the name’s the thing

Well, so I’ve talked about linguistics, now I guess it’s time to talk about names. Or rather, how names matter. This time, we’ll be scrutinizing Tolkien’s Silmarillion.

When I was in middle school I bragged about reading the dictionary for fun, I think mostly to establish my nerd cred. A sham, naturally. I think I was still mainlining EragonRedwallArtemis Fowl, and Harry Potter instead of actually studying anything. (Probably reading the books under my desk, too. Actually I think I did get in trouble for that in my ninth grade biology class. Whoops.) But the dictionary my parents have – not the huge, unabridged, old one with pages so yellowed they’re orange, but the slightly new-ish one with the gray cover – has a section in the back with male and female names, alphabetized, and their name meanings, and that I did read.

Buddy, that name section of the dictionary was like heroin for my little developing writer brain. I went on a streak, in middle school, where I spent nearly every day after school feverishly typing at my dad’s old Dell desktop, and I crammed it full of half-finished drafts with heroes called Danae and Romulus and all sorts of things. I’ve posted a few of those half-finished ideas before – I don’t have any of the files saved, un/happily, but some of them stuck in my brain quite vividly. Rest in peace, Tess and James, my Pirates of the Caribbean rip-off. I’ll never forget how I had one of you climb up to the crow’s nest of the ship and then jump off and land on the main deck, upright, without breaking a single bone in your body. Truly it was a miracle of illogic.

Anyway! Even if you don’t painstakingly curate the names of your characters the way twelve-year-old me did, the names of characters matter. A Jim and a James and a Jamie might have the same base name, but James is more formal, and Jamie is more gender neutral, and Jim is solidly masculine, possibly even lumberjack-like.

And if a character goes by James, but his mom keeps calling him Jamie even after he’s repeatedly asked her not to, that right there matters – especially if the author treats that as a symptom of a bigger plot point. A coming-of-age story is the first thing that comes to my mind with that example. But there are any number of other possibilities you could explore.

And when a character changes their name … or someone else gives them a new name … then it gets even more interesting.

The giant fiery eyeball, the supervillain who doesn’t really appear in the main Lord of the Rings books, is called Sauron. Tolkien gives us this name as an Elvish word for “abhorred.” So he’s literally Mr. Hated. Does he call himself this? In the main LotR books, we don’t rightly know the answer to that. He only exists as a giant fiery eyeball on top of a tower, really. He’s the master of the Nazgul, sure; he owns, and in fact created, the horrible land of Mordor that Sam and Frodo must trek through; he created the Ring of Power which corrupted Gollum and tempts nearly everybody who comes across it. But he only actually speaks maybe twice in the whole trilogy. So we don’t really know anything about him beyond giant, fiery, evil boss eyeball.

In The Silmarillion, Tolkien tells us that long before he became ocular and pyromaniac in nature, his name was Mairon, which was an Elvish word for “admirable.”

Whoa, wait, what??

This guy, the mega boss of the LotR trilogy, the supervillain with his ghost troops and evil dragons and mindless trolls … used to work for the god of the forge and the earth. He was a friggin’ coworker with Saruman. (Which does explain a lot when you reread The Two Towers, doesn’t it?) And while he worked for the god of the forge, he was called Admirable. And he was proud … perhaps overly proud … which caused his defection to the Dark Side.

Yep! That’s right. This guy, the mega boss of LotR, the ultimate supervillain … wasn’t even the baddest bad guy that Middle Earth had ever seen.

And, in fact, Mairon/Sauron’s old boss is the very reason that Middle Earth is middle. The continent got flooded and rent in half during the war between The Big Bad and the entire rest of the pantheon. He was so awful, and so powerful even in decay, that it took ten other gods to subdue him and lock him behind the Door of Night.

That Big Bad Dude, Melkor, was the one who created orcs in the first place. He’s the one who created dragons. Smaug? A bitty baby compared to the Wyrm of Gondolin, or Glaurung who was Turin Turambar’s doom. (Though to be fair, Turin was his own doom too.)

Not that Sauron himself isn’t, or wasn’t, a threat. The Akallabeth, which takes place between Melkor’s imprisonment and The Hobbit, shows how awful Sauron is under his own steam. At that point there’s no master telling him what to do – no one tells him to trick Celebrimbor into forging the rings with him, no one tells him to torture Celebrimbor to death when he won’t give up the Elven rings’ location, no one tells him to conquer half the continent, and definitely no one tells him to corrupt the king of Numenor so horribly that the king of the gods has to go full Atlantis on that sucker.

So: it isn’t like Sauron doesn’t earn the name of Sauron, abhorred. Or the other name that the elves give him: Gorthaur, terrible.

The problem with it is that Tolkien doesn’t really tell us much about him beyond his evil deeds. In the main Silmarillion story, Sauron appears once to trick a man into betraying his commander, and he appears once in the story of Beren and Luthien (which is friggin badass, by the way). He’s the Lord of Werewolves. He’s a torturer, a spy, a trusted lieutenant, the captain of Melkor’s second fortress. He’s a sorcerer of dread power. He has his own island full of slavering monsters. Does he like being called Sauron? Does he hate it? Do all of his friends still call him Mairon, or does he never want to be called Mairon again because it reminds him of the old life he willingly left behind?

How does a guy go from Mairon to Sauron just like that?

Well, Melkor tempts him over to the dark side!

… and that’s mentioned in all of one sentence in the entire book. Cool. It’s not like that could be its own full-length novel or anything. Nope. Not at all.

(*twitch, twitch*)

The fact of the matter is, what we know of Sauron comes from how he affects the world around him, and how people view him as a result. Back when he worked for Aule the god of the forge, and created gemstones and mountains and works of great beauty, he was Admirable. When he started torturing people for fun and profit, he became Abhorred. We never get Sauron’s internal monologue.

Actually, no, that isn’t true. We do get a teensy little bit of his viewpoint. In the Akallabeth, right before the massive tidal wave falls on Numenor, we see Sauron laugh three times out of evil delight. In fact, he is so busy doing his evil villain laughter thing that he completely fails to see the incoming tidal wave, and it destroys his corporeal form. Yeah, he’s that committed to the trope. Tolkien never mentions if Sauron had a beard before he went all flaming-eyeball, but you can bet that if he had a mustache, he’d be twirling it.

So: whether Sauron actually likes being called Sauron, or whether he hates it, is up for interpretation. And that’s cool! I can totally see him insisting on being called Mairon while his evil buddies roll their eyes and go “sure, yep, absolutely.” Or while his underlings go “yes boss absolutely boss right away boss.” Except …

… Well, some people take the name Mairon and say, he never changed from his original form, really. He didn’t want to be evil. Melkor tempted him over and tortured him into being evil. Or seduced him into being evil. Mairon is a victim in all this. He’s not really a bad guy. He’s just a sad twink.

First of all, Sauron isn’t a twink, he’s a twunk, so jot that down.

Second of all, do you really think the guy who tortured Celebrimbor to death and then mounted his broken body on a standard when he went to war with the elves isn’t a bad guy? Or do you just like the ~ooh tragic romance ooh~ aesthetic of huge black-haired butch Melkor and waifish redheaded gold-eyed Mairon? Yes, Phobs’ art is very pretty. But come on, people. If you want tragic romance, Beren and Luthien are right freakin’ there. Or heck, if you want some dubious content to go with it, Maeglin and his cousin Idril are right freakin’ there too, and that even has the dark/light motif y’all love so much.

(“His cousin? His freaking cousin?” I hear you exclaim with disgust. Yeah, I’m right there with you, man. But that’s small potatoes compared to Turin and Nienor, who are actual siblings, and who actually did get married, while Maeglin just mooned over Idril from afar. Well, and also tried to kill her kid. But that is also small potatoes.)

(Yo George R.R., I’m really happy for you and I’ma let you finish, but Tolkien wrote the creepy sibling incest and all-your-faves-are-horrible-and-then-they-die plots first.)

Anyway – whether Sauron chose the name of Sauron or not, the fact is that the name switch matters to the plot, and the reasons the name switch even happened are because of events that he chose to bring about. Shortly after turning down the primrose path, people stopped calling him Admirable and started calling him Terrible – and that was several thousand years before the events of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. He had chances to turn back. Hell, the messenger of the gods even offered to bring him back to Valinor to atone for his past crimes and be a good guy again, but he refused. He earned the name of Terrible. There’s an entire trilogy devoted to beating his ass! That was made into a very successful franchise starring Elijah Wood and Orlando Bloom! Come on, people!

Now, you want to talk about an evil romance where they both bring out the worst in each other, and spur each other on to new atrocities? You want to talk about an evil friendship where they swap torture tips and Melkor mentors Sauron into becoming the most fearsome sorcerer on Arda? You want to talk about Melkor flattering Mairon’s pride and offering him the chance to be greater than his old master, and Mairon grabbing that chance with both hands? Hell yeah. Knock yourself out. There’s a reason the villain Disney songs are the most popular.

In written stories where every word counts, names have immense power. Use those names as markers, sure, but don’t stop there. If all we had to go on Sauron’s characterization was what other people called him, he’d be kind of weak as a villain. If all we had were his deeds, he’d be strong, but not as strong as he could be. It’s action and word together, the one-two punch, that really makes him memorable.

You know, beyond being a giant eyeball that’s on fire.