Suddenly Bilbo looked up. “Ah, there you are at last, Dúnadan!” he cried.
“Strider!” said Frodo. “You seem to have a lot of names.”
“Well, Strider is one that I haven’t heard before, anyway,” said Bilbo. “What do you call him that for?”

Why is it that things in Middle Earth have so many names? It’s as if Tolkien’s narrative landscape was tunneled through with linguistic rabbit holes, teeming with broods of playful and proliferating names. Black Riders, Ringwraiths, and Nazgul; Rivendell, the Last Homely House, Imladris; Strider, Aragorn, the Dúnadan—it seems as if being a person or place of importance in Middle Earth requires at least three different names, one of which must be in a foreign language if at all possible.

The meetings at Rivendell, and the tales told at the Council of Elrond in the chapter following, must have worked on Tolkien like so many excuses for enriching the treasure-trove of Middle-Earthling names. The character who was Tom Bombadil several chapters ago becomes Iarwain Ben-adar, Forn, and Orald during the Council of Elrond; and the sneaking culprit who bears so much of the blame for the Ring is revealed not only as Gollum but as Sméagol, who is to become Slinker and Stinker before his tale is done.

And this is not even counting the epithets. Frodo is dubbed both the Halfling and the Ring-Bearer, just as Elrond is the Half-Elven and Gandalf is the Grey. The Ring itself is variously the One Ring and Isildur’s Bane. Even Sauron, who does not seem to have another proper name—certainly not one as decorous and awe-inspiring as “Tom Riddle”—has an entourage of epithets that include “the Dark Lord,” “the Necromancer,” and “the Enemy.”

And so it seems that any being of any importance or lineage in Middle Earth bears many names, and indeed cannot avoid bearing them. Interestingly, the lone class of beings to largely escape these multiple namings is the Hobbits. They are named in our common modern way of First Name, Last Name, and that is very likely because they are neither important enough to have epithets (except in the case of a prodigy like the Old Took), nor adventurous enough to win other names. (Think of how many multiple namings arise from the same thing being named in multiple languages. That is a phenomenon that no respectable Hobbit would wander far enough to suffer.)

This fanciful proliferation of names, I believe, is ultimately not merely fanciful. If it does nothing else, it contributes its tuppence to the three-dimensional texture of Middle Earth as a world of intelligent beings. Things are named diversely because diverse languages name them, or because diverse qualities inhere in them. A name picks out what is most salient from someone’s particular angle of vision. Thus, Isildur’s Bane means nothing to Frodo until he hears the story of Isildur; but to the Heirs of Isildur, the epithet strikes closer to home than the mere noun “the Ring.” So it is with the Last Homely House and Imladris. The first conveys to us all the comfort of a chair by a fire; the last conveys all the magic and mystery of an unexplored fairy kingdom.

All this seems to be roughly what lies in the background of Bilbo and Frodo’s exchange on the names of Aragorn. It is tempting to think that Tolkien included the brief conversation just to make his linguistic point. For Aragorn explains to Bilbo that he is called Strider by a particular folk (the Bree-landers), much as he will explain to Boromir in the following chapter that travelers give the Rangers scornful names. The striding and wandering quality—“Longshanks” as Bill Ferny puts it—is what stands out about the Rangers to such a folk. But as Bilbo goes on to demonstrate in Elvish, the name of “the Dúnadan” when applied to Aragorn is fraught with import. It means “Man of the West, Numenorean,” and is not only what stands out to the Elves when they look at the weather-beaten Ranger, but is closer to the reality of who he is.

And so I say: let the names be fruitful and multiply, and replenish all of Middle Earth.