Let Us Speak of Magic: Part the Fourth

In which the author discusses the magic of True Names in fantasy literature.

The Tempest by Ivan Aivazovsky, 1857
The Tempest by Ivan Aivazovsky, 1857. (Not quite the Dark Wings carrying the Black Company from Beryl.)

Let Us Speak of Magic: Part the Fourth

Dear Reader,

Before proceeding with our ongoing conversation on magic in fantasy literature, I would like to take this opportunity to share that I have added a busker’s hat to the footer of my newsletters so that you may “toss a coin” to your writer, if you are so inclined.

(To clarify, that’s an allusion to a certain fantasy series, not cryptocurrency, which this particular coin hat can’t hold. But if you have a spare bitcoin, I’m sure these’s some code sorcery for that too…)

Please know that any support you give furthers my ability to continue writing and is greatly appreciated. Including my weekly mailings, I am presently committed to spending some 25 hours a week working on launching my writing career. All gifts continue to make this effort possible.

Right then. That should be enough of monster-slaying mercenary monetary matters for the moment.

Concerning the Names of Things

Our discussion of magic has brought us to True Names, and that is now where I invite us to turn our attention.

There are two principle, classic authors whom I have encountered who have made names a matter of power in their work: Glen Cook and Ursula K. Le Guin.

In Glen Cook’s Chronicles of the Black Company, comprising the first three books of the Black Company series, names play a decisive role in the outcome of the final struggle (full of double-crosses, betrayals, opportunists striking, victories, reversals, and the end of an era).

You’ll also find True Names mentioned a few times throughout the rest of the series, but they are never as central to the core narrative.

We will look at Cook’s work in depth in this letter, and if you haven't read it yet and desire for the series to remain a mystery to be discovered, then you may want to take a pass on this letter.

In next week's installment we’ll take up Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea where naming is also critical to the resolution of the narrative. Yet, in this case, names and their power are woven into the whole fabric of the book. It is a rich feast indeed.

For now, let us turn to that grim and bold band of mercenaries.

The Names of the Black Company

There were prodigies and portents enough, One-Eye says. We must blame ourselves for misinterpreting them. One-Eye’s handicap in no way impairs his marvelous hindsight.
- Chronicles of the Black Company, 11

We have a hint there’s something going on with names from the first paragraph of the The Black Company, when we learn that the character One-Eye (a member of the mercenary company for which the book is named) actually only has one eye.

This theme continues with Cook’s signature military humor: Curly is bald, the Captain and the Lieutenant don’t have other names (okay, the Captain is called “old grey bear,” without any article, definite or otherwise), Silent doesn’t talk (except once and it has to do with true names), Goblin is frog-faced, and Croaker (our primary point of view) is the doctor (make of his name what you will).

And that’s just a sampling of the Black Company itself.

Then there’s the powerful powers, such as Lady (fair and fell) and The Ten Who Were Taken: Limper (he limps but you can’t run fast enough), Shapeshifter (he changes shapes), Soulcatcher (the one of many voices), Howler (yes, he howls), and so forth.

Then there’s the Dominator, the one who did the taking that made the Taken taken. (He’s the definite article, the Evil Overlord type with world-conquest in mind. And he starts off the series buried alive in a burrow. Then after trying to break out for a couple books, he gets himself buried alive again in the same burrow, only this time with a magic tree planted on top for good measure.)

He made the Taken his servants by a terrible rite involving the use of their true names.

The Rite of Taking

There doesn’t seem to be great concern throughout the series of true names being used against individuals. On a first read, this could be explained by the fact that most everyday people are seemingly unaware of their potential peril. (Though later on in the series we learn that non-mages seemingly don’t have anything to fear – more on that later.)

Another reason for lack of concern probably has to do with the fact that even the powerful feel that only the Dominator can complete the Rite of Taking – and he hasn’t been around to do it since he was defeated (the first time). But then Croaker describes the Rebel Sorcerer-General Whisper being taken by Lady:

I witnessed the rite that converted our most dangerous enemy into one of our own.
- Chronicles of the Black Company, 131

(If it sounds like Croaker might be on the side of the bad guys, that’s because he is. Yup, Croaker is a Servant of the Evil Empire. He also has a thing for the Evil Empress. But it’s complicated, and it only gets more complicated. Complicatedly complicated.)

So the rite is a learnable thing. It makes sense that Lady might be capable of the art – she was the Dominator’s wife, although she left him imprisoned when she herself got free (no love lost there). (And Lady and the Dominator aren’t the only ones to make use of the rite, as we learn in later books.)

Still, Lady only uses the rite on really powerful sorcerer types (just like her former husband), so your average mortal doesn’t seem to need to worry about being dominated on a whim (not like, say, the Tyrants in the Malazan series).

But the Rite of Taking isn’t the only rite involving true names.

The Rite of Naming

You won’t find the rite called the Rite of Naming in the actual book, but Black Company fandom needed a way to talk about it, and so here we are.

Now this rite doesn’t require you to be a mega-powerful-ancient-I-can-destroy-entire-armies sorcerer of destruction (and those sorcerers do exist in this world, by the way).

You just need a little magic aptitude and the true name of your magically gifted target, and you can make them a mere mortal. That is if they don’t disintegrate or charm you before you get close enough to do the deed. Or I suppose they could drop a mountain on you and your buddies or…well, actually, there are a lot of horrible ways they could get you.

Best stay away.

That all said, if you have any intention of becoming the next Dark Lord (or Lady) it would probably be wise to make sure that everyone who knows your name is either dead or confused as to who you really are. (Lady does a pretty good job with both strategic solutions as it turns out. She even tricks her former husband, who apparently have never used her true name against her before.)

Still, despite her cleverness, Lady does get named and loses her power during the big showdown at the end of the first trilogy. And because of that we learn the following little bit of lore later in Book 7 of the main series:

Her name had no power over her anymore. Being powerless herself, apparently, she could not take advantage of those true names she knew.
- The Return of the Black Company, 341, from She is the Darkness

So, if you don’t have magic, your true name can’t be used against you – but you can't use the ones you know either. There’s something magical about a magician’s true name.

Not Entirely McGuffins

True names are an enjoyable but not particularly complex element of The Black Company series. Their primary function is to provide a hook to hang the plot on: mostly hunting through records to find them and using them as kryptonite against the overwhelmingly powerful.

We see them used as a significant plot device only once more after the original trilogy.

There’s an interesting but very brief point later on when we find out that Longshadow, another awesomely powerful sorcerer, used the power of his true name to seal a certain, very important gate. Thus he – unintentionally – made himself into a kind of dead man’s switch. (A basic ‘Kill me and a whole lot of bad things are coming to end your world’ kind of deal.)

So, all together, there’s not a lot about true names in the world of the Black Company that rises above the level of McGuffin. Beyond the plot level, we have hints that true names are meaningful when they belong to mages (you can have your power taken away or you can be Taken) and that the name itself can be drawn upon to accomplish great deeds (Longshadow’s seal).

Still, as readers, it helps that most of the time we’re in the same boat as Murgen (another point of view character):

Someday I will have to get Lady to explain the whole true names thing in a way that even a dummy like me can understand. Maybe I can get her to explain the whole business of sorcery so that those of us who study these Annals will have at least a vague idea of what is going on.
Knowing will not keep us from crapping our small clothes when we run into sorcery but, still, it would be nice to have a notion what is behind all the deadly lights.
- The Return of the Black Company, 341, from She is the Darkness

Murgen never got his wish, for which I for one am grateful. That element of mystery, and the fact that our point of view characters are usually just soldiers who have no idea what’s going on with all the “deadly lights” saves true names from becoming merely a plot device.

(The one exception to the ‘just soldiers’ line is when Lady is our point of view – yup, the Evil Empress is the annalist of the Black Company in Book 5 Dreams of Steel, narrating our journey through the story. Best not to mess with her.)

And so we have come through the topic of True Names in Glen Cook's Black Company series. Cook sets the element to work, but does not invest much into sharing (or exploring) its depth. Still, true names enrich the series as a whole.

And The Black Company series has plenty to recommend it as a whole. (If you haven't read, I recommend that you read at least the first three books.)

Next week we will take up the task of delving into the lore of Earthsea – and that will be a weighty matter, for Le Guin's short book is woven from beginning to end with a rich and subtle care.

Until we meet again, dear reader.

Best regards,


P.S. In case you were wondering, I am aware that true names play a role in Patrick Rothfuss' The Kingkiller Chronicle (just take a look at that first title: The Name of the Wind), but having only gotten part way through the first book at the time of this writing, I cannot speak on it with any authority.

Want more words, Traveller? Come visit my website at bryanerye.com, or take the direct route to the blog.

Want to throw me some coin to support me financially? I have a Busker's Hat to help buy coffee and used books.

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