Call me old fashioned, but I love fairy tale tropes. And after reading Luce’s post on the evolution of Sleeping Beauty’s narrative, it got me thinking about a certain trope that’s been a part of many of my favorite stories. When we speak of names, we tend to make only the base association between the word and the object. People think of me when they say my name, and Beyoncé when they think of her name, but neither of us would lose any of our intrinsic value if we happened to be named something different. Even one of the most famous lines concerning names—“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”—seems to deny the importance of names altogether. Yet fairy tales have argued that names are indeed important, and now even modern day fiction has joined in the crusade.
I’m sure you remember the story of Rumpelstiltskin. Or, rather, the tale of the poor miller’s daughter who gets locked in a room because her father claimed she could spin straw into gold. The daughter manages to employ the help of an imp who turns the straw into gold, but asks for her firstborn child in return. To break free of this deal, she must guess the imp’s name, and when she does, the imp vanishes or tears himself in two from anger, depending on which version you read. While this is probably one of the most common examples of the importance of names in fairy tales, the tale of Rumpelstiltskin is not about that at all. Sure, it’s Rumpelstiltskin’s name that leads to his expulsion, but it’s not the name itself that holds power—it’s the agreement between him and the miller’s daughter. The name itself is secondary. What I’m getting at is a name being the primary source of power.
We can find an example of this in Earthsea. Despite how much Ace and I disliked Ghibli’s interpretation, it perhaps best represents the true power of names. Aren, the protagonist, is manipulated into performing the villain’s wishes simply because the villain
knows his “true name”. That is where this and stories similar to Earthsea diverge from Rumpelstiltskin: Rumpelstiltskin is affected by his name only due to his pride and the deal he made; however, Earthsea argues that a true name, a name that encapsulates everything a person is and ever could be, gives a person or thing an intrinsic power that can be manipulated for good or evil.
This is utilized both ways—good and evil—in one of my favorite movies ever, Beetlejuice. Much like Rumpelstiltskin, Beetlejuice is not a good person. He thrives off making chaos and is also in the business of making really shitty deals that come back to bite him in the ass. However, he can’t just offer his skills like Rumpelstiltskin—well, he can, but offering is all he can do. He must be summoned by saying his name three times. By that same token, he can also be banished by saying his name three times. It doesn’t matter how hard he tries to fight against it, Beetlejuice is completely at this magic’s mercy.
Likewise in the comic series Elfquest, the elves have a name that, once known, can be used to cause suffering or happiness—although instead of bringing destruction upon the outside world. this magic is focused on a personal level. An elf’s “soul name” is only shared between the closest member of one’s family and the one they fall in love with. Indeed, falling in love seems to be dictated by whose soul name you know, as gaining the knowledge is completely out of the elves’ control. Denying the bond brought forth by one’s soul name causes the elf to suffer: there is a very real physical pain there. Yet sharing one’s love and own soul name with the destined partner is shown to be an intimate, very calming moment. And though most of the time soul names are only spoken via psychic communication, if someone not intended to know your soul name speaks it, the trauma it causes is more than if someone spoke a secret they promised to keep. It’s more like emotional abuse.
However, the most popularized example of names holding power is probably from Spirited Away. After she enters the spirit world, Yubaba steals Chihiro’s name and renames her Sen. As long as Sen doesn’t regain the memory of her real name, she is trapped under Yubaba’s control and is forced to work at the spirit bathhouse, well, until she figures it out, I guess. Haku’s joy when Sen helps him remember his true name—Kohaku—also shows that under Yubaba’s control, there may be a bit of emotional stunting there as well. The extent of Yubaba’s powers aren’t really explained, but we know that just by having someone’s name, she can trap them within her schemes.
Even outside of fairy tales, the idea of names having power is nothing new. In Egyptian mythology, it was believed that knowing a god’s or mythical being’s soul name would grant the person power over said gods. And in the Bible, saying God’s true name is seen as something that shouldn’t be done because no mortal is worthy to hold the power that comes with saying that name.
If we’re looking at power of names from a non-magical view point, the trope still rings true. Someone’s name holds a great amount of emotional or sentimental power, whether one takes it from the translated meaning of a name or the pride from the ancestry one’s family name. While we may not be able to control others just by knowing any number of names people go by, this magic the trope references clearly is drawn from a very real feeling. A very human feeling. That’s where the power really comes from, I think. A “true name” cuts through posturing and bullshit to get the the very core of a person, and though it is at those points where we are our most vulnerable, it is also where we can find our strength. This is why a “true name” should be kept close. The people who learn about our true selves should be the ones willing to respect and care for us, not ones that will manipulate and abuse us. A good enough lesson from a fairy tale, in my opinion. Although the trope itself has seemed to wane in popularity over the years, I hope to see it make a comeback sometime in the future.