…because 4's a crowd…
Every time someone refers to Philip as “The Governor” in The Walking Dead, I like to imagine I can see the writers’ wink and nose-thumbing. Self-titled characters do not usually bode well for any story, whether real or fictional. Consider the most recent Lord Voldemort or even history’s Napoleon Bonaparte, who infamously crowned himself Holy Roman Emperor, taking away the honor from none other than the Pope himself. For good measure, he then turned around and crowned his wife.
Let’s take this moment to peer into the nature of self-entitlement. Looking at three fictional cases of Lord Voldemort, Judge Holden, and The Governor phenomena, we can trace how each character’s use of the self-given title allows them to control the society they thrive in.
Tom Marvolo Riddle starts using the title Lord Voldemort as an attempt to erase his identity. He detests the mundane origins of his first and last name, given to him by his wizard mother who was pathetic enough to fall in love with a Muggle. By changing his name, he is able to eliminate any humanity (and inferred weakness) people might attribute to him – and is successful in the attempt. Harry learns how few people make the connection between the handsome, ambitious young Tom Riddle at Hogwarts and the vicious abomination he later becomes. However Dumbledore remembers. His insistence on calling Voldemort by his real name makes him the only wizard that Voldemort fears. This is clear by the look of fear registered on Voldemort’s face when Dumbledore shows up at the battle at the ministry in the fifth. And when Dumbledore dares to address Voldemort as “Tom” in the midst of battle, his fear turns to fury.
By changing his name, Voldemort is able to manipulate people’s perception of him, and this is crucial in his rise to power. By tricking people into thinking that he is not even human, he destroys any hope they have of defeating him. On his second rise to power, Voldemort abandons even that title, preferring the epithets “You-Know-Who” and “Dark Lord” for the fear and reverence they signify. Only Dumbledore, and later Harry, persist in addressing him by his real name, and that marks them as his greatest adversaries.
Cormac McCarthy’s novel has a similar fascination with names and what happens to society when they are removed. The novel is set in what McCarthy depicts as one of lowest points of American history, the westward expansion of the nineteenth century. The main character is introduced as simply “the kid” and that is all we are ever given to his identity. His father is similarly described is a drunkard quoting poets whose names are now lost. This is the first signal to the reader that we are being led into a society that has severed all ties with civilization. The judge makes his appearance a couple of pages later and is immediately labelled as a devil. He gets a congregation to turn on its’ reverend for what turns out to be his own amusement. And this sets the tone of the judge’s actions throughout the books.
Judge Holden’s intermittent appearances cause unease because of the unpredictability of his actions, which seem to turn on a whim. He saves Glanton’s gang from ambushing Indians for no profit or ends of his own; later on he buys a pair of puppies merely for the sport of shooting them. And yet, nobody challenges his claim to the title Judge. They simply accept him for what he tells them, and lend to him all the awe and reverence it demands.
His most telling moment occurs when Toadvine asks the judge why he records the birds he encounters in his journals. The ensuing conversation is chilling to the bone: “The judge placed his hand on the ground. He looked at his inquisitor. This is my claim, he said. And yet everywhere upon it are pockets of autonomous life. Autonomous. In order for it to be mine nothing must be permitted to occur upon it save by my dispensation.” This clearly shows that Judge Holden’s title is stolen from non-other than God himself, the eternal judge.
In a sense he is the lord and creator of that society because he understands how it works, and is thus able to manipulate it. As he takes charge of a confrontation between his men and an outpost of the Spanish army (despite having no official rank or authority), he tells the men
“It is not necessary that the principals here be in possession of the facts concerning their case, for their acts will ultimately accommodate history with or without their understanding.”
The Walking Dead’s Governor operates on similar principles. He tells the people of Woodbury only the facts and lets them draw their own assumptions of the circumstances. He has done this most notably when he “identifies” Merle as a spy to the community. He justifies this allegation by the irrefutable fact that Merle is Daryl’s brother and so obviously helped him attack the town. Never mind that the Governor was keeping two of Daryl’s friends hostage. That fact, because it remains hidden, is rendered irrelevant.
The Governor is not as insistent as Lord Voldemort or Judge Holden on the use of his title. But even this humanization is a calculated means of control. In a society that is desperately trying to crawl back to civilization, the Governor maintains authority by promising Woodbury exactly that. The Governor realizes Andrea might leave the town with Michonne; he also understands Andrea is not a person automatically deferential to authority. By telling her his name, he humanizes himself, strips off some of the authority, and this makes her feel like a member of the community.
These three characters show how names are a signifier of civilization and authority. By deciding to name themselves and insisting how and when people can use them, the characters effectively manipulate the environment they exist in. As Juliet later comes to find out, a lot lies in a name.