Names as Myth

A common practice in mythology tends to be the proliferation of names for any one person or object.  This tends to be the case for characters of particular importance or stature.  This tendency is also true of history and politics, usually the man (or woman) with the most titles or the longest one holds the most prestige.  But when you run across a long list of names, what is it you really see or sense?  What is the purpose of so many titles, that one alone cannot suffice?

Many fantasy authors use this multiplication of names for the simple reasons stated above.  However, if the topic of names is approach in a manner similar to history or the development of language another picture is revealed, and this is the argument I’m inclined to think Tolkien used himself.

I was struck in the Tale of the Sun and Moon by the many names given to each.

“…they called her Sári which is Sun, but the Elves Ûr which is fire; but many other names does she bear in legend and poesy.  The Lamp of Vána’s is she named among the Gods in memory of Vána’s tears and her sweet tresses that she gave; and the Gnomes call her Galmir the goldgleamer and Glorvent the ship of gold, and Bráglorin the blazing vessel, and many a name beside; and her names among Men no man has counted them.” (TBoLT I p.209)

“Thus was the Ship of the Moon, the crystal island of the Rose, and the Gods named it Rána, the Moon, but the fairies Sil, the Rose, and many a sweet name beside.  Ilsaluntë or the silver shallop has it been called, and thereto the Gnomes have called it Minethlos or the argent isle and Crithosceleg the disc of glass.” (TBoLT I p.215)

I know Tolkien repeats the same pattern with many characters, predominantly Turin, who goes by no less than eight names.  And there’s Aragorn, with a least five.  The difference here in the tales is that all the names are listed together.  Nowhere else in Tolkien’s writing (that I recall as of this writing) does he list such a proliferation of names.  So this presentation of the names of the Sun and Moon got me thinking about the purpose of names.

Names are little more than words, yet they are given paramount importance as they are meant to in some manner embody the nature and being of a person or thing.  When you think of a name, particularly of a loved one, do you think of the name itself or the emotions it evokes?  The nature of naming is a slippery slope.  How can anyone limit the expression of a person or object to just a few sounds?  This is the implied question stated by Tolkien in the introduction of multiple names.

To borrow, yet again, from my favorite quote:

“You call a tree a tree, and you think nothing more of the word. But it was not a ‘tree’ until someone gave it that name. You call a star a star, and say it is just a ball of matter moving on a mathematical course. But that is merely how you see it. By so naming things and describing them you are only inventing your own terms about them. And just as speech is invention about objects and ideas, so myth is invention about truth.” (Tolkien, Carpenter p. 151)

The process of naming is in many ways the process of myth-making.  In naming a character, we are intrinsically changing them; we are adding a layer or facet to their being.  Names are accrued through a process of history and relationship as well as legend.  When you see the names of the sun or moon, their multiple forms reveal hints of stories.  They demonstrate the history and culture of the namers and their hidden legends.

Names cannot be trifled with.  By not limiting himself to a single name, Tolkien is able to add layer upon layer to the history of Middle Earth.  No character or thing is one sided, and is seen differently both by the person themselves and those around them.  The nebulous nature of names lies in the challenge of naming the unnamable.  With each appellation, a sliver of the Truth is revealed.  The use of manifold titles is comparable to Tolkien’s insertion of Tom Bombadil and the Barrow Wights in The Lord of the Rings.  Tolkien’s one stated purpose for Tom Bombadil is to give a sense of other; to show that the quest for the destruction of the Ring and the evil of Sauron is not all there is to the world.  There is so much more which is beyond our reach or knowledge.  Using a multitude of names, Tolkien is able to evoke a sense of history and wonder.  Not only can names play a game through their meaning (as with Turin) but they are used to tell the story behind the story that we will never see.


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