2. Names


Earthsea’s magic is based on names. How does Le Guin use names, both as a source of power, and as a function of identity?


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    I'm not too sure that names were an important part of this story. Ged went by the name of Hawk (rather than Sparrowhawk) because he wanted to distance himself from his life as a mage. Tenar did something similar, being known as Goha while married. The only instance of someone acquiring their true name was Therru becoming Tehanu.

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    I agree with @NeilNjae - true names seem quite removed from this book. We only actually encounter one taught word in the true language - tolk for stone - and that's a word which we already met several books ago (the very first one in the series, I think). There's a bit of chatter between Kalessin, Tehanu and Ged, but that's not systematic learning.

    Ged and Tenar seem now to openly wear their true names, and be unconcerned about the potential risk.

    What I think UlG is doing is moving away from a mechanism of magic (knowing true names) towards a kind of magic which is more deeply rooted in one's being. So Ged was in the right place at the right time to rescue Tenar, not because he was a mage, but because his human capacity for synchronicity was very high. The dragons are the ultimate statement of this - they alter reality simply by being truly part of it, rather than being able to manipulate it by clever technique.

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    edited September 8

    Maybe this is the right place to comment on poetry as well. The EarthSea Creation Hymn is pivotal in this book, partly explicitly as Tehanu starts to learn it, and partly implicit when we learn that Kalessin is just another name for Segoy.

    The making from the unmaking,
    The ending from the beginning,
    Who shall know surely?
    What we know is the doorway between them
    that we enter departing.
    Among all beings ever returning,
    the eldest, the Doorkeeper, Segoy...

    which has echoes of the Tao Te Ching (UlG drew on this a lot, and produced a version of it herself which isn't quite a translation, more of an interpretation (though it leans on lots of people's translations). But it also has very strong echoes of TS Eliot's Little Gidding (last of the Four Quartets) which reads, in part,

    We shall not cease from exploration
    And the end of all our exploring
    Will be to arrive where we started
    And know the place for the first time.
    Through the unknown, remembered gate
    When the last of earth left to discover
    Is that which was the beginning;
    At the source of the longest river
    The voice of the hidden waterfall
    And the children in the apple-tree
    Not known, because not looked for
    But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
    Between two waves of the sea.

    Little Gidding also has strong themes of fire (well, it would have to, drawing on Christian pentecostal imagery), and one of the sections starts

    The dove descending breaks the air
    With flame of incandescent terror
    Of which the tongues declare
    The one discharge from sin and error.
    The only hope, or else despair
    Lies in the choice of pyre of pyre-
    To be redeemed from fire by fire.

    Replace "dove" by "dragon" or even "Tehanu" and you have a lot of the story here.

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    @RichardAbbott fascinating, as always.

    On the subject of naming, I think it mostly came up in the sense of relinquishing power by giving away ones true name. Much was made of the fact that Tenar knew Ogion’s true name, and both she and Ged seem to shed their untrue names. I’m not clear as to whether this is a comment on the power dynamics in the book, or a comment on Ged and Ogion losing their ‘manhood’ (and hence their power) or if this is more of a comment on aging and giving control away to those who are younger.
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    Thanks for the insights into poetry, @RichardAbbott . Always appreciated.

    Maybe I was looking for it, but I saw the use of names throughout the book. The very first paragraph introduces us to Tenar without naming her at all, only describing her relationship with others. Her true name "Tenar" doesn't even appear until the last line of chapter 2, as she has subsumed herself to her role as Flint's wife and widow Goha, and adoptive mother to Therru.

    During her flight from Re Albi, both Tenar and Goha are caught in Aspen's curse (as he knows both those names). But I love the description of how she sinks back into her Arha identity to escape his reach. Aspen doesn't know Arha and can't curse her. She cannot speak the Hardic language, or the True Speech, but she knows how to evade the notice of the Dark Powers. Good stuff.

    The early scene, after Ogion/Aihal has died, and the two wizards come to his house, I love that LeGuin just calls them "Gont Port" and "Re Albi" throughout the scene. They don't really matter here. They were not with Aihal at his passing. He did not entrust them with his true name and their use-names are as useless as they are in this situation. A nice touch.

    And, of course, Ged taking on the shorter, but more general, use name of "Hawk" to symbolize him picking up the threads of a normal life he set aside when he was fifteen to go study magic on Roke.

    In the last chapter, we get a peek at how Therru/Tehanu sees the world:

    The one called Aspen, whose name was Erisen, and whom she saw as a forked and writhing darkness

    Like a mage, she simply knows the true names of people. Like a dragon, she sees the world as it truly is, and thinks in the True Speech.

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    Forgot to add that Tenar's magical transformation into "bitch" at the end left me feeling so disturbed when I first read the book 15 years ago that I didn't touch another Earthsea book until rereading A Wizard of Earthsea with the club 2 years ago.

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    Good thoughts about names. Yes, I liked how the mages were referred to by their homes, as a way of de-humanising them in that scene. They weren't really participants in the events of Ogion's death.

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