum, it is because he is alienated from society and himself. Maybe there doesn’t seem to be enough of him to name rather than caricature. Frodo finds what is left, though, and helps him to find his name again, if only for a time. This idea adds a lot to the Frodo-Gollum relationship for me. Thanks!

    As a side note, when Tolkien gives rich, meaningful names to places and unfamiliar beings, such as Ents and Old Man Willow, perhaps this reflects his own tendency to relate to nature, not as a collection of things to be made use of, but as intelligences to relate to.

    Sorry for the long comment. I wouldn’t be surprised if this post inspires me to write one of my own.

    • No worries. I had forgotten I recommended this post…and now I have just written another on the nature of naming.

      I agree with regards to the importance of nature for Tolkien, as seen through the names he lavishes on it. I think naming was ultimately one of the most important acts for Tolkien in myth-making and in creating his languages. It’s this topic I take up in my latest post…enjoy!

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