Let Us Speak of Magic: Part the Fifth

In which the author turns to A Wizard of Earthsea to continue our discussion of the magic of True Names in fantasy literature.

Night in Ukraine by Ivan Aivazovsky
Night in Ukraine by Ivan Aivazovsky, 1871. (A boy once defended his quiet home...)

Let Us Speak of Magic: Part the Fifth

Dear Reader,

Today we will be continuing our discussion of the Magic of True Names in Fantasy Literature. And I freely admit that I am quite excited to share with you the high art of Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea.

Now, I had initially planned to cover Le Guin’s art in one letter, but laboring over her tapestry has revealed to me the folly of my ways: we’re in two letter territory, so consider this Part 1.

But before we turn to the book itself, let us borrow a little authority to elevate our subject, shall we?

Harold Bloom, who corresponded with but never met Le Guin, thought very highly of her as an author.

Indeed, the late great Yale literary critic once said, “Le Guin, more than Tolkien, has raised fantasy into high literature, for our time.” Though I have long disagreed with Bloom’s dismissal of Tolkien (an author whom Le Guin greatly admired herself), his praise is never lightly given.

And yes, the great critic is right: Le Guin’s work is high literature.

A Journey to Earthsea

In preparation for this letter, I revisited Le Guin’s little book (my 1984 copy is 183 pages long, maps and all) and read it from cover to cover. This was only the third time in my life I have done so. (The first time I was a child, and my father read it to me. The second I was in my twenties during a period when I was revisiting old loves.)

It is a strange to me that I have read this book so few times, when it has been so important to me. But I think that will change after this latest reading.

I mention that I read the whole book for this letter on True Names because that is what one must do to talk about this subject in A Wizard of Earthsea. We will be engaging the text from front to back, walking with our hero as he learns of magic and the deep meaning of names.

Let us be lavish with our quotations, shan’t we?

The Sparrowhawk

The name our hero bore as a child was Duny. This was his birth name, but not his true one. He was raised by his father on the Isle of Gont, but he first learned magic from his aunt.

It was an accident, really.

Duny overheard her say a rhyme that brought goats to her and so when the opportunity came, he yelled out the rhyme himself. And the goats came:

They came closer, crowding and pushing round him. All at once he felt afraid of their thick, ridged horns and their strange eyes and their strange silence.

Witnessing this event, the aunt understood that Duny had power, for the goats had come at his call (one assumes that the rhyme contained their name for his power to take hold). So she agreed to teach him spells. And names. For it was names that he desired most, especially the names of birds:

When he found that the wild falcons stooped down to him from the wind when he summoned them by name, lighting with a thunder of wings on his wrist…then he hungered to know more such names and came to his aunt begging to learn the name of the sparrowhawk and the osprey and the eagle.

That is how he came by his use-name, the name that he gave in place of his true name (which was not yet known when he was a child). It was the other children who first called him Sparrowhawk,

But his aunt was no wizard, no mage trained to wisdom and the responsibility of power:

She knew nothing of the Balance and the Pattern which the true wizard knows and serves, and which keep him from using his spells unless real need demands.

She could not teach Duny what he needed most, for that another had to come, down from the mountains…

The Mage and His Name

“Let him be named as soon as may be,” said the mage, “for he needs his name.”

Later on, around the age of twelve, Duny demonstrated his power to save his home from soldiers of an empire. It nearly cost him his life. But, a mage hearing of the boy’s deed of power, came down out of the forested mountains and saved him.

He declared that Duny needed his name. It was this mage, Ogion, who would give the Sparrowhawk his true name in a ceremony rich with the imagery of baptism (I owe this particular insight to one Alex J. Taylor, check out his instagram):

Nameless and naked he walked into the cold springs of the Ar where it rises among rocks under the high cliffs… As he came to the bank Ogion, waiting, reached out his hand and clasping the boy’s arm whispered to him his true name: Ged. Thus was he given his name by one very wise in the uses of power.

This is fascinating.

One might expect that a true name is something that you are born with – and maybe it is. But it isn’t something that anyone knows on their own (maybe the dragons are different, or the Old Powers – beware them both).

It seems that Ogion – because of his power and wisdom – perceived the truth of Duny’s being and so named him. Thus true names are no arbitrary devices that may be granted by accident or whim (as in the chronicles of the Black Company). They are found and bound up within the true being of the person or thing named.

The Weight of Asking and Giving

But that doesn’t mean that any mageborn need only look at someone or something carefully enough to discern their name. Ged himself runs into this problem when he’s ready to leave wizard school at Roke. He needs a true name to get by another wizard at the door which leads to difficulties:

“Master,” said Ged, “I cannot take your name from you, not being strong enough, and I cannot trick your name from you, not being wise enough.”

The underlying assumption that Ged makes here – and this after completing his training as a wizard – is that he cannot learn someone else’s name unless it is given or discovered.

All he can do is ask (and that was the test all along).

There is a certain symmetry to this asking, for to gain access to the wizard school at Roke in the first place, Ged had to give his name, and it sobered him greatly at the time:

Ged stood still a while; for a man never speaks his own name aloud, until more than his life’s safety is at stake.

True names hold great power and they are shared only with those that you most trust and love – unless at dire need. But in Earthsea, it is not only the mortal races that have names…

Of the Being of Things

“When you know the fourfoil in all its seasons root and leaf and flower, by sight and scent and seed, then you may learn its true name, knowing its being: which is more than its use. What, after all, is the use of you? or of myself? Is Gont Mountain useful, or the Open Sea?”
- Ogion to a young Ged

Knowing a true name is knowing something’s being – and everything that is has a name. (Some wizards disagree about those things that are of the Dark World – are they nameless or not? But more on that in the next letter.)

If true names are connected to the truest being of something, then magic is the true naming of something with power, a truth that once Ged understood drove him in his studies:

He saw that in this dusty and fathomless matter of learning the true name of every place, thing, and being, the power he wanted lay like a jewel at the bottom of a dry well. For magic consists in this, the true naming of a thing.

But sheer knowledge does not grant endless power, there are limits.

Of the Uses – and Consequences – of Power

Alright, it’s lore time and that means walls of text. Faint not at the trial, dear reader, for if you overcome, the treasure of understanding will be yours!

Gird thyself for glorious battle.

[T]hat which gives us the power to work magic sets the limits of that power. A mage can control only what is near him, what he can name exactly and wholly. And this is well. If it were not so, the wickedness of the powerful or the folly of the wise would long ago have sought to change what cannot be changed, and Equilibrium would fail.

We’ll only briefly touch on Equilibrium here (which is also called the Balance and the Pattern earlier), but we’ll go more in depth in our next letter. For now, let’s get into this “limits” talk that the Master Namer of Roke shared with Ged.

Proximity and knowledge constrain even the greatest of powers. (Proximity is critical because, as we find out later on in the book, the Old Powers know a lot, perceiving names and peering into the future, but they are thankfully trapped on their isles. We don’t need to worry about them. Yet if such spirits of evil and malice could find a way, a way to reach out…)

But those are the practical boundaries, the ones that everyone runs into who seeks to do the raw work of magery. There are more subtle and important boundaries that must be learnt:

To change this rock into a jewel, you must change its true name. And to do that, my son, even to so small a scrap of the world, is to change the world. It can be done. Indeed it can be done. It is the art of the Master Changer, and you will learn it, when you are ready to learn it. But you must not change one thing, one pebble, one grain of sand, until you know what good and evil will follow on that act. The world is in balance, in Equilibrium. A wizard’s power of Changing and of Summoning can shake the balance of the world. It is dangerous, that power. It is most perilous. It must follow knowledge, and serve need. To light a candle is to cast a shadow.

To change a thing is more than mere illusion, it is to change the true name. It must follow knowledge and serve need – wisdom and necessity, not arbitrary will, are the guiding principles of the wizardry of Roke as they seek to maintain and honor the Equilibrium of the world.

For to light a candle is to cast a shadow. And how terrible a shadow may be born of a wondrous light…

Here we must stay our words, dear reader for a time, indeed a seven-fold span of time.

In the next letter we will talk of pride and shadows, death and life, the silence and the word, and the hawk’s bright flight across the empty sky. Yes, we will travel with Ged to world’s end to the very coasts of death’s kingdom, all that we may understand the magic of true names in Earthsea.

Until we meet again,

Best regards,


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