There’s a really old storytelling trope: A trickster girl — and it is usually a girl — overcomes an Opponent with word play rather than physical tousle. Oftentimes the ‘word play’ is simply guessing the opponent’s real name.
This post contains Breaking Bad spoilers. But hopefully you’ve already seen that if you wanted to.
The Importance Of Names
It’s common for characters on ego-trips to insist on usage of their name. One of my primary school principals insisted on being called “Miss Jones” at the end of every single sentence. If you slipped up and said “Yes” to one of her questions, she pulled you up and required you to say “Yes, Miss Jones.” She was a lot of fun. And probably military trained.
Miss Jones was my real-life 1980s example of “I’m the god damn Batman.” Getting your name all over the place is the ultimate power trip.
But in story, outsized ego often leads to your own downfall. This is because one’s name is a metonym for honour and reputation, more so in some cultures than in others. According to the mythology of Scotland, for instance, everyone came from the one ancestral clan, passed down through the male line. Even after marriage Scottish women traditionally keep their own names, but this isn’t for a feminist reason: names are so very important to one’s identity that you can’t get a new one simply by getting married. Women are accepted as demi-members of their husbands’ families — demi because they aren’t given his name.
In storytelling, to lose your name is one way of losing your identity. This is utilised by Hayao Miyazaki in Spirited Away when Chihiro becomes Sen when she starts working at the bathhouse. She will only get her name back after she proves her dedication to hard work as the salve to all of her problems.
There are other ways storytellers convey the idea that losing one’s identity is the worst. In Peter Pan and Wendy (and later in Hook) to grow up is to lose your identity. However, it’s interesting that the loss of name, or replacement of ‘real’ name with ‘nick name’ often happens in stories where your identity is more generally lost.
The I Know Your True Name Trope
You will see this trope across fairytales. The stand-out example: Rumpelstiltskin. When the princess discovers the goblin’s name she has won the Big Struggle.
In the classic Rumpelstiltskin plot, the princess hasn’t simply learned the goblin’s name: She has learned how mean he really is. She’s got the measure of him. The name stands for True Self.
When you’re really, really bad, the act of being known is in itself a destructive act. Ironically, the really, really bad character puts up the challenge: See if you can work out who I really am. Bet you can’t. I’m smarter than you, after all.
The trope can also be seen in myths from antiquity, such as the story of Lilith, who had a number of secret names. When Elijah learned her names — and also the nature of her evil — he had the upper hand.
The Say My Name Trope In Contemporary Storytelling
You’ll see the Say My Name trope in contemporary storytelling — not just in old fairytales.
It often goes hand in hand with shapeshifting: Once the hero(ine) says the opponent’s name, the opponent may change into something else.
Recently I watched Split (by M. Night Shyalaman) and noticed the initial Big Struggle scene was Rumpelstiltskin-esque. Spoiler (actually the film spoils itself — I have several issues with it, politically): the abducted surviving heroine finds a note from the baddy’s newly murdered psychologist instructing her to use the baddy’s real name in order to snap him out of his dissociative state.
Kevin Wendell Crumb!” she chants. “Kevin Wendell Crumb!” This sends the DID (dissociative identity disordered) opponent into a tailspin and precipitates a (long, drawn-out) big struggle between the forces of good and evil.
The baddie changes into The Beast. Shapeshifting.
Straight out of Rumpelstiltskin.
The episode was originally titled something different, but the writers room must have intuited how great that quote is, and pulled it for the episode title.
“Say my name” refers to Walter’s demand for Declan to call him Heisenberg during their confrontation by urging him to “say my name”. Some viewers have called the Say My Name scene Walt’s ‘Icarus Moment’, when his ego is at its peak. (Icarus is more broadly about ego. I’m after a name more specific when referring to this trope.)
Walter White, like Rumpelstiltskin, is on a power trip. And like Rumpelstiltskin, he’s about to meet his maker. In many versions of the fairytale, Rumpelstiltskin dies after stomping in fire. (Nope, in fairytales stomping on fire does not put the fire out — it puts you out.) In Breaking Bad, Walter is also ‘put out’ in a blaze of fire (gun fire). So is Hank, his foil.
By the airing of the “Say My Name” episode, everyone (including me) was waiting with bated breath to find out how Breaking Bad was going to end. Only in hindsight, everything was right there for us, leading to exactly that ending. If I’d seen the Rumpelstiltskin connection, and how Walt was so insistent about people knowing and using his name, I’d have predicted his fate.
This is how writers make endings feel both surprising and inevitable. I wonder if even the writers made the Rumpelstiltskin connection, or if they were telling the story of Walter White at a deeply subconscious level.
For more examples, see the I Know Your True Name entry at TV Tropes.
Why is this trope so enduring?
Just guessing here, but maybe angry mothers have been calling children by their full-names literally since children EVEN HAD full names. When our mothers call us by our full names we don’t call that a trope, but in fiction it’s known as the Full Name Ultimatum. Full names are scary!
In her book From The Beast To The Blonde, Marina Warner has a more considered answer for us. First, she begins with by describing a main function of fairytales:
Fairy tales […] concern themselves with sexual distinctions, and with sexual transgression, with defining differences according to morals and mores. This interest forms part of the genre’s larger engagement with the marvellous, for the marvellous is understood to be impossible. The realms of wonder and impossibility converge, and fairy tales function to conjure the first in order to delineate the second: magic paradoxically defines normality. Hence the recurrence, in such stories, of metamorphoses, disguises and above all the impossible tasks—the adynata—of folk narrative.
Did you know what adynaton is, as literary technique? (Me neither.) Now we get examples:
These can take an active form: that the protagonist should fill a crippled pail with four-leaved clovers, as in Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy’s ‘Serpentin vert‘, or that the quester should come neither clothed nor naked, neither riding nor walking, neither bearing a gift nor not bearing one.
This is all part of a wider chapter about The Queen of Sheba, a character from the Bible.
This riddling demand, made in traditional tales in many different languages, was given to King Solomon and the Trickster Marcoulf in medieval texts, and to the poor peasant’s clever daughter in the Russian fairy tale, collected in the nineteenth century. Verbal riddles do not always invite performed solutions, but Sheba’s to Solomon do, and in her role in these stories she takes the place of the lowlife, cunning figure, like Marcolf, or the quick-witted peasant girl, as she tries to have the advantage over Solomon. This riddle is solved when the subject of the challenge rides on a goat (or a hare), with one shoe off and one shoe on, one leg on the ground, draped only in a net, and carrying a hare (or a quail) which springs to freedom as soon as he or she arrives.
The riddling story is found all over the place, Warner explains:
The riddles posed by Sheba relate to the matter and the manner of many fairy tales, which dramatise ‘witches’ duels‘: in these the heroine or hero confounds the powers of fairy evil by surpassing them in verbal adroitness, in tricksters.
The Devil is the ultimate trickster.
The Devil turns tricks, but those who elude him can outsmart him at his own game.
In one of the highly popular ballad versions of ‘The Elfin-Knight’, for instance, a story which exists in different forms all over the world (the most famous being ‘Rumpelstiltskin’, hero of the Brothers Grimm’s popular tale of that name), the heroine wrestles with the Elfin-Knight, who would snatch her away to the underworld as his bride, by using her verbal wit against his power. The Devil who has come for her in marriage sets her ten riddling questions, and she replies staunchly to all of them. […]
This all relates back to a religious view of earlier times. People really did used to believe this, hence the entire concept of blasphemy:
Only God can remain the Unnameable: naming the Devil, knowing him for what he is, undoes his power.
See also: Symbolic Names in Storytelling