Nodens is a name.
The name Nodens is recorded on three inscriptions in Britain, one of them a curse, all found at the ruins of his ancient temple in Lydney Park, situated in the Forest of Dean on the Welsh side of the border made by the Avon Valley and the River Severn. The inscriptions use the Latin alphabet to name a local Celtic god and are recorded by R.G. Collingwood in his posthumously published Roman Inscriptions of Britain (online here, here, and here).
In the late 1920s, the Wheelers, an archaeological couple, organized a dig at Lydney Park. Tolkien was persuaded to look at the old Nodens inscriptions by his Pembroke colleague, R.G. Collingwood. Tolkien’s The Name ‘Nodens‘ appeared as Appendix I to the Wheelers’ Report on the Excavation of the Prehistoric, Roman, and Post-Roman Site (1932).
Tolkien tells a curious etymological story. Nodens was “probably in origin adjectival,” deriving from an ancient Germanic verb stem meaning to catch or ensnare. In a more distant past and another language, a person with a proper name had a title: the Nodens (for example, and as Tolkien perhaps later imagined: Sauron the Ensnarer). Subsequently, in crossing northern seas and settling down in the Forest of Dean, this ensarer’s original name was lost, and his old title – the Germanic meaning of which was no longer understood – was taken as his proper name.
Later, suggests Tolkien, Nodens passed from the English border into Irish mythology and became the king of the Tuatha dé Dannan: Nuada of the Silver Hand. In this more recent migration, the original title – the name Nodens still recognisable in Nuada – has received a new title, which bears some resemblance to the ancient Germanic meaning of Nodens. Tolkien concludes his etymological note:
Whether the god was called the ‘snarer’ or the ‘catcher’ or the ‘hunter’ in some sinister sense… mere etymology can hardly say. It is suggestive, however, in this connexion that the most remarkable thing about Nuada was his hand, and that without his hand his power was lost. (Tolkien 2007, 182)
One might draw connections between Nodens and both Bilbo Baggins and Sauron the Necromancer. But our business here is to extract a theory of naming from The Name ‘Nodens.‘
Tolkien discerns stories of Nodens told over many centuries and crosses both seas and languages. Names and titles are lost and found and changed around. Yet some enduring meaning is discernible. For in the title of Nuada of the silver hand, as in the earlier name Nodens, Tolkien hears an echo of the nameless person known by ancient Germanic speakers in northern waters as the ensnarer, the catcher, the hunter.
What Tolkien does not state but implies in his etymological note is that the stories told about this ancient person with changing names and titles did not change all that much.
Here is the germ of Tolkien’s theory of language: a story supplies a title and gives a name to a person.