Sunday, May 19, 2024

The Power of Names in Fantasy

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The magic of naming has been a thematic undercurrent of the fantasy genre since its inception. Names, after all, hold a special power within them; the power of identity. For the human race it is often names we were given or ones we’ve chosen to adopt ourselves, but either evokes the essence of us. We can see names not as labels, but as recognition of the object’s place in the world. Fantasy literature is known to be the genre that places great importance on the use of names and through that, begins to form a theme of deconstructing the magic and grand otherworldly-ness of the genre, bringing the battles or the great forces of evil back down to Earth and ultimately reminding the audience that the true power can and will be defeated by magic that simply comes from within, tying in the greatest struggle we all face; identity.

One of the most prominent fantasy writers that speaks about the power of names is Ursula K. LeGuin who is known for the Earthsea series that are often cited as precursors to Harry Potter. LeGuin has written countless of short stories revolving around the power of names, a theme that is so often tied to identity, but none more profoundly than in the first novel of the Earthsea series,  A Wizard of Earthsea. The core of the magic within the series rests in the notion that true names hold the greatest power, allowing the series to explore themes of identity and friendship.

Just as you give your friends nicknames that mean something more to you than just words, that imply relationship and a bond that cannot be described, LeGuin uses the confession of a person’s true name as a symbol for a closeness and trust between people that exemplifies what happens when you feel comfortable enough with another human being that you are willing to share a part of yourself with them and entrust in them to protect that part.

“Who knows a man’s name, holds that man’s life in his keeping. Thus to Ged, who had lost faith in himself, Vetch had given him that gift that only a friend can give, the proof of unshaken, unshakeable trust.” A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin

Just as LeGuin interprets the life or death value that the fantasy magic within the process would possess, we can identity with that process because just as names can be magic in the literal sense, they can also be magic in the figurative sense as they take on the meaning of identity. When you share your true identity, your core, with someone else, you’re essentially entrusting them with your life. She continues this sense of tying names to identity and the journey of which you find yourself as the protagonist, Ged, spends the first novel chased by a shadow that he cannot name, and therefore cannot defeat. It is not until he truly recognizes what the shadow is and names it with its true name, his name, that he understands who he is, the dark and light that is always fighting within you, and rounds out his struggle with naivety and arrogance that brought forth the shadow, humbling himself and for the first time, truly seeing himself.

More modern fantasy is often place importance on names and the meaning behind the names they choose. Just as the thematic value held strong for LeGuin, modern day fantasy authors, including J.K. Rowling and her series said to be slightly evocative of the Earths series; Harry Potter. One of the most prominent uses of names in Potter and the greater meaning they have is the taboo surrounding the dark wizard Voldemort. Practically everyone is afraid to use his name, feeding the fear and power he holds over the wizarding community. In what is one of the series most famous quotes from the first book, The Philosopher’s Stone, Dumbledore says “Call him Voldemort, Harry. Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.” It’s the other side of power that names, or rather, running away from names can have. Names make us both individual and equal. They humanize us. Without names, we become ideas, and ideas can turn into anything. When facing someone like Voldemort, the more fear you build up, the more you turn him into a force greater than human powers possess and you turn him and his horrors into an idea, that idea cannot die. Ultimately that is the greatest force in the Potter series and one of the most important thematic threads that the films frankly missed out on; humanity. Voldemort was a force of evil but calling him He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named and cowering at the mere mention of his name only increases his power. He plays on this fear in The Deathly Hallows, setting up a jinx that alerts his forces should anyone say “Voldemort,” thus weeding out the rebels, as the majority of the wizarding population would never dare utter it.

Both Dumbledore and Harry take it a step further, calling Voldemort by his true name, his human name, refusing to give into his conditions of power. In the final battle at Hogwarts, Harry calls Voldemort “Tom,” a name he despises as it reminded him of his muggle lineage, as they duel and in doing so, brings this nonhuman entity back down to the ground and finally defeats him. Harry realizes along the way that at the end of the day, Tom Riddle was simply a person, a person that did horrible things, but a person nonetheless and thus isn’t unstoppable. It also ties hand in hand with Harry’s journey and struggle with identity throughout the novels, as the more he learns about Tom Riddle, the more he sees their similarities but also their differences, the more he sees him as a person. Harry is able to recognize the true power and true goodness in a person doesn’t live in a realm of black and white, but rather comes from the greatest strength that resides within you to make those choices. Thus, Voldemort dies as Tom Riddle, falling to the floor and dying a human death.

This concept transcends just literary high fantasy as we see it in films like Spirited Away, as ones true name is directly tied with their humanity, life, and identity and directly parallels with real world dehumanizations through names. Characters are given slave names meant to entrap them and force them into a life of conformity, forgetting who they were all together.

That more human take on the power of names is often found in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, as names are directly tied to identity and legacy. For example, Jaime Lannister’s is know almost universally as “The Kingslayer”, a name he grows to hate more and more as he goes through a journey of humanization and humbling. It turns from a slur whispered behind his back at the height of his power to something that is spit into his face after his fall. “Kingslayer. Oathbreaker. A man without honor,” he says. That has been his legacy. One did not hear Jaime Lannister without also thinking the name Kingslayer. They became synonymous and in doing so, Jaime became lost. It was only after he confessed the truth of how much the name hurt him that he begins his journey of redefining his legacy. Literally seeing it before him on the pages of the White Book and seeing the man he could be reflected back to him in Brienne, the representation of knightly duty and honor, he starts his journey of redemption, wanting nothin more than to fill the White Book of the Kingsgaurd with pages of his gallantry, erasing the only legacy that pervades him.

Also, more in vein with Spirited Away and a constant reflection of truths in our world, Martin explores the concept of taking away someone’s name as a method to deprive them of their identity. The strongest case for this is obviously with Theon Greyjoy, but the pure connection with names and identity is further stressed with the Starks. Theon, who has been tortured to fear his own name, constantly reminds himself to use the degrading name “Reek” that Ramsay Snow has given him, a name that strips him of all identity . It’s such a psychological breakdown of identity that is done so effectively through Martin’s use of close POV chapters that many book readers didn’t pickup on who this new character, “Reek” was as his first chapter was introduced. However, within the power of removing someone’s name, also comes the power of reclaiming it. During his escape with Jeyne Westerling from Winterfell, a guard asks who goes there, calling out for Reek. However, Theon, who had been so terrified of forgetting who Ramsay has made him, who had repeated rhymes in his head all day and night to remember the name “Reek,” throws off the slave name and says, for the first time the words, “Theon Greyjoy,” and that inner strength, that reclamation of ones true identity after being denied personhood, carries him and Jeyne out of the walls of Winterfell. Even the chapter title switch, back from ‘Reek’ to ‘Theon,’ holds a power for those reading. While Theon won’t be able to forget what he has gone through, the power of a name, of an identity, permeates through you an inner strength that is the greatest power of all. What we learn is that people are resilient, we have identity flowing through us and our names hold greater power. They hold us together.

Martin also continues that theme through the Stark children, as Bran struggles to keep hold of himself and resist loosing his humanity through his warging, Sansa hides under the name Alayne Stone for her own safety, Jon struggles between being a man of the Night’s Watch and his duty as a Stark, and Arya, who has been under the cover of false names ever since the end of the first novel, goes on a mission to become “No One”, while, like Jon, ultimately fighting to never relinquish her identity as Arya Stark of Winterfell.

Thus, as the fantasy genre highlights, names hold a great importance. From forming bonds to the recognition of identity, names hold a power beyond measure. To live in fear of them removes the humanity behind them. To build them up does much of the same. Names can be used to humanize or can be taken away to dehumanize. However, at the end of the day, names represent who we are and the greatest and most human strength we can have; identity.

Images courtesy of Scholastic and Bantan Books

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