Tuesday, June 19, 2007

On reading Tolkien and the significance of names

I'm reading the "new" Tolkien novel The Children of Hurin. Reading Tolkien is much like visiting another country - it takes a while to get acclimated to the culture and the language, but after a bit you get used to all the local names and references. Here are the opening sentences: "Hador Goldenhead was a lord of the Edain and well-beloved by the Eldar. He dwelt while his days lasted under the lordship of Fingolfin, who gave to him wide lands in that region of Hithlum which was called Dor-lomin. His daughter Gloredhel wedded Haldir son of Halmir, lord of the Men of Brethel; and at the same feast his son Galdor the Tall wedded Hareth, the daughter of Halmir." Whew. Fortunately, there's a glossary of names in the back.

Tolkien often sounds reminiscent of biblical narratives, which makes me think that for many newcomers to Scripture, reading the Bible may well feel as challenging as reading Tolkien. Both take a little while to get into. One of my colleagues has read The Lord of the Rings a dozen times or more, and he has a far better grasp on Tolkien's world than those of us who have read The Lord of the Rings just once. That's an argument for multiple readings of Scripture, even of familiar texts. My temptation is often to assume that I know what the Bible says since I've read it already, in a been-there-done-that kind of way.

One theme that emerges in the novel is the importance of names. Tolkien was a philologist and loved developing languages and names. The protagonist, Turin, changes his named identity almost every chapter depending on the context - when a fugitive with some outlaws, he gives his name as Neithan ("the Wronged"); in Nargothrond he is known as Agarwaen (the "Bloodstained"), and he is also called Adanedhel (the "Elf-man") and Mormegil ("Black Sword"). At a low point in his journey he calls himself Turambar, "Master of Doom."

Almost every character has multiple names or alternate titles - Turin's friend Beleg of Doriath is called Cuthalion ("Strongbow"); Hurin, Lord of Dor-lomin, is also called Thalion ("the Steadfast"). Morgoth is also Melkor or Bauglir ("the Constrainer"). Turin reveals himself to an old friend by using a name for him that only the two of them knew.

This makes me think about our contemporary practice of having multiple screen names or e-mail addresses. Sometimes lack of availability of a given name necessitates that we find an alternative. Other times we hide behind pseudonyms in an attempt to be anonymous. Some names are our own choosing, while others are chosen for us. Some reflect our self-perception of the present or experiences from the past, while others reflect our hopes or aspirations for the future. I find it significant that names' meanings often influence our destinies - I don't think it's a coincidence that Martin Luther King Jr. is named after the Reformer Martin Luther, or that Bill Clinton's middle name is Jefferson. In many cultures, the meaning of your name reflects your parents' hopes for you, which is why many Chinese kids are named Grace or Joy. (The flip side of this is the lamentable practice of babies being named after celebrities or corporate entities like Pepsi, Ikea or Lexus.)

I think Tolkien may well have understood our desire to inhabit multiple personae, to have different identities in different contexts. But Tolkien would probably tell us that our true identities always emerge. In one scene, Finduilas the daughter of Orodreth says to Turin, "I do not think that Agarwaen is your name, nor is it fit for you, Adanedhel. I call you Thurin, the Secret." At this Turin is startled, because Thurin of course sounds very much like his true name. Then later Turin's friend Gwindor reveals Turin's identity to Finduilas, and Turin rebukes Gwindor: "You have done ill to me, friend, to betray my right name, and call down my doom upon me, from which I would lie hid."

But Gwindor answered: "The doom lies in yourself, not in your name." In other words, whatever name Turin travels under and is hiding under, he can't escape who he is.

When characters are renamed, it seems to indicate a move from a false self to a true self, like Strider the ranger is really Aragorn, the High King. This is a pattern that certainly echoes biblical epics, as Jacob is renamed Israel, Simon bar Jonah becomes known as Cephas or Peter, and Saul becomes Paul. And Revelation suggests that we, too, will receive new names.

So maybe the lesson for us is to consider what names we hide behind, and what names describe who we truly are. When I was a kid, I was always "Albert," which meant "bright and noble" but felt kind of nerdy and geeky, since it always made people think of Albert Einstein. So in high school, I decided to go by "Al," which means "cheerful one" and reflected more of my self-perception. After grad school, when I started writing for publication, I always went by "Albert Y. Hsu," because it sounded more distinguished and dignified. (I wished for cool theological initials like C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, F. F. Bruce or J. I. Packer.)

But most people don't know me as "Albert" - that's too formal and stuffy. I'm just Al. So that's what's on my blog, my business card and the church directory. My Chinese name, Hsu Yihao, is more interesting - the characters mean "promise," "greatness" and "full," so all together it means "filled with great promise." So, maybe that's not as cool-sounding as Fingolfin, son of Finwe, High King of the Noldor, but it's something to live up to.


L.L. Barkat said...

Yes, I love names that a person can live up to (or live into?).

My children's names mean Princess Christmas and Wisdom Joy. So we always tell our eldest, "You are the princess of giving." And our youngest, "When you live your life with wisdom, you will have joy."

I'm ambivalent about my own name. Derived from "laurel", it sends the message that I can't rest on it.

Anonymous said...

Al -- I've always thought of God's sovereignty is allowing my parents to name me Charity. Of course, as a child, I wanted a name like everyone else's. But after I became a believer, I realized the overwhelming mission of living out a name like Charity (and the burden of being called "Chastity" by mistake or having people intentionally add the word "case" at the end of my name. You know, "Charity Case.")

Al Hsu said...

Charity - My wife's maiden name is Case, and her dad wanted to name her Justin if she had been a boy.

And my last name, Hsu, is pronounced "she," so ever since high school my friends said I should marry a girl named Susan or Susie, so she could be "Sue Hsu" (sushi). I actually dated a Susan in college, but it didn't work out - if it had, she probably would have kept her name!