Tag Archives: Tristan

The burden of a name

In Atlanta recently visiting my wife’s family and a nephew and niece of my own, I encountered a waitress named Tristan at a sandwich shop.

Tristan! I exclaimed. How did you, young lady, get a name like Tristan?

Well, she explained — a chubby, blond early-twenty-something — my mom saw Brad Pitt in a movie and his character was named Tristan.

Pitt as Tristan
Brad Pitt, as Tristan Ludlow, in Legends of the Fall (1994).

Certainly, Pitt starred in 1994 in Legends of the Fall, where his character sports the name Tristan Ludlow. He is one of three brothers who grow up, in early-20th-century Montana under a father who detests the government and its wars. The youngest brother brings home his fiancee, and the others fall in love with her. One not very helpful user review, at the Internet Movie Database suggests that Tristan is “A guy who does the frickle frack with the lady they kiss and stuff.”

Apart from the grammatical and analytical deficits of this demotic characterization, the movie does involve themes of loyalty and betrayal, which are what the first famous Tristan had to contend with. In Arthurian legend, the knight Tristan is the nephew of King Mark of Cornwell, charged with bringing home to his uncle as bride-to-be the beautiful Iseult from Ireland. In transport, however, a magic potion makes Tristan and Iseult fall in love. Their scandalous affair sets up tragedy, as surely in the Arthurian original as in the Wagnerian opera based on it, or the Brad Pitt movie, for that matter.

If you believe, as I do, that a name carries with it certain suggestions, even burdens, then naming a girl Tristan is a heavy load for the girl to carry. Should she grow up to act more like a man than a woman, whatever that means? Be dashing, passionate, and adulterous? Be in thrall to a Hollywood role or pop-culture expectations?

Of course, it’s our parents who name us, and they may have in mind, in naming, ideas or ideals or feelings that will not be our own. (If they don’t merely admire the sound and shape of the name, its heft, its euphony.)

In any case, my name, Gregory, is from the Greek, meaning a watchful person or guardian. The name James comes from Hebrew Yaakov, or Jacob, meaning “at the heel,” since in Genesis Jacob is born immediately after his twin brother Esau, with his hand holding Esau’s heel. My wife’s name, Jennifer, comes from the Gaelic, and it means the fair one: the fair one that, again in Arthurian legend,  betrays King Arthur when she takes Lancelot as a lover.

Not to make too much of names or naming, but don’t we wear names as we would wear a coat or mantle? Don’t they cover us, like suggestion, and speak to us as if propelling to a certain end? We needn’t take them literally, of course, if we take them, consciously, at all, but when Jennifer and I named our son Gabriel, or man of God, from the Hebrew, didn’t we wish to usher him along a path of glory? Certainly, not a path of shame. Certainly, not a path trod by Hollywood stars.

(For quick ideas about the meaning of names, see baby-naming sources like http://www.ohbabynames.com/.)