The Language of Beauty - part 5: The Power of NamesPETER KREEFT
If things come to us in their names, then the power of things comes to us in the power of their names.
Look at Tom Bombadil in The Lord of the Rings. His words save Merry from Old Man Willow, and then they save Frodo from the Barrow-wight. Why? As he explains: "None has ever caught him yet, for Tom, he is the master: His songs are stronger songs, and his feet are faster."  "His songs are stronger songs." Are God's songs the strongest songs? Yes. What are God's songs? Prayers. Or things wrought by prayer that the world only dreams of.
Frodo, too, uses the magical power of words when he calls Tom's name. Two miracles happen, one spiritual and one physical. First, "with that name, Frodo's voice seemed to grow strong."  Second, Tom actually comes! If we find this unconvincing, it shows how little we have taken God at his word, when He repeatedly promises the same thing Bombadil did. To put the Biblical promise in contemporary words, "You just call out my name, and you know wherever I am, I'll come running to see you again. Winter, spring, summer or fall, all you've got to do is call, and I'll be there, yeah, yeah, yeah; I've got a friend." Thus endeth the daily devotional reading from the prophet James. I think James Taylor deliberately meant that. Taylor's been through hard times, but he's a very religious man. If you get a chance, listen to his new hymn – it's about two or three years old, but, moving.
Are there magic words? I think we all know there are; there are operative words. There are words that, whatever you believe theologically, are sacraments; they effect what they signify. I'll give you two that everybody knows are sacramental words: "I love you" and "I hate you". And for anybody who has any liturgical understanding, "I baptize thee", or "This is My body". These are not labels; they're spiritual weapons. They're arrows that pierce through flesh and into hearts.
Well, in a lesser but real way, the whole of The Lord of the Rings is an armour-piercing rocket that can get into your underground bunkers, your inner Afghanistans or Iraqs. And the most powerful of these arrows are the proper names, the names of persons, or places. When the Black Rider bangs on Fatty Bolger's door in Buckland saying, "Open in the name of Mordor," all the authority and terror and power of Mordor are really present there.
When Frodo on Weathertop faces the Black Rider, "he heard himself crying aloud: 'O Elbereth! Gilthoniel!'"  He's speaking in tongues – He doesn't understand Elvish – as he strikes the Rider with his sword. Afterwards Aragorn commented on this event; he said, "all blades perish that pierce that dreadful King. More deadly to him was the name of Elbereth."  Frodo again speaks in tongues in Shelob's lair. "'Aiya Eärendil Elenion Ancalima!' he cried, and knew not what he had spoken; for it seemed that another voice spoke through his." 
And when the tiny hobbit with the tiniest sword advanced on the most hideous creature in all of Middle-Earth with the phial of Galadriel, and in the name of Galadriel and El-Bereth, Shelob cowered. And later Sam did the same thing. "'Galadriel,' he said faintly, and then heard faintly voices far off but clear, the cry of the Elves as they walked under the stars in the beloved shadows of the Shire, and the music of the Elves … 'Gilthoniel A Elbereth!' And then his tongue was loosed and his voice cried in a language which he did not know"  He's not merely remembering his little dead picture of the live Elves. Somehow those Elves are made present. Because Shelob is not afraid of somebody's memories – Shelob is afraid of Elves.
There's an old myth of an original language. It's in the Bible: the story of the tower of Babel – which is beginning to be undone by Pentecost. It's in Plato, in his Dialogue with the Kratulus. It's not a popular idea anymore, but it's in a lot of classical literature. Once upon a time, there was not only one language, but the right language, the perfect language. Well, if that is true, that would explain why every proper name of Tolkien's seems exactly right. That's a power even his critics marvel at. When we read those names, we're remembering; we're doing Plato's anamnesis unconsciously; our cognition is a re-cognition, a recognition. Our word detector buzzes when we meet the right word, the Platonic ideal, the Jungian archetype. We experience discovery rather than invention.
C. S. Lewis understood this, too. When Mercury descended to earth in The Descent of the Gods in that chapter in That Hideous Strength, here's how he described it:
The most important proper name to you is your own. In C. S. Lewis's Anthology of 365 Selections from George MacDonald, the one most readers find the most powerful and the most unforgettable is MacDonald's commentary on Revelation 2, verse 17 ("And I will give him a white stone, with a new name written in it, that no-one knows save he who receives it."): Here is MacDonald's commentary on that, and I think this deeply influenced Tolkien, who also loved MacDonald's spirit, though not his style:
Hamlet has an identity crisis until he knows Shakespeare.
Finally, the most magical language is music – a word about music in Tolkien. Music is clearly the language of creation; God and his angels sing the world into being. Tolkien begins The Silmarillion this way: "In the beginning, Eru, The One, who in the Elvish tongue is Illuvatar (All-Father) made the Ainur of his thought; and they made a great Music before him. In this Music the World was begun."  Notice it's not that music was in the world, but that the world was in music. This is the "music of the spheres", in which everything is. This is the "Song of Songs" that includes all songs. All matter, all time, all space, all history – all are in this primal language. Plato knew the power of music. In The Republic, music is the very first step in education in the just society, and the very first step in corruption in the bad one. Nothing is more important to the good society, to education, to happiness.The Lord of the Rings is full of music, full of music. One of the indices at the end of The Lord of the Rings lists songs or poems in the book. Proper names, yes. Places, yes. But songs or poems? There are so many that he needs an index. The hobbits sing high hymns to El-Bereth, and walking songs, and bath songs. Like Tolkien, Bombadil is a writer of prose who is bursting with poetry and music. Peter Beagle, in the introduction to A Tolkien Reader, calls him, "a writer whose own prose is itself taut with poetry."  I think music is an essential part of the Elvish enchantment. When the Fellowship enters Lothlorien, Sam says, "I feel as if I was inside a song, if you take my meaning." And that's how we feel when we enter this whole book.
Peter Kreeft. "Language of Beauty – part 5: The Power of Names" transcribed from a talk given at Trinity Forum Academy (June 6, 2005).
This talk based on ideas contained in Peter Kreeft's book The Philosophy of Tolkien.
This article is reprinted with permission from Peter Kreeft.
Peter Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Boston College. He is an alumnus of Calvin College (AB 1959) and Fordham University (MA 1961, Ph.D., 1965). He taught at Villanova University from 1962-1965, and has been at Boston College since 1965.
He is the author of numerous books (over forty and counting) including: The Snakebite Letters, The Philosophy of Jesus, The Journey: A Spiritual Roadmap for Modern Pilgrims, Prayer: The Great Conversation: Straight Answers to Tough Questions About Prayer, How to Win the Culture War: A Christian Battle Plan for a Society in Crisis, Love Is Stronger Than Death, Philosophy 101 by Socrates: An Introduction to Philosophy Via Plato's Apology, A Pocket Guide to the Meaning of Life, and Before I Go: Letters to Our Children About What Really Matters. Peter Kreeft in on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.
Copyright © 2011 Peter Kreeft
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