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In the Beginning Was the Name
The timeless beauty of Tolkien's linguistic conception
From Eärendil to Éowyn, names matter in Middle-earth. They matter in any decent speculative fiction too. Tolkien set the standard, and after you read and pronounce and comprehend the music and feeling inherent in his names, there’s really no going back to fantasy or sci-fi worlds with crap names. Does it mean you can’t tell a good story without them? Of course not. But it does mean that it won’t be as good as it could be. If you want perfection, if you want to be fully transported, it’s absolutely the name of the game — cliché and pun intended — this game of the name.
And that’s the point, to find sounds and symbols that capture some essence, and even quintessence, of the strange imaginary things we want to create. Of course, we can get somewhere with words that already exist. The titles of books, films, albums, bands and video games, when conceived in the same yet unexpected spirit as what they represent, seem to communicate simultaneously some kind of divine luck. Think the Beatles, All Quiet on the Western Front, Blade Runner, Neuromancer or Game of Thrones. Sometimes it can be a character like Huckleberry Finn or Indiana Jones, or even a character and a title all in one, like Anna Karenina or Oliver Twist.
It’s not just the “content,” or even the context. Sometimes it’s just the look and the sound. In this way, Tolkien’s conception of names is somehow “pre-lingual.” There is nothing to recommend them other than their essence. What they mean is not as important as the simple pleasure they bring. No inside jokes. No riddles. Just magnificence and splendor. A “spell” — literally — of pure magic.
For those who have an ear for music, they unfold like incantations for things that didn’t exist. They are pre-lingual because they return us to an original state of discovery, of naming something previously unknown, captured in a sequence of letters and sounds previously unseen or unheard. If this is done right, all we can have is a purely instinctive and natural reaction, which reconnects us with the spirit of “Creation” or Creativity itself.
Tolkien presents this act of quintessence in his own Creation myth, the Ainulindalë (pronounced “I-Nuh-Lin-Da-Luh,” or “I knew Linda Luh”). Case in point, this is a “word” based on another Tolkien name, “Ainu” (singular) or “Ainur” (plural, pronounced “I-Noo” and “I-Noor” respectively), his name for a powerful spirit or spirits, or angels that existed before the creation of the universe, which he calls “Eä” (pronounced “Ay-ya”). The rest of the word, “lindalë” means “song sung,” so the “Song of the Ainur,” or the “Music of the Ainur”— the music of the gods; “Ainulindalë” is a Quenya construction, and Quenya is Tolkien’s “Elvish Latin,” so to speak, which was based on his love of Finnish.
It’s an incredibly important fact that Tolkien created Quenya from his own personal sense of wonder and discovery of the beauty of Finnish, which he first encountered when he read the Kalevala (pronounced “Kaa-Luh-Vaa-Luh”) in 1911. The Kalevala is a collection of myth from the eastern parts of Finland and the Karelian isthmus. “It was like discovering a complete wine-cellar filled with bottles of an amazing wine of a kind and flavor never tasted before,” he famously recounted. To me, Finnish is also a beautiful language; it is almost as if Japanese and Russian had a baby, existing between a world of gracious vowels and more rounded, woody sounds. It reminds me just a tad of Hawaiian too.
The Ainulindalë opens The Silmarillion and is Tolkien’s Genesis in a word, but almost pre-Genesis, because it recounts a detailed cosmic interplay of forces at the core of the human experience since the “beginning of time” — the push and pull between beauty and destruction, love and hate, light and darkness. These energies, as it were, are then henceforward interwoven throughout his invented languages and the mythology that sprung from his synthesis of sound and vision. In it, we learn of Ilúvatar and Melkor (pronounced “Il-Loo-Va-Tar” and “Mel-Core”), his God and his Satan.
The next “book” that continues this unfolding of his invented “consciousness” within The Silmarillion is the Valaquenta (“Va-La-Kwen-Ta”), which is a catalog of the gods and angels that first shaped and then governed the world. These “Valar,” meaning “angelic powers,” include Varda (who is also called Elbereth Gilthoniel), the goddess of the stars, Manwë, the mightiest after Melkor, Ulmo, the god of water, and Tulkas, best described as the happy warrior, ever ready to defend the righteous.
It is this glorying in names that is so daunting for many who first crack open The Silmarillion. Even the title “The Silmarillion” is a mouthful. What the hell does it mean? It’s not short and cute like “The Hobbit” or easy but intriguing like “The Lord of the Rings.” It’s based on what is best described as three holy gems that are cut, and one might say “engineered,” that are so wondrous that they set off a great chronicle of war, tragedy and redemption. They were made by the most talented “High Elf” of all time, Fëanor (pronounced “Fey-A-Nor”), who calls them the Silmarils (pronounced “Sil-Ma-Ril”), which in Quenya means “jewels made of a crafted shining substance”). So The Silmarillion, or Quenta Silmarillion means the “History of the Silmarils.”
It’s easy to see why so many readers give up. It asks readers to comprehend and remember many names that are rich in detail. But for anyone who wants to truly understand the power at the core of Tolkien’s mythology, it is essential reading. But let’s put aside what that invented history is, or where it fits in the grand plot and span of Tolkien’s vast legendarium. We’re here to talk names, and the point of laying out what these initial “waves” of Tolkien’s imagination mean is to give a broader context and appreciation for all the names that he crafted, and why they matter to the history and understanding of fantasy and science fiction in general.
What follows after the Valaquenta is even more names as elves, dwarves and humans enter its drama, as if each act is raising the intensity of its music in an overwhelming opera. The Silmarillion has been uncharitably but jokingly described as a telephone book. It has also been compared to the Bible, and more specifically Genesis, with its many pages of so-and-so begat so-and-so, son of, daughter of… But those rather lazy or perhaps casual observations miss the simple fact that while there are a lot of names in The Silmarillion, and it is slow going at first, they are also dispersed within a goldmine of tales and mythology that they greatly enliven — and that the names themselves are beautiful or evocative.
Here is where Glorfindel first appears. He existed in Tolkien’s Book of Lost Tales in manuscript form long before he appeared as a heroic force in The Lord of the Rings. That back history of Glorfindel is part of the force behind his confident rendering in the chapter Flight to the Ford, where Tolkien makes one of the first great volleys for his linguistic enterprise with his “Noro lim, noro lim Asfaloth!” (meaning “run swift, run swift Asfaloth”). Those words and flowing name are in Tolkien’s other Elvish language, Sindarin, which was inspired by Welsh. Asfaloth, which means “sunlit foam,” is the name of Glorfindel’s horse.
That command given by the elf lord Glorfindel comes at one of the most exciting moments in The Lord of the Rings, when it goes from a carefully, patiently building pastoral journey from the Shire into the wilder world of men and elves: harried by the evil Ringwraiths, when Frodo’s life is in danger, his deliverance is sparked by the “spell” of Tolkien’s magnificent language spoken from a deeper place.
In fact, part of why Glorfindel is so beloved by Tolkien fans, is not only the power, goodness and eloquence that his character represents, but the sound of his name made in concert with that quick-witted, swift-running “noro lim” refrain. “Glor-Fin-Dell” also rolls off the tongue. It seems to suggest “glory,” “fine” and “dell.” There’s a reason why Stephen Colbert name-checks this minor yet magical hero when he implores the Q-Anon obsessed to ditch dangerous conspiracy theories and join the joyous teleportation to true mythic universes, “nerd culture” and Tolkien fandom instead.
The Silmarillion is filled with gems of naming. There is the elf king Finrod Felagund and his cave city of Nargothrond, the black twin swords of Anglachel and Anguirel (pronounced “Ang-La-Kel” and “Ang-Gweer-Rel”), forged by the dark elf Eöl, stolen by his son Maeglin who took it to Gondolin (“May-Glin” and “Gon-Do-Lin” respectively), the holy mountain Taniquetil and the cursed cold wastes of Utumno (“Tan-Ni-Kwet-Til” and “Oo-Tum-No”). But my favorite is Curufinwë (“Koo-Roo-Fin-Way”), which is Fëanor’s youth name. The Lord of the Rings generally features less ornate names with less density. Nonetheless, they are magnificent: there is Legolas and Lembas, Minas Tirith and Minas Morgul, Balrog and Nazgûl, Anduin and Imrahil, and even the Dwarvish names of Moria’s three mountains — Zirak-zigil, Barazinbar and Bundushathûr.
Dwarvish, or Khuzdul, was apparently inspired by Semitic languages, primarily Hebrew. It gives the dwarves a subtle melancholy quality, especially when Gimli waxes nostalgic and poetic over the lost kingdom of Moria, describing its three peaks eloquently in polyrhythmic triplets of phrasing that encompass Khuzdul, English and Elvish, conjuring through sound the spikes and thorns of a snowy, craggy crown, a breathtaking tour de force:
“Yonder stands Barazinbar, the Redhorn, cruel Caradhras; and beyond him are Silvertine and Cloudyhead: Celebdil the White, and Fanuidhol the Grey, that we call Zirak-zigil and Bundushathûr.”
Another author and Tolkien’s “corollary” in science fiction, Frank Herbert, also used naming and invented languages well. Dune would be nowhere near as heady and transportive without Herbert’s imaginative inventions, names like Geidi Prime and Caladan, and of course Arrakis — “Arrakis, Dune, desert planet.” He also derived phonology from Abrahamic languages. Thus, we have Muad’Dib and Aramsham, Arrakeen and Shaddam. It lacks the depth, quantity or rhythmic variability of Tolkien, but still it is excellent.
The documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune alleges that George Lucas derived a lot of concepts from the filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky’s fevered film adaptation of Dune, which never saw the light of day. H.R. Giger and Jean Jiraud “Moebius” crafted a lot of concept art for the film that was compiled in a pitch book that supposedly ended up in the hands of a lot of other Hollywood producers and directors, including perhaps Lucas. This theory seems plausible if not a bit farfetched. It’s never been verified.
Even so, Lucas has also had a talent for names, bringing in what feels like random yet believable phonology for his Star Wars universe. Tatooine (perhaps inspired by desert planet Arrakis) sounds perfectly natural. Names like Dagobah, Han Solo, Yavin, Jedi, Sith and Yoda are also simple yet otherworldly. Personally, I admire that even minor names like Rishi Maze are good. Again, they are concise, vaguely familiar, and sometimes clearly inspired by Japanese, as in Obiwan Kenobi or Chewbacca i.e. “Chubaka.” There is of course Boba Fett, which shouldn’t work, but somehow does.
Like Tolkien, Lucas also has had a strong instinct for English compound names. He didn’t just pull them out of thin air either, but clearly let them stew and evolve as he tinkered on his space mythos. So in the end you get Skywalker, not Starkiller (the latter the original surname for his hero and later used in what feels like a bad joke in The Force Awakens, with Starkiller Base). Skywalker not only hints at the telekinetic powers of the Force, but it even suggests the telepathic mind-melds explored in the newer films. He also excelled at simple combinations, like Clone Wars and Millennium Falcon. Hoth is also inspired, taken from the name for a Norse god. Does it matter that it comes from planet Earth and not “a galaxy far, far away”? Not really, I don’t think. It was too obscure for most people to notice. When it comes to the newer stories, the Star Wars franchise has done a good job continuing Lucas’ sensibilities in my opinion. Scarif from Rogue One is a solid name, and Kylo Ren is pretty good too. Knights of Ren? Even better.
When it comes to newer mythologies, generally, I’m less moved by their names. Perhaps this is due to the hurry writers are in these days. It’s as if quality naming has been optimized out of fantasy literature by our increasingly efficient techno culture. One of the problems, at least with fantasy, is that so many of them have nothing like The Silmarillion or Tolkien’s countless linguistic inventions in their background. That said, it doesn’t mean some of them aren’t good. In particular, Michael Moorcock’s Elric series stands out. His names like Arioch, Moonglum, Imrryr, Cymoril, Sapriz and Elwher are idiosyncratic, and thus pretty magical. Raistlin in Dragonlance is not bad. So is Drizzt from Dungeons & Dragon’s Forgotten Realms and The Dark Elf Trilogy.
George R.R. Martin’s Westeros is nifty. It has a nice authenticity to it, a smart blend of English and Greek. Tolkien’s Westernesse may be an influence. Hodor is very good. It fits the big lumbering protector. Ned? Not so much. Stark? OK. Ned who lost his head, is pretty damn stark. So Ned Stark is a nice name game. J.K. Rowling has excelled in her naming, finding a rich lode that straddles children’s humor and something closer to Tolkien’s high fantasy. Potter? Sounds positively average, though certainly workmanlike. Harry Potter? Suddenly Potter elevates a common first name, Harry, into something much more quaint. Voldemort flirts with that more archaic world that Tolkien mastered.
It’s on existing or obscure names that Tolkien also excels. Not only that, he found a way to make them his own. He took Gandalf from the Dvergatal, the “Catalogue of Dwarves” from the Völuspá, but transforms it into what the name suggests in Old Norse: “wand elf.” Baggins is also of course one of his most inspired linguistic winks, with Bag-End and Sackville-Bagginses, all suggesting varying degrees of hole-dwelling, burglary, bourgeoisie status and cul-de-sacs. He also uses Anglo-Saxon to marvelous effect, repurposing forgotten words and sifting them like gold nuggets from mud in a cold stream. There is Eorl the Young (which evolved in modern English to “earl”), mearas and Edoras, and Éomer and Éowyn, the latter bold and lithe.
It’s not to say that interesting names are not important for all fiction. They certainly are, whether we’re talking the “Okie” Joads from John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath or the many aristocratic names in Czarist Russia from Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Sometimes foreign names, when richly woven, are more than enough.
And yet, when it comes to fantasy worlds, it’s the game of the name that makes them stand apart. That doesn’t mean they have to be purely invented like so many of the names in Tolkien’s universe. In fact, Tolkien’s whole mythic project began with a buried Anglo-Saxon name from a phrase in the Old English Christian poem called Crist, its second part Christ II, also known as The Ascension, preserved in the tenth century Exeter Book, by the poet Cynewulf. The lines that woke Tolkien’s imagination are:
Eala Earendel engla beorhtast / Ofer middangeard monnum sended
Hail Earendel, brightest of angels / Sent onto people over Middle-earth
No one knows who or what “Earendel” is. Its meaning is lost to history and died with Cynewulf and his time. But Cynewulf’s poem and his other works clearly demonstrate he was a keen intellect that came up in the Catholic church. Tolkien was very interested in this religious text written back when England was Catholic. Like Cynewulf, Tolkien was a pious poet in a similar Catholic vein, and the name Earendel with its description as an angel sent to Middle-earth fascinated him: “I felt a curious thrill, as if something had stirred in me, half wakened from sleep,” he wrote. “There was something very remote and strange and beautiful behind those words, if I could grasp it, far beyond ancient English.”
This spiritual aspect of Tolkien, from my point of view, is the quintessence of his mythology. It’s the wind that blows through it. One doesn’t have to be Christian, or Catholic, to appreciate it. In fact, Tolkien made a point to make his Christianity highly subtextual and blended beyond recognition, save for those who know where to look. I’m not a practicing Christian. I do not think of the world specifically in that way, not consciously anyhow. I wouldn’t say I’m agnostic either, but in terms of my own interface with “God,” in many ways Tolkien’s mythology has acted as a secular guide and groundwork for something more personal.
Other writers and scholars have remarked on the foundational influence of Cynewulf’s lines on Tolkien, who first read the words and name in 1913. He would later modify Earendel to Eärendil, and make the name a signal for the greatest mariner in his mythology, the sire of Elrond and Elros, who takes one of the Silmarils to the Valar, and opens their hearts to save Middle-earth from the torments of Morgoth (Melkor). And so he was placed in the sky in his ship Vingilot (“foam flower”) as the Morning Star, that the elves called Gil-Estel, beacon of hope, from the end of Quenta Silmarillion right to when a forlorn Samwise Gamgee sees Eärendil shining above Mordor.
So Tolkien took a middangeard name and dreamed up a myth “far beyond ancient English.” All of his names are little melodies that sparkle like the tips of waves in an undulating sea of fantastical inquiry. That’s how he snuck in poetry without kids even knowing it, without teachers even understanding it, connecting them back to an ancient human voice — the very first instrument — mixed with the sound of water and bird songs, back to the spark within the universe. It sounds hyperbolic, but is it?
Because instead of a word, shines a name, as bright as the dawn, like Eärendil’s vessel floating before our very eyes. If it stirs something inside us, and we don’t know why, so remains the eternal question. It’s not just poetry, a concept, or a thought, but a glimpse at the beginning, music echoing back to us through the endless halls of time.