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Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Jane Johnson on the Power of a Name

One interesting aspect of Jane Johnson’s novel, The Secret Country, was how she built upon the power of a person’s name. The ancients believed strongly in the significance of names.  Consider two examples from the Biblical book of Genesis.  When God made a covenant with Abram, he renamed him Abraham.  Later, when his grandson Jacob wins his all-night wrestling match, God renames him Israel, and Jacob/Israel then marks their wrestling-spot with the name Peniel.  All ancient religions, myths, folklore, customs taught the importance of names.  This emphasis stretches beyond the past to infuse contemporary society, and will doubtless prove important in our future. 

As writers are particularly smart people, they recognize this, and thus devote significant time to naming their important places and characters.  But rarely does a name’s power factor significantly in the plot.  In The Secret Country, however, Ben Arnold learns how important names can be.  Remember the talking cat he rescues from Mr. Dodd’s Pet Emporium?  After numerous attempts to prove himself, the cat finally relents and gives him his full name: Ignatius Sorvo Coromandel.  

Illustration by Adam Stower

However, he drives home to Ben the importance of not speaking it flippantly.  And when their paths diverge, the cat –who prefers to be called Iggy—tells him, “I own your true name, Benjamin Christopher Arnold.  I can call you any time.”  The same, of course, applies to the cat.  If Ben calls him by his full name, even if they are many miles apart, the cat will know, and he must hurry to Ben’s aid.  So the cat warns him to use his name cautiously, for he can only summon him three times.

Later, when Ben meets the dragon, he is short on time, and wants to convince it that he has only the best intentions.  So he introduces himself by his full name.  The dragon says, “Well, that’s brave of you, giving your true name to a dragon.  The dragon, who prefers to be called Zark, proves to be easier to convince than Iggy, and tells Ben his full name is Xarkandushak.  While Ben cares for the dragon as best he can, he is still a twelve year old boy, and the importance of names, as well as the magic of Eidolon, is new to him.  Unfortunately, he utters Zark’s full name in Mr. Dodd’s hearing.  Mr. Dodd has gained power in Eidolon by learning the full name of many of its citizens, and has used that power to enslave them, or capture them and sell them in our world.  This lapse gives Mr. Dodd the power to command Zark, and forces Ben to voluntarily submit to his authority for a time, until he can summon others to his aid.  Thus, Ben learns the importance of people’s names.

A recent study discussed in The New Yorker suggests that people may invest more readily in the stocks of companies with simpler, and more easily pronounceable names.  Women with more unisex or masculine-sounding names may climb to higher rungs on the corporate ladder than ones with clearly feminine names.  Voters tend to elect political candidates with simple, easy-to-say names.  But this doesn’t mean that people with more complex or difficult-to-pronounce names cannot succeed.  As the article notes, the name Barack Obama didn’t initially roll off people’s tongues.  But my favorite person’s name comes from Jane Johnson.  At one point, Ben meets a selkie, a person who lives as a seal in water but a Human on land.  She goes by the name Silver, but that is just her nickname, what she prefers to be called.  Her true name is She Who Swims the Silver Path of the Moon, daughter of He Who Hangs Around on the Great South Rock to Attract Females.  I’m sure you’ll agree: that’s one powerful name!

Dragon Dave

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