Are you going to Middle-Earth this weekend?
“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” the first in Peter Jackson’s movie trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 novel, premieres Friday.
Tolkien was a professor of philology, the study of ancient languages and texts. He was fascinated by names, which stay in use long after their original meaning is forgotten.
Tolkien’s Middle-Earth is a fantasy world thousands of years old. He created its history long before “The Hobbit.” His names often have complex origins in languages he invented himself.
For example, Galadriel, immortal Elven queen in “The Lord of the Rings,” was first named Alatáriel, “maiden crowned with a radiant garland,” in the ancient Quenya tongue. This was translated into Sindarin, a later Elven language, as Galadriel, with the same meaning.
Then the name was confused with Sindarin “galadh,” meaning “tree,” and was reinterpreted as “Lady of the Trees,” fitting Galadriel’s rule over forested Lothlórien.
Bilbo, hero of “The Hobbit,” is one of the few characters whose name Tolkien didn’t explain. Tolkien scholar John Rateliff says Bilbo is a “short, simple, made-up name appropriate for a hero of a children’s book.”
While Tolkien was writing “The Hobbit,” though, there was a famous American Bilbo. Theodore G. Bilbo (1877-1947), twice governor of Mississippi, was elected to the Senate from that state in 1934.
While governor, Bilbo gave a newspaper interview sitting in a bathtub smoking a cigar. While senator, he proudly admitted membership in the Ku Klux Klan.
Though he was considered an embarrassment in Washington, Mississippians loved him. The 1940 census found 300 Americans with the first name Bilbo, almost all in Mississippi.
Perhaps Tolkien read about Sen. Bilbo and then forgot where he heard the name. It wouldn’t be his only such lapse. In 1956, Tolkien received a letter from a real Sam Gamgee, who had the same name as the heroic hobbit in “The Lord of the Rings”.
Tolkien chose “Gamgee” as a comic name because his family called cotton balls “gamgee.” He didn’t realize this was a brand name for surgical cotton made by the Gamgee family.
The real Sam Gamgee’s full first name was Sampson; Tolkien’s character was Samwise.
Tolkien created the name Frodo for the other hobbit hero in “The Lord of the Rings” from the Germanic root “frod,” meaning “wise.” Though Tolkien said Samwise meant “simple minded,” it’s fitting that both hobbits making the awful trek to Mordor to destroy the deadly Ring have names related to “wisdom.”
After getting Gamgee’s letter, Tolkien wrote, “for some time I lived in fear of receiving a letter signed ‘S. Gollum.’”
Tolkien sometimes accidentally named characters after real people. Some fans name real children after Tolkien’s characters.
Social Security’s yearly baby name lists contain all names given to five or more boys or girls a year. “The Lord of the Rings” became a phenomenon when cheap paperback copies were published around 1965. In 1969, five American girls each were named Galadriel and Arwen.
Arwen, Galadriel’s granddaughter, gives up her Elven immortality to marry Aragorn. Tolkien said her name meant “noble maiden” in Sindarin.
Arwen is the most popular Tolkien name for real babies. In 1975, 35 newborn Arwens appeared, with at least five most years since. After Jackson’s film series debuted in 2001, the number of Arwens grew to 166 in 2004. Seventy-three were born in 2011.
Eowyn, the warrior maiden who’s the third main woman character in “Rings,” first appears on the chart in 1975, when six were born. Eowyn means “horse-joy” in Rohirric, a language Tolkien based on Old English.
Before the films, no more than nine Eowyns were born any one year. The movie Eowyn’s bravery, and the sound of her name, appealed to young parents. At least 50 have arrived yearly since 2003.
Galadriel is much more rare, the number peaking at 15 in 2003.
Tolkien’s male names haven’t had as much impact, partly because parents are more reluctant to give unusual names to sons. Five boys were named Aragorn (“revered king” in Sindarin) in 1970, the most in any year before 2002. Fourteen Aragorns arrived in 2004, but less than five yearly since 2006.
Strider, Aragorn’s nickname, fits with today’s fashionable sounds. It’s been on the charts since 2002, though the most born any one year was 12.
Orlando Bloom’s film role as Elven warrior Legolas (“green leaf” in Sindarin) led to seven newborns in the single year 2003. Samwise just barely made the charts four times in recent years.
Theoden (Rohirric “peoples’ leader”), Eowyn’s uncle, is the only male “Rings” name to chart every year since the films premiered, probably because Theo and Leo and names ending in –den like Aiden and Caden both are fashionable. Still, only 10 were born in 2011.
The one “Hobbit” character to get real namesakes is Thorin Oakenshield, leader of Bilbo’s Dwarven companions. Though a real Old Norse name, Thorin’s rare in Scandinavia. Modern Swedes associate the name more with Tolkien’s character than ancient times.
At least five American Thorins have been born each year since 1968, with 27 in 2011, the most ever. Many fans think Richard Armitage, playing the film’s Thorin, is “too handsome” for the part. But since Thorin fits in with the “two syllables ending in –n” pattern so popular for today’s boys, he’s the character most likely to see his name boom.
Bilbo’s probably out of luck — unless Mississippians get inspired to name boys after recent ancestors.