On names

25 March 2016

I.

I learned from fairy tales—the old fairy tales, the ones with more blood and confusion and fewer happy endings—that one of the most important things you could have was your name. Names were power. You kept your true name a secret, or anyone who possessed it could have power over you. If you gave up your name, you might give up yourself.

Of course, this also worked the other way around. Sometimes you could get someone else’s name, guess or puzzle or force it out. This was useful if he who held the name was bargaining straw spun into gold for your firstborn or something similar. Unlikely, in these new times, but, well, it never hurts to be prepared.

The story I thought about most often when it came to magic and names was Tam Lin, the Scottish ballad I had encountered via modern retellings, where the shadowy title character was a dark tempter who skulked at the edge of the forest and demanded from maidens who strayed too far from town either one of their possessions or their virginity. Our heroine, Janet, is stirred by empathy, and learns that Tam Lin is in actuality held in thrall by the Fairy Queen, who intends to hand him over on Halloween as her required tithe to Hell. To save him, Janet has to pull him from the Queen’s company of knights and hold fast to him as the Queen’s magic transforms him from spitting beast to writhing reptile to burning coal, until, at last, he returns to mortal form and the Queen relinquishes her claim. To save him, Janet must know his true identity, his mortal name and lineage, and believe in that beyond what she sees in front of her.

I always thought it was unfair that this story is named after Tam Lin, the passive, hapless prize, rather than Janet, the woman who does all the work. Her name does not form the legend. Maybe it was because of this that I inverted the story’s lesson, and took it as a reminder to protect my own name so that no one could hurt or claim me. When I walked the edges of forests, or sidewalks in unfamiliar cities, when twilight fell and the boundaries between me and other worlds began to fade, I was wary. I expected someone to take something from me. I learned to hold fast to my self. I spoke my name silently, so no one could hear it and so I wouldn’t forget it.

II.

For most of my life, I hated my first name. It was the most popular one given to girls born in the time and place in which I was born, and its commonality seemed a personal failing on my part. There was always someone else with the same name in one of my school classes. One year there was even another girl with the same first and last names. I longed to be unique. I wished for a name that would confer on me an identity that would define me beyond the dim circumstances I often felt myself in.

When I was a shy, isolated, dissatisfied teenager, I looked up my name in a book written for parents to pick names for their babies based on what most people thought of when they heard that name. I learned that when people heard my name, they thought of a popular, pretty cheerleader. Back that book went on the shelf.

At age twenty, I made a deliberate decision to be known by a shortened version of my hated name. It was a grab for power, an attempt to exercise some agency over who I was and how the world knew me. It also separated me from the people who knew me as the other name, who, either inadvertently or consciously, limited me with that past self. Fifteen years later, with no left around who calls me by my full name other than bank tellers or doctors, I realized I accomplished what I had wanted. I had created a new identity out of my own desire and my own work. In fact, if I hadn’t been given such a common name in the beginning, I might not have been so motivated to make it mean something significant.

Now I have two names. One is known and one is almost secret, hiding in plain sight. They mean different things. I love them both.

III.

I gave my daughter a name that is one of the most common names for girls in the history of Western culture. It belongs to beloved book characters, folktale serial killers and queens. It’s a long name that is almost always shortened to a nickname by its holder. I gave it to her for that very reason. I wanted her to always be reminded that her specific identity was her choice. I built into her name the power to make her own, so that she wouldn’t have to ever be frustrated by the lack of it.

So far she has chosen to be known by the full, long name. This is not the choice I expected, but it is her choice. I respect it. If she decides that she needs a different name down the road, to reflect an identity that my limited view did not foresee, I’ll respect that too. The name I gave her was never about the name. It was about the power.

It was the most valuable thing that I thought I could give.

IV.

A few years ago, I talked idly with a man I thought that I might marry, who seemed to like the idea of taking my last name. I responded enthusiastically to the rebellious progressiveness of it, but, underneath, I wondered about the desire. I wondered if anyone should change such a thing on any terms other their own. I wondered about the structure it sought to subvert. How normal it was for me to be expected to change my name, my identity. At that point, as now, I knew I had earned both, and I had no intention of giving up either. But I supported his desire, even as I didn’t share it.

He took off at the end of that year. Years after the pain subsided, I discovered I was glad my name was still my own, and mine alone.

V.

I’m finally old enough to read fairy tales again. One has to wait for that sort of thing to happen. One has to live long enough to see the truth under their shiny surface. Fairy tales have changed, you know. They used to be stories that grown-ups told, full of fear and violence and sex and death. Full of all the things we don’t know how to deal with.

It’s easy to see this if you trace the evolution of some of the particular stories. Take, for example, Sleeping Beauty. The original Italian version featured not a prince who stumbles across a sleeping maid but a married king. Failing to wake her, the king simply rapes her and leaves. She wakes nine months later after one of the children she bore sucked the splinter that caused her sleep from her finger. The now awake young woman is later taken back to the kingdom and has to deal with the king’s wife, who is literally an ogre who subjects those she doesn’t like to rolling barrels filled with sharp nails. Charles Perrault, when he retold the tale for French aristocracy, transformed the king into a virginal prince, who wakes the sleeping beauty with a chaste kiss and decorously, religiously marries her before anything else takes place. Perrault only objected to the extramarital sex, however—the gruesome deaths at an ogre’s hands (now the prince’s mother) was totally cool, and he kept that entire chapter. The Grimm Brothers were the ones who thought the nails in barrels was going a little too far, and nixed it in their own retelling. Then Disney got a hold of it. And there we are.

There are two things you need to know about stories: the first is that there is always something serious underneath them, and the second is that they can always be retold. The same is true about names.

I don’t walk quite so warily as I used to. I’ve learned that few things in the world are clearly defined and that we’re all always walking in borderlands, in dim twilight that is never really day nor night. That’s just the way it is. There may be threats in the shadows, but there are a few truths you can hold on to in order to make it through. Know who you are and what you possess. Know your name and know who to trust with it.

And the rest you just make up as you go.

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