Print Version June 24th, 2001
Let’s start with children’s stories. Long before there was Harry Potter, there was Sparrowhawk, Archmage of the land of Earthsea. Ursula LeGuin’s four beautiful books are about the magic of names. Her wizards work their wonders by knowing and speaking the names of things—their true names—the names they have in the old tongue, the language dragons speak, the language of the Making by which all things were made.
To know the true name of something is to have power over it. Power and responsibility. Change the name and you change the thing. The art of LeGuin’s wizards is not in knowing magic spells, or having the right equipment, but knowing the true name of a thing. Not just broadly but in detail: not just Tree but oak, not just oak but oak in early summer, oak on this hillside. Not just Ocean but every cove and inlet and beach and wave.
In Earthsea people don’t go by their true name—they dare not. The true name is guarded and kept secret and only given to another—with your whole being—in love or death. But to speak your true name in love is to defeat magic and reveal the essence of who you were made to be.
I’m told my name would have been Pamela Jane if I had been a girl. No deep reasons there … just that my mother liked the sound of them. But, instead, I’m Robert Richard—named after my two grandfathers. There are Richards on my father’s side as far back as we can remember. Though, as a kid, my granddad Marsh always insisted his real name was Aloysius and I never did know whether he was having me on or being serious. The name “Robert” claims my kinship with my maternal grandfather though I only met him a couple of times. It was a controversial choice since my mother’s mother and he were separated. There’s a story there too, but too long for now.
As reasons for names go, all that grandfather stuff is convincing enough but there are other reasons that don’t get spoken—it can be just as important to know what your name is not. You see, I should have had an older brother. My mother gave birth to a little boy some years before me. And there was no doubt about the what and why of his name. “His name is Alan.” Alan was the name of my mother’s older brother. By all accounts he was a perfect brother and, though my mother never talked much about him, I get the impression she idolised him. But Alan died aged around 19 or so from stomach cancer—the story was, medical likelihood aside, that it was the result of a soccer injury.
So my mother had no doubt about the name of her first boy. Alan. But baby Alan’s birth wasn’t easy … there were complications and Alan was born with cerebral palsy and lived only a few days.
I look back and I wonder how my life has been changed by Alan’s own short existence and what it would have been like if he had lived. I was one of those kids that were cared for too much. My parents were determined that I, at least, was going to be safe. So I was stuffed full of vitamins and kept away from germs and plied with cod liver oil and still I caught every childhood disease that was going.
And, instead of being the second child, I grew into all the hang-ups eldest children have—hands up all you eldest children … you know what I mean—well-behaved, over-responsible, achieving. So my name is Robert Richard but there is a silent echo: Alan, Alan. … I wonder what God calls me.
You may have seen in the news a sad story from Britain. A decade ago two ten year olds took a little child and tortured him and killed him. His name was Jamie Bolger—their names we don’t know. Their true names were hidden for their protection and their families’. Now ten years later the young men are about to be released on probation rather than being funnelled into the adult penal system. But how do you go free with such a history, with people lining up to take revenge? Deserve it or not—that’s the battle in the press—deserve it or not they are being given new identities, new names, a second chance, a fresh start.
Sometimes—deserve it or not—each of us needs a second chance, a fresh start, a new name. Or needs to learn again the true name God calls us. We might call ourselves “Forgotten,” when God’s name for us is “Hope.” Others might whisper, “Failure,” while God is proud to call us “Friend.”
“His name is John,” says Elizabeth. A new name, not a father or grandfather. John: “God has shown us favour,” it means. John is meant for something new: a new hope, a new dawn, a new salvation. “God has blessed us.” John is not born to the family trade to be a priest like his father. The name God calls him frees him. He grows up a prophet. A fearless, wild voice to confront kings and inspire his kin. Jesus, himself, was lured from hearth and home by this strange, free, wild cousin of his standing waist deep in Jordan’s water. … Where would we be if John had become Zechariah Junior?
We gather all sorts of names along the way yet God never fails to speak our true name to us, our identity in God’s eyes. And that name might make all the difference. Do you know you true name, the one God calls you? Can you hear God whisper it to you now? Listen! “Your name is …”