What is a name according to the Inklings?
When Frodo stabs a Ringwraith at Weathertop with his sword and cries out in Elvish, “O Elbereth Gilthoniel!” he doesn’t know what he is doing. Later, Aragorn explains what happened at that moment,
More deadly to him [the Witch-king] was the name of Elbereth.
But why is the name of Elbereth (Varda) so deadly to the Witch-king? Isn’t it just a sound?
It turns out, it’s not. In our divided consciousness, we tend to separate the name from its bearer. We do so subconsciously because modern consciousness perceives everything in fragments. We think that the name is merely a sound, and the thing it denotes is a physical object that exists separately from its name. But that’s not what we find in the Inklings.
In Tolkien’s legendarium, the Elvish languages seem to represent the one proper language, or “language as it should be.” It is the primal proto-language not yet divided by the curse of Babel. It proceeds from the consciousness that perceives the world as a Whole, and in it, words are always one with what they name. In fact, words contain what they name as in a “house.”
The German philosopher Martin Heidegger spoke of words as “the house of being,” not labels or tags on things. He said,
For words and language are not wrappings in which things are packed for the commerce of those who write and speak. It is in words and language that things first come into being and are.
So, what is a name according to the Inklings? It is a portal that ushers the invocator into the invisible realm concealed behind the sound.
For the Inklings, the name and the named are one. The named one is IN the name. The Lord of the Rings was written from a different consciousness than ours as Tolkien himself seems to indicate – it was the consciousness of participation, not separation. Tolkien said,
I have long ceased to invent… I wait till I seem to know what really happened. Or till it writes itself.
For a participated consciousness, there is no difference between the name of a thing and the thing itself. The thing exists in its name. That’s why words always effect what they name. The name is not a denotation; it’s an invocation. That’s why Elbereth was really there at Frodo’s call. There is no other explanation for Frodo’s survival – if Varda wasn’t there, Frodo would have been consumed by the Darkness. But she was there fully present in her name.
What was the theology of St. Gregory Palamas?
Gregory Palamas, an Orthodox monk of the 13th century, came up with curious teachings about uncreated divine energies present, as it were, in the invocation of the divine name.
For him, the Name was not merely an empty sound or a denotation but a living symbol that ushered the invocator into the power behind the sound shape. The true name has the potency to awaken, revitalize, and reveal meaning.
Incidentally, Tolkien’s Middle-earth started with a name when the author came across the name of Earendel in an old Anglo-Saxon poem. Reading the first few lines of the poem produced in him “a curious thrill, as if something had stirred in me, half wakened from sleep. There was something very remote and strange and beautiful behind those words.”
An early 20th-century Russian theologian Pavel Florensky (the founder of Onomatodoxia) was keenly aware of the power of words to engage the invocator into sacramental communion with Logos. According to Florensky, true words do not just communicate; they change. The message is not just information; it is transformation.
At the dawn of the Soviet era, in post-revolution Russia, one of the ways the new regime sought to “create the new Soviet man” was by changing the language and vocabulary.
They literally changed the grammar, spelling, syntax, morphology, and vocabulary of the Russian language to expel certain words and supplant them with a new vocabulary introduced by Bolshevik party ideologists. A whole body of abbreviations and contractions was enforced which, according to Florensky, sounded more “like a splinter in the tongue.”
This practice was, in his vernacular, “linguistic deformity,” the “mangling of words through deliberate disfigurement.” The maimed lexicon of the Soviet machine had its purpose – reducing reality to something less than it is to obtain control.
Who are our modern-day language-makers? They are not poets, monks, or myth-makers. They are technology gurus and people with divided consciousness. So, our language gets inundated with technogenic expressions like “He can really push my buttons,” as if we were devices.
All reductionism is ultimately aimed at gaining control. For example, when we “name names,” we reduce a person to a caricatured controllable state. It is a will to dominate.
Just as Mordor’s black speech by its very sound summoned the reality of domination and oppression, so the reductive language of our day brings with it a less-than-human lifestyle.
The purpose of fragmented language is quite deducible from its effect – the loss of wonder. The ancient Lethe was wonderful; “water resources” are not. They are manageable, to be sure, if that’s what is desired. And often that’s exactly what is desired.
The world has shrunk in our contracted language. Most of it we can’t see because our consciousness often sets limits to our perceptions. We don’t see the giant behind the world. The world doesn’t loom large for us. To reverse the curse, we need to reverse the language. How do you do it?
C.S. Lewis said,
“And if true verse but lift the curse, they (words) feel in dreams their native Sun.”
The art of naming, the art of coining true metaphors, will do the trick.
As we find proper words, our speech will regain its fiery Pentecostal power. The curse will be lifted, and we will tremble at the sound. We will wake up.