I discovered the other day that one of my all-time favourite stories, the Earthsea Cycle by Ursula LeGuin, had been bought by a TV channel and made into a min-series and in the process butchered beyond redemption. And the thing that most outraged me was that they had muddled up the hero’s name. In Earthsea, of all places, names make all the difference.
If the Earthsea books are about anything they are about the power of names. Earthsea is a place of islands and a place of magic—not Harry-Potter-wand-and-funny-spell magic but serious magic that binds the world in balance—a magic that finds its mastery in names. In Earthsea to know a name is to have power. To know that a stone is tolk in the Old Speech, the tongue of dragons, is to be able to transform it, say into kebbo, a rabbit. So a mage’s art lies in knowing and learning the true names of things, of water and waves, of dragons and men. But not just ocean, not just sea, but this bay and this wave and this drop of spray in my face. Not just tree but beech, and beech in early winter when all the leaves have finally flown free. And not just man but this man, underneath his use name and his nick names, beneath his trade and his kin, who is he really, what is his true name, the name he is called by the creator, the name that raises him from the waters, the name spoken once when all things began.
A true name is guarded and held 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.
Were I a girl I would be Pamela Jane. No deep reasons there … just that my mother liked the sound of them. But, instead, I’m Robert Richard—named after my two grandfathers.
As reasons for names go, all that grandfather stuff will do but there are other reasons that don’t get spoken for who I am 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 big 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.
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 life 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 caught every childhood disease that was going.
And, instead of being the second child, I grew into all the hang-ups eldest children have—well-behaved, over-responsible, high-achieving. So my name is Robert Richard but there is an unheard echo: Alan, Alan. … I wonder what God calls me?
Actually I know. For the last fifteen years or so he’s called me by a name from another of LeGuin’s books, this time in a language called Pravic: ammar, he calls me, ammar—it means, brother, friend, fellow traveller. And that name has made all the difference to me.