true names

In Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, young Will Stanton is warned against revealing his true name, as it can be used to conjure against him by the enemy.

Sound familiar? The Eragon and Earthsea series get a lot of mileage from the discovery and use of true names. In the Harry Potter books they call Voldemort “You-Know-Who” to avoid inadvertently attracting his attention. Without any research we can trace this well-worn fantasy trope back at least as far as Rumpelstiltskin, wherein the gold-spinning troll will relinquish the Queen’s firstborn child only if she can guess his name.

Christenings and other infant naming ceremonies still radiate the aura of our old beliefs in the sacred power of names. Now that I’m realizing how important names are in my sons’ favorite books, I sort of wish we’d bestowed them with secret names, as well as their legal ones. Maybe carved a rune-tablet or medallion to present to each of them at puberty’s onset, some solemn avowal of their special destiny in the world.

I suppose we could always invent such things retrospectively. Solicit their creative input, or–oooh!–have them keep their true name even from their parents, and show only the symbols they choose to represent it.  How romantic is that??

I smell another rainy-Saturday craft session in the works…

the original

My dad read me The Hobbit when I was ten years old.  I barely remembered the story, from back then–just the pleasantness of the together-time, and the fact that my little brother got scared at one point and left the room.

But when I read Eragon to my own ten-year-old, I kept having deja vu.  By the time we got to the scene with the precarious ledge around the lake leading to the dwarves’ caves, where the menacing battle-trolls are bearing down on the heroes, I remembered where I’d heard it before.

So I pulled out The Hobbit.  Some of it we read aloud, and some we listened to in the car (a strategem I should add to the list for reluctant readers) after I downloaded the audiobook.  And yup: this book clearly struck the precedent for all kinds of fantasy that has followed it.  Some of Dr. Tolkien’s bar-setting renditions of mythological motifs include the unlikely hero, the band of helpers, the magical object, tunnelling into the dark, riddling with the enemy, thieving from the hoard, and rescue from the skies.

But in my opinion Tolkien’s highest accomplishment is his narrative voice: that benevolent, fatherly, omniscient voice that guides us with wisdom and humor through Bilbo’s adventure.  And when it comes to voice, a truer inheritor of Tolkien than the author of the Eragon books is Neil Gaiman. 

Reading The Graveyard Book aloud, as with The Hobbit, I felt powerful and wise, like I was wearing the mantle of a fireside grandfather.  

If you (or your kids) are dragon fans, or series fans, you’ll read Paolini sooner or later.  But don’t let The Hobbit give you the slip.  And regardless of your tastes in fiction, don’t pass up The Graveyard Book–it’s very, very special.