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There's a common trope in Western fantasy that, up until now, I've sort of taken for granted: the "true name."

This is the idea that all things have true names that are somehow more closely linked to what the thing is, and that knowing it grants some degree of power over the thing. This has many forms and tropes, but they all have the exact same underlying elements.

Most commonly, though, it's used as a plot device with regard to people:

  • That in order to figure out someone's true name, you have to totally understand them.
  • That true names are to be kept secret at all costs.
  • That finding your own true name requires some sort of developed sense of self-knowledge.
  • That knowing someone's true name allows you to bend them to your will.

Some works seem to apply these to objects, or ideas themselves, but they ultimately stem from people and (more generally) sentient beings. Still, the idea does seem to show up in one form or another in many fantasy books.

Where did this idea come from, originally? Does it have a clear source?

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It goes back way further than the fantasy genre or even written literature.

I've listed a few of the best-known examples of this trope dating back to centuries before the idea of a "trope" was even in circulation. This is by no means an exhaustive list.

  • Judaism. For thousands of years, religious Jews have avoided speaking the name of God. In the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia, it is suggested that all Hebrew proper names are 'true' names, more than simply labels, but saying something about the essential nature of the named person:

    Like other Hebrew proper names, the name of God is more than a mere distinguishing title. It represents the Hebrew conception of the divine nature or character and of the relation of God to His people. It represents the Deity as He is known to His worshipers, and stands for all those attributes which He bears in relation to them and which are revealed to them through His activity on their behalf. A new manifestation of His interest or care may give rise to a new name. So, also, an old name may acquire new content and significance through new and varied experience of these sacred relations.

    And Wikipedia tells us a little more about the practice of not speaking the name of God:

    although there is nothing in the Torah to prohibit the saying of the name[9] and Ruth shows it was being pronounced as late as the 5th century BCE[10]—it had ceased to be spoken aloud by at least the 3rd century BCE during Second Temple Judaism[12]

  • Egyptian mythology. As mentioned by Mithrandir, the concept of a person's true name granting power over them appears in tales of Egyptian mythology from thousands of years ago. From Wikipedia, cited to Geraldine Harris, Gods & Pharaohs from Egyptian Mythology:

    Isis frequently schemed against Ra, as she wanted her son Horus to have the power. In one myth, Isis created a serpent to poison Ra and only gave him the antidote when he revealed his true name to her. Ra now feared Isis, as with his secret name revealed she could use all her power against him and have Horus take over the throne.

  • Traditional folk tales. The well-known folk story of Rumpelstiltskin revolves around this idea: the miller's daughter rashly promises her first-born child to the strange little man, and he will only allow her to keep the child if she can tell him his name. From this translation:

    “I will give you three days,” said he, “and if at the end of that time you cannot tell my name, you must give up the child to me.” Then the Queen spent the whole night in thinking over all the names that she had ever heard, and sent a messenger through the land to ask far and wide for all the names that could be found. [...]
    The third day the messenger came back again, and said, “I have not been able to find one single new name; but as I passed through the woods I came to a high hill, and near it was a little house, and before the house burned a fire, and round the fire danced a comical little man, and he hopped on one leg and cried, ‘Today do I bake, tomorrow I brew, The day after that the Queen’s child comes in; And oh! I am glad that nobody knew That the name I am called is Rumpelstiltskin!’" [...]
    And then she said, “Then perhaps your name is Rumpelstiltskin!” “The devil told you that! the devil told you that!” cried the little man, and in his anger he stamped with his right foot so hard that it went into the ground above his knee; then he seized his left foot with both his hands in such a fury that he split in two, and there was an end of him.


More recently, it was likely popularised by le Guin and maybe Clarke.

The TV Tropes page entitled "I Know Your True Name" lists Ursula le Guin's Earthsea series as the Trope Codifier - the work which, while it wasn't the first to use the idea, was more popular than preceding works and provided the template for most or all later uses of the trope.

He saw that in this dusty and fathomless matter of learning the true name of each place, thing, and being, the power he wanted lay like a jewel at the bottom of a dry well. For magic consists in this, the true naming of a thing. So Kurremkarmerruk had said to them, once, their first night in the Tower; he never repeated it, but Ged did not forget his words. "Many a mage of great power," he had said, "has spent his whole life to find out the name of one single thing - one single lost or hidden name. And still the lists are not finished. Nor will they be, till world's end. [...] That is the language dragons speak, and the language Segoy spoke who made the islands of the world, and the language of our lays and songs, spells, enchantments, and invocations. Its words lie hidden and changed among our Hardic words. We call the foam on waves sukien: that word is made from two words of the Old Speech, suk, feather, and inien, the sea. Feather of the sea, is foam. But you cannot charm the foam calling it sukien; you must use its own true name in the Old Speech, which is essa.

[...]

No one knows a man's true name but himself and his namer. He may choose at length to tell it to his brother, or his wife, or his friend, yet even those few will never use it where any third person may hear it. In front of other people they will, like other people, call him by his use-name, his nickname - such a name as Sparrowhawk, and Vetch, and Ogion which means 'fir-cone'. If plain men hide their true name from all but a few they love and trust utterly, so much more must wizardly men, being more dangerous, and more endangered. Who knows a man's name, holds that man's life in his keeping.

-- A Wizard of Earthsea: The First Book of Earthsea (emphasis mine)

In fact, although it's best known from her Earthsea quartet, le Guin had used the same idea in some of her earlier stories, lesser-known precursors set in the world of Earthsea. The Rule of Names, a short story published four years before A Wizard of Earthsea and available in full as a PDF here, seems to be the first le Guin work to introduce her idea of true names:

"Now you know the Rules of Names already, children. There are two, and they're the same on every island in the world. What's one of them?"

"It ain't polite to ask anybody what his name is," shouted a fat, quick boy, interrupted by a little girl shrieking, "You can't never tell your own name to nobody my ma says!"

"[...] When you children are through school and go through the Passage, you'll leave your childnames behind and keep only your truenames, which you must never ask for and never give away. Why is that the rule?"

The children were silent. The sheep bleated gently. Mr. Underhill answered the question: "Because the name is the thing," he said in his shy, soft, husky voice, "and the truename is the true thing. To speak the name is to control the thing. Am I right, Schoolmistress?"

-- The Rule of Names (emphasis mine)

So much for fantasy, but the same idea also crops up in science fiction. In the short story "The Nine Billion Names of God" by Arthur C. Clarke, we can see an intermediate step - a literary Archaeopteryx, if you will - between the ancient religious idea of the holy and powerful "true name of God" and the idea of true names as they appear in modern speculative fiction:

‘Well, they believe that when they have listed all His names – and they reckon that there are about nine billion of them – God’s purpose will be achieved. The human race will have finished what it was created to do, and there won’t be any point in carrying on. Indeed, the very idea is something like blasphemy.’

‘Then what do they expect us to do? Commit suicide?’

‘There’s no need for that. When the list’s completed, God steps in and simply winds things up … bingo!’

‘Oh, I get it. When we finish our job, it will be the end of the world.’

[...]

“Wonder if the computer’s finished its run? It was due about now.”

Chuck didn’t reply, so George swung round in his saddle. He could just see Chuck’s face, a white oval turned toward the sky.

“Look,” whispered Chuck, and George lifted his eyes to heaven. (There is always a last time for everything.)

Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.

-- "The Nine Billion Names of God"

Of course, we've already seen that neither le Guin nor Clarke were anywhere near the first to use these ideas, and perhaps not even the first in popular speculative fiction. But as the most popular/famous authors to do so, they likely had the largest effect on the subsequent development of the trope. Certainly the effect of le Guin's particular interpretation of it can often still be seen in modern fantasy novels to this day. I'm unsure how influential Clarke's sci-fi interpretation has been (indeed, it might be hard to distinguish between influence from his story and influence directly from Jewish religious beliefs), but in any case "The Nine Billion Names of God" is probably the most famous sci-fi appearance of the "true names" trope, so I thought it was worth a mention.


References:

  • > 'The TV Tropes page entitled "I Know Your True Name" lists Ursula le Guin's Earthsea series as the Trope Codifier - the work which, while it wasn't the first to use the idea, was more popular than preceding works and provided the template for most or all later uses of the trope.' I suspect Lord of the Rings (especially the conversation with the Ents) is probably another modern influence especially for fantasy, etc. – Muzer Feb 20 '17 at 14:09
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    @Muzer Is there anything about true names in LotR? I don't recall that. – Rand al'Thor Feb 20 '17 at 23:32
  • Good answer, but if you are talking about "popularized" and mention a couple of Hugo-winning authors, but don't mention DC Comics' Mr. Mxyzptlk, I suspect we have radically different standards for "popular". :-) – T.E.D. Feb 21 '17 at 19:13
  • @T.E.D. shrug I don't know anything about comics, sorry. – Rand al'Thor Feb 21 '17 at 21:35
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This is an anthropology question, not a literature question, since the idea is much older than writing. The idea is present in many different cultures, and we don't know whether there it has been invented independently many times or there is a single origin, just like we don't know this regarding spoken language in general.

You mention four properties which don't always go together. The secrecy of the true name, and the idea that knowing someone's true name allows you to control them, go together — if the true name gives people power over you then you'd better keep that name secret. That you have to totally understand someone in order to know their true name is rather uncommon — it's usually the opposite: knowing the name reveals the important things about the person. While people may or may not intrinsically know their true name, that name is usually given to them, so they will know it. I suspect that the idea that knowing one's true name involves knowing oneself well is non-traditional, unlike the other three properties you mention.

TVTropes lists a few examples of cultures with a concept of true names. (At the time I write this, the Wikipedia article is rather substandard, with only very few examples and not at all an encyclopedic view of the topic).

In several cultures, everybody has a true name which is only known to them and to a very few people (the shaman or parent who performed some baptismal or initiation ritual and possibly a few very close relatives such as their parents and their spouse, or some important people in the tribe). For example, the Aranda people in Australia (Ashley Montagu). Navajo people have a secret name which is only known to the person, to the relative who named them, and in religious ceremonies (I can't find a good online reference; ObLiterature: this comes up in Tony Hillerman's Navajo Tribal Police mysteries). Sioux (at least males) have secret names which are usually conferred by a winkte (John Fire, Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions: The Life of a Sioux Medecine Man, p. 117). Some Hawaiian people receive a secret name which is announced by gods in a dream and kept in the family (Laura C. Green and Martha W. Beckwith, “Hawaiian Customs and beliefs relating to birth and infancy”, American Anthropologist vol. 26 issue 2, 2009, p. 240; they cite a story where conferring a baby a name revives her). Tuareg have secret names conferred by older female relatives which are not revealed while the person is alive (1 2).

An example you're probably familiar with if you're familiar with Western culture is this concept applied to God. In the Old Testament, the name of God is written — but only the consonants, so the true name of God (including the vowels) is not (or no longer) known. Furthermore, even the “common” name of God is often eschewed: Jews and Christians often use circumlocutions such as “the Lord”. The idea that knowing the secret name of a god gives power over them was probably not original to Judaism, since it is also found in Egyptian myth. Judaism doesn't apply the concept as strongly to humans, but it is found in some Jewish cultures. For example, there are Jewish traditions of changing one's name to escape one's fate, in particular to avoid the Angel of Death who would be looking for one under one's original name. Gravely ill people might thus change their name. A Dictionary of Jewish Names and Their History by Benzion C. Kaganoff, p. 101ff. discusses this tradition in more detail. I think this is actually an atypical example: being able to change one's true name (as in, a name that has power) is uncommon. A custom with a similar purpose is found in Hawaii where people will sometimes give children a name that will repulse the spirit that would take the child away (Green & Beckwith, op. cit., p. 239. Christianity tends to avoid true names for humans, though the concept is not incompatible (for example many Christian Sioux still have secret names). These are just a few examples among many. An Anthropology of Names and Naming by Gabriele vom Bruck and Barbara Bodenhorn (eds.) discusses more examples.

Many cultures have a folk tale where an evil wizard is defeated because the victim finds the wizard's true name and that gives them, if not complete control of the wizard, then at least the ability to nullify their enchantment. In Aarne-Thompson's classification, this is type 500, “the Name of the Helper”. In Grimm's tales, this is “Rumpelstiltskin“. A tale with a similar resolution exists in cultures with no historical links such as Japan (Daiku to Oniroku).

More generally, secret names can apply to non-human adversaries. Knowing the name of a demon can be necessary to exorcise it — this is found in modern fantasy, but has its root in folklore and religion (including Catholicism). The Encyclopedia of Medical Anthropology (Carol R. Ember and Melvin Ember, ed.), p. 1013 cites the example of the Wape people of New Guinea who attribute some illnesses to a demon which must be chased away by someone who knows the demon's secret name. Besides gods (as mentioned above) and demons, other entities can have a secret name. There are cultures where a hunter must know the secret name of the beast that they are hunting.

Even when a name is not secret, it may confer power. Many cultures avoid speaking the name of dead people, ostensibly because it might invoke their ghost. In some New Guinean cultures, one must not say one's spouse's name or more generally the names of one's in-laws (James George Frazer, Aftermath: A Supplement to The Golden Bough, p. 272; this passage gives many other examples of name-related taboos).

Fantasy, obviously, can play with this idea by setting the rules. It relies on ubiquitous, but vague cultural foundations — most readers would be familiar with the idea that names have power, even if they can't pinpoint a specific source (which there wouldn't be, unless the reader is from a culture where this idea is strong).

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    Now that I've read through this properly, it's actually an excellent answer. Perhaps it would benefit from some headers, bold text, or an executive summary so that it's more easy to take in the essential points at a glance? – Rand al'Thor Feb 19 '17 at 12:03
  • The bit about only the consonants being written in "Old Testament" God....I hear that a lot, usually from Christian ministers. The thing is, in written Hebrew there are no vowels. Semetic languages (including Hebrew) have a unique feature where the vowels are predictable, and thus their "alphabets" tend to actually be abjads which economizes on the number of symbols needed. True, their written word for "God" traditionally has no vowels, but all their words are that way. – T.E.D. Feb 21 '17 at 19:20
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    @T.E.D. The reason the word for “God” is special is not that it has been written no vowel, it's that it's the word for God. After the vowels got lost because they weren't preserved in the oral tradition, the idea emerged that the lack of knowledge about the name reflected a lack of knowledge about the idea. It's (presumably) a reconstruction after the fact, but it's a reconstruction by Jews, it isn't an external misconception, if that's what you're implying. – Gilles Feb 21 '17 at 20:38

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