Last month I posted about thirty novels that have been important to me as a reader and a writer. The Lord of the Rings was on my list, but each time I tried to boil down my indebtedness to this book in a single post, I discovered there was more I wanted to say about it. So in the end I decided to save Tolkien’s masterpiece for later, and address it in a series of posts rather than just one. Today is the first installment of “What I learned from Tolkien”, and I want to start with names.
One thing a reader of The Lord of the Rings notices pretty quickly is that most of the important people, places and things in the story have multiple names. Take Aragorn for example. He’s known to different people at different times as Strider, Aragorn son of Arathorn, Estel, and Elessar. And we learn he probably went by other names during his long years of errantry.
Gandalf, too, has a pocketful of names. Even his sword has at least two names. It’s Glamdring, which translates as Foe-Hammer, and it’s a sword that once belonged to Turgon, King of Gondolin. The mines of Moria are also known as Khazad-Dum, the Dwarrowdelf, and Hadhodrond. Frodo himself, who begins as an “unimportant” hobbit, begins to collect different names as the story goes along: Mr Underhill, the Master (to Gollum), and the Ringbearer.
One of the effects on a reader of all these names is to increase the credibility and authenticity of Tolkien’s imaginary world. We believe in these people and places a little more strongly with each name they’re given because the names bring with them layers of meaning and hints of backstory. The characters gain depth and complexity not so much from realistic psychological details as from the meanings and history behind their names. (But the multiple names do add a kind of “realism” to the story, as well, because we all have different names at different times in our lives and careers. I was “Tommy” as a child, I’m “Thomas” as a writer, and to my kids I’m “Dad” or “hey, you.”).
As a writer of fantasy I’ve learned many things from Tolkien, and one of the most crucial lessons has been the importance of names. You’ve got to find a good, strong name for a character, a name with resonance and a hint of who they are (or what they might become). But finding that one name isn’t enough. Your characters are going to need other names as the story progresses, names that mark important moments of their adventures, of their passage through life.
Giving characters and places multiple names is a strategy that contemporary editors frown on. They worry that readers may be confused by all the different names. Fortunately for us all, Tolkien’s editors were wiser than that. They must have understood that the real wizardry of the novel was in the beauty and power of its language, and that much of that power was carried in names.