The Magical Power of Names in Earthsea

Sarah McIntire '07 English 65, Fantasy, Brown University, 2003

Naming has deep roots in the culture of Earthsea, and knowing the name of a thing gives one power to control the thing itself. This theme of associating power with true names recurs throughout the book. In the ritual ceremony of coming of age, Sparrowhawk's wizard-master Ogion renames him Ged, yet he chooses to go by his old nickname when he attends the school on Roke Island. Only twice does he share his name: for admittance to the school and to seal his friendship with Vetch. Naming, he learns in his studies, is the cornerstone to wizardry, and Sparrowhawk spends many a long season in the Isolate tower with the Master Namer, memorizing the true names of places, animals, and all other aspects of his world. The art of magic cannot be found in the common Hardic tongue but comes from the Old Speech, the language of dragons and incantations. With the knowledge of all these names, Sparrowhawk cements his powers as a wizard, and when the need comes, exercises these powers against creatures much greater and stronger than he. With a single name, he contains the might of the dread dragon of Pendor.

"You are a very young wizard," the dragon said, "I did not know men came so young into their power." He spoke, as did Ged, in the Old Speech, for that is the tongue of dragons still. Although the use of the Old Speech binds a man to truth, this is not so with dragons. It is their own language, and they can lie in it, twisting the true words to false ends. . . "Is it to ask my help that you have come here, little wizard?"

"No dragon."

"Yet I could help you. You will need help soon, against that which hunts you in the dark . . . What is it that hunts you? Name it to me."

"If I could name it -- " Ged stopped himself. . . .

"If you could name it you could master it, maybe, little wizard . . . Would you like to know its name?". . . .

"But I did not come here to play, or to be played with. I came to strike a bargain with you."

Like a sword in sharpness but five times the length, of any sword, the point of the dragon's tail arched up scorpion-wise over his mailed back, above the tower. Dryly, he spoke: "I strike no bargains. I take. What have you to offer that I cannot take from you when I like?"

"Safety. Your safety. Swear that you will never fly eastward of Pendor, and I will swear to leave you unharmed. . .

A grating sound came from the dragon's throat . . . "You offer me safety! You threaten me! With what?"

"With your name, Yevaud."

Ged's voice shook as he spoke the name, yet he spoke it clear and loud. At the sound of it, the old dragon held still, utterly still.[89-91]

Questions

1. Why does Le Guin choose the knowledge of names to be a source of magical power for a wizard?

2. What does the shadow's namelessness say about its threat to Ged?

3. If the Old Speech is the tongue of dragons, and they can manipulate the langue for false purposes, why can Ged use the dragon's Old Speech name to control it?

4. Is there a difference between the names that Ged learned at the Isolated tower and the name for a specific person or creature? Why or why not, and if so, do different types of names relate to different ways of leveraging power?

5. Why does Ged reject the dragon's offer to tell him the name of the shadow? How does this set the stage for the rest of the book?

References

Le Guin, Ursula K. The Wizard of Earthsea. New York: Bantam, 1975.


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Last modified 8 March 2004