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  • “And She Named Her Own Name”:Being True To One’s Word in Tolkien’s Middle-earth
  • Richard C. West (bio)

Picture the scene as the quest of Beren and Lúthien comes to its climax. The fortress of Thangorodrim, walled by mountains, redoubtable, all but impregnable, has defeated supernaturally powerful armies of Elves and will not be conquered until the Valar (one might say the gods themselves) form an army to come against it. In the "nethermost hall, that was upheld by horror, lit by fire, and filled with weapons of death and torment" (S 180) is the throne room of its ruler, attended and guarded by fierce wolves, Orcs, and many Balrog-lords (Lays 296). (We may remember that in a later age a single Balrog proved a formidable enough foe for the Fellowship of the Ring.) On the throne sits a darkly majestic figure. Once he was one of the best and brightest of the Valar, in Tolkien's mythology the godlike or (from a more Christian point of view) the angelic beings who helped imagine and shape the universe before the Creator gave it being, albeit he was one whose contributions often marred the design. Now he is that design's chief adversary (in Hebrew, a satan), seeking to bend that creation to his own selfish will. He is named Melkor, "He who arises in Might" (S 340), but by this time is more often called Morgoth, the Black Enemy (S 341). He is lame in his left foot from a wound inflicted by the mighty Elf-King Fingolfin, who dared to face him in single combat but was killed in a terrible battle. His once-handsome face is scarred by the talons of Thorondor, Lord of Eagles (S 180). On his head he wears an iron crown in which are set the three Silmarils which he stole, and which alone preserve the light and power of the Two Trees that once (before they were destroyed at his instigation) illuminated the land of the Valar.

It is a scene that might daunt the hardiest. Indeed, the great hero Beren, who is in the shape of a wolf, hides beneath the throne, terrified. This is not because he lacks courage, either physical or moral: "…yet was he braver than most," as the narrator of "The Tale of Tinúviel" puts it (Lost Tales II 11). He has been fighting guerrilla warfare for most of his life, slain many fearsome enemies, stood up to an Elf King, endured a harsh imprisonment, deliberately taken an arrow meant for Lúthien, and passed through many other perils on the quest to reach this point. He will accomplish many more valorous deeds after this. But in this scene he is facing what, in Tolkien's mythology, is essentially the Devil himself in his [End Page 1] very seat of power, and Beren is only a mortal man. To be scared out of one's wits is a touch of realism within the fantasy.

The contrast makes Lúthien's courage all the more remarkable. Not only does she confront Morgoth in his inner sanctum before his fiendish court, but she throws off the disguise that has allowed her to enter Thangorodrim, and further, as the summary in chapter XIX of The Silmarillion so startlingly phrases it, "and she named her own name" (S 180). Clever Morgoth had already seen that there was another person under her bat-disguise, recognizing the skin-change magic that had transformed her, so she loses little by discarding that. By giving her true name, however, she has, in mythological terms, placed herself in his power.1 It is perhaps the single greatest act of courage in the entire history of Middle-earth, which is not lacking in courageous actions.

Lúthien takes an enormous chance, but it works. Moreover, it works because she tells the truth. She says she has rebelled against her father by coming, and she has. Her father forbade her to go there, tried to get her to promise not to, and even imprisoned her (however comfortably) to prevent it. She says that the folk of Middle-earth whom she has met speak...