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Welcome once more, dear readers.

“Who are you and where do you come from, may I ask?”

inquires Smaug. (The Hobbit, Chapter 12, “Inside Information”)


Earlier in The Hobbit, when asked this indirectly by Gollum, Bilbo had replied directly: “I am Mr.


Bilbo Baggins…” (The Hobbit, Chapter 5, “Riddles in the Dark”)

This had led him into a deadly game of riddles, but now Bilbo seems more wary—which is just as well, as the narrator tells us when Bilbo answers Smaug’s question indirectly:

“This of course is the way to talk to dragons, if you don’t want to reveal your proper name (which is wise), and don’t want to infuriate them by a flat refusal (which is also very wise).” (The Hobbit, Chapter 12, “Inside Information”)

Bilbo’s answer to Smaug’s question about his identity is a series of what we might call “What Have I Got In My Pocket?” names—riddling titles which, just like that absent-minded remark, only Bilbo can understand:

“I am the clue-finder, the web-cutter, the stinging fly. I was chosen for the lucky number…I am he that buries his friends alive and drowns them and draws them alive again from the water. ..I am the friend of bears and the guest of eagles. I am Ringwinner and Luckwearer; and I am Barrel-rider.” (The Hobbit, Chapter 12, “Inside Information”)

All of these titles are references to events earlier in the story, of course, although a number of them, like “Ringwinner”, also sound like Norse or Old English kennings—that is, poetic names for often ordinary things, like “whale road” for “sea” and “wave’s horse” for “ship” or “sky candle” for “sun”. One which is close to Bilbo’s “Ringwinner“ is “ring-giver”, a kenning for a “lord”. Because they refer to personal experiences, Bilbo—and we readers—must assume that they would mean nothing to Smaug—or almost—

“Ha! Ha! You admit the ‘us’?” laughed Smaug. “Why not say ‘us fourteen’ and be done with it, Mr. Lucky Number?”

A lucky guess? (And interesting that, in Middle-earth, there are such things as “lucky numbers”—we wonder how many more examples of “lucky” vs “unlucky” things we might find?)

The narrator had said that not revealing your proper name is wise and the consequence of Bilbo’s mistake in telling Gollum that he is “Mr. Bilbo Baggins” will appear many years later, in the form of sinister visitors to the Shire, offering money for the location of “Baggins”.


There can be physical danger, then, in properly identifying yourself.

There may be another reason for not doing so and it could entail physical danger not for the protagonist in the story, but a surprise threat for the antagonist.

When Odysseus and his men visit the cave of the Cyclops, Polyphemus,


and are trapped there, Odysseus, when asked by Polyphemus, gives a false name: Outis (OO-tis), meaning “No one/nobody” in Greek. His subsequent action would suggest that the reason why he does so is that—as he says himself—he has a reputation (for cleverness) which reaches to the heavens. By providing a false name, he intends to put the Cyclops off his guard before defeating him, which he does by:

  1. getting him drunk


  1. blinding him


  1. slipping himself and his men out of Polyphemus’ cave under the bellies of the Cyclops’ sheep.


Having succeeded, however, Odysseus seems to change his plan—and mind—completely, shouting, as his ship takes him away, his name and address, even as the Cyclops hurls huge rocks at the ship and his men beg him to stop.


In the mind of an Homeric hero, however, Odysseus has no choice.

A major element in the life of such heroes is something called “kleos” (KLAY-oss)—which is somewhat difficult to translate. In the heroic world it means something like “personal name within the larger framework of a family and its reputation”—and that’s only the beginning. Kleos is almost a kind of inheritable object and includes such elements as:

  1. divine/semi-divine parents/ancestors
  2. divine patrons
  3. father’s reputation
  4. own reputation, which includes
  5. famous battles/campaigns participated in
  6. famous enemies killed (and spoils taken)
  7. plunder from cities sacked (includes not only goods, but women)

And #4 could be something to be said for parent or ancestor, as well. Your father or grandfather might have been known as “Sacker of Cities” and this adds to the general kleos.

It’s also possible to lose kleos—divinities pick and choose whom they will help, for example, and, just because your father was the client of a god, doesn’t mean that you will be. It is a definitely positive sign for Odysseus’ family’s continued kleos, for example, when, in Odyssey Books 2 and 3, Athena, disguised as the human Mentor, appears and offers Odysseus’ son, Telemachus, advice.

The Homeric world is a so-called “face” culture. In such a culture, everything is public. In fact, the word kleos comes from the verb kalo (kah-LO), meaning to “to summon/call by name”, that name being, in the case of a warrior, not only your name but where you stand in your family’s reputation, its kleos.

Thus, it’s important, when a warrior defeats a powerful enemy, not only should the enemy warrior know who beat him, but all the bystanders, should there be any, as well.


For Odysseus, then, using a false name might give him an initial advantage over Polyphemus, but his victory is only complete and he can only claim kleos when he reveals to the Cyclops who has defeated him. This will lead to terrible subsequent consequences for Odysseus. Polyphemus’ father is Poseidon, god of the seas


and he will make things very difficult for Odysseus later in the Odyssey,


but, in the world of kleos, Odysseus has no choice but to reveal himself to gain the credit necessary for maintaining it.

Another reason for concealing your name has to do with magic. In many of the world’s older traditional cultures, people might have several names, either in succession, or public versus private. Behind the public versus private stands the idea that you are your name—that is, all that is you is embodied in your name. If someone knows that name, that person can use that name against you, either to curse you—and, using your real name, that curse might stick to it—or to summon you for magical purposes. Once your true name is called, a sorcerer can make you obey, even against your will.

In Odyssey 10, Odysseus and his men land on an island which is the home of the enchantress, Circe.


She has the power to shift the shapes of men into those of animals and vice versa, as a scouting party from Odysseus’ ship soon finds out. She gives them a drink with some sort of magic drugs mixed in and, with a wave of her staff, turns them into pigs (although they retain their human minds).


She then tries this on Odysseus, but, in his case, it doesn’t work, much to her surprise, and he, drawing his sword, quickly forces her surrender.


There is no direct explanation for the failure of her magic in Book 10, but there is, in fact, a clue in the word she uses for Odysseus in her frustration. She calls him “akaletes” (ah-KAH-leh-tehs)—which means “unsummonable/uncallable by name” and is from the same root as kleos and kalo. The implication here is that, for her magic to work, she needs a name—something we might presume Odysseus’ piggy companions must have foolishly given her. That he is unsummonable suggests that he has given her a false name and therefore her magic hasn’t worked.

And is this perhaps the real reason why it was wise that Bilbo didn’t identify himself directly to Smaug?


After all, Smaug, unlike the agents of Sauron, wasn’t likely to roam the countryside, offering gold in return for information about the whereabouts of a certain “Baggins”. He does, however, appear to have a certain persuasive magic:

“Bilbo was now beginning to feel really uncomfortable. Whenever Smaug’s roving eye, seeking for him in the shadows, flashed across him, he trembled, and an unaccountable desire seized hold of him to rush out and reveal himself and tell all the truth to Smaug. In fact he was in grievous danger of coming under the dragon-spell.” (The Hobbit, Chapter 12, “Inside Information”)

That magic seems to lie in his words and tone—Bilbo, listening, is said to be in peril of “dragon-talk”—and we want to talk more about such magical persuasion in our next posting…

Thanks, as ever, for reading!