On reading names

If we turn the clock 30 years back, to the linguistic notes Tolkien wrote around the time he started working on The Lord of the Rings... Tolkien mentioned a base THÛ “puff, blow” which yields Quenya words for “breathe, breath” and also such an august title as Súlimo, Manwë’s surname as a “wind-god” (we are to understand that the older pronunciation was Thúlimo). And then it comes (LR:392): "THUS- (related to THÛ?) *thausâ: Q[uenya] saura foul, evil-smelling, putrid. N[oldorin] thaw corrupt, rotten; thû stench, as proper name Thû chief servant of Morgoth, also called Mor-thu, Q[uenya] Sauro or Sauron or Súro = Thû."
                              Helge Kåre Fauskanger, A Name for the Dark Lord

When the second edition of "Lord of the Rings" gave Tolkien a chance to alter the text, he went in and tinkered with the inflections in his invented Elvish language.
                                                       Douglas Harper, J.R.R. TOLKIEN


J.R.R. Tolkien was, by all accounts, a man who loved words. He was also a storyteller of some note - who hasn't at least heard of The Hobbit and/or The Lord Of The Rings? But Tolkien was an uneven writer.

Tolkien’s love of words is visible in the care he took in choosing his characters' names. Tolkien had strong feelings about the appearance, sound and etymology of names. I'm not linguist or cultural historian enough to follow all his thinking, but it was, presumably, because of his theories of naming that he called two of his main bad guys Sauron and Saruman.

Unfortunately, this resulted in readers such as I forever paging backward and forward trying to figure out which bad guy was which. Nothing I've read by or of Tolkien makes me think he would care much about that, but as a reader I care a lot. He was, as I have said, a storyteller, and scholar of languages, but not so much a great writer. It was as if his passion for old or imagined languages distracted him from the writer’s necessary work polishing his use of contemporary language.

I recall a similar frustration reading Isaac Asimov's The Foundation Trilogy.


Here again, we meet a wonderful storyteller, a hobbiest (this time of the physical and chemical sciences) and an author of an impressive alternate universe. Here again we meet someone who really, really needed an editor.  Asimov gave the two most important characters in the first portion of his story the confusingly similar names Hari Seldon and Salvor Hardin.  One hundred and fifty odd pages later, he mercifully named his third central character Hober Mallow.  Yes, he's still using H's but at least the S is gone.

I was thinking about this after a learner and I read Just Good Friends, another story made more difficult by names.


There's Joan the mother, Beth the daughter, and James the son. Then there's the dad, Scott, who is often just called "Dad" and the interloper, er... innocent bystander named "Dan". When Dan suggests camping and Mom says they should wait for Dad, or when Dad's on the phone asking about Dan... well, you can see how a new reader could get confused.

Ah, but isn't there a lesson here? (That's what you're thinking, right?) Isn't there something to learn about reading the whole of words, and applying phonemic tools to their end syllables as well as their beginnings? Doesn't this provide a lesson in the need to read carefully, paying attention to details.

Sure.  That's what I thought, too.

Then I remembered Sauron and Saruman and Seldon and Salvor, and Hober and Hari and Hardin and the way Tolkien and Asimov managed to frustrate me despite my being an excellent and persistent reader.

So, yeah. There is a lesson here.  But I think it's a lesson for writers, not readers (meaning no disrespect to the excellent Linda Kita-Bradley who, it must be recalled, gave us the indispensible The Big Goof, The Hike and Bears all without ever forcing us to read turgid Elvish poetry). The lesson is this: unless you're going to get all Tolkien on us about hidden meanings in the appearance, sound and etymology of names, you might think about names chiefly as tools your readers will use to keep your main characters straight.


Columbia Basin Alliance for Literacy said...

I used to think this way when reading text books in university. I wondered why, if the author's purpose was to communicate his knowledge, would he insist on using such complex language. Audience and purpose are so important when writing!

In the case of Tolkien, however, I have to disagree. Don't get me wrong, I absolutely agree with the premise of your argument, but I disagree with the spirit of it. As readers, who are we to dictate to writers except by boycotting their work? For example, I refuse to read Margaret Atwood because I find her work strange. I haven't told her she should stop writing the way she does, I have just stopped reading her work. That is my only right as a reader.

Thanks for the debate!

Leah Wilkie

Wendell Dryden said...