For magic consists in this, the true naming of a thing. So Kurremkarmerruk had said to them, once, their first night in the Tower; he never repeated it, but Ged did not forget his words. ‘Many a mage of great power,’ he had said, ‘had spent his whole life to find out the name of one single thing — one single lost thing. And still the lists are not finished. Nor will they be, till world’s end. […] [M]agic, true magic, is worked only by those beings who speak the Hardic tongue of Earthsea, or the Old Speech from which it grew. […] For there is no end to that language.’
Here is the reason. The sea’s name is inien, well and good. But what we call the Inmost Sea has its own name also in the Old Speech. Since no thing can have two true names, inien can mean only ‘all the sea except the Inmost Sea’. And of course it does not even mean that, for there are seas and bays and straits beyond counting that bear names of their own. (Ursula Le Guin, The Earthsea Quartet, Penguin : London, 1993, p. 50f.)
With these words the “master namer” Kurremkarmerruk introduces the Old Speech to his new pupils. Ged, the hero of Ursula Le Guin’sA Wizard of Earthsea, is amongst them, slowly learning the secret of magic, for in the Island realm of Earthsea magic is all about identifying an entity’s name. Not any name, but the its one and only true name in the Old Speech, the language of creation that in this universe is also the language of the dragons. Knowing a thing’s true name gives power over it, allows a wizard to command and control it, even to change it. All other names in other languages are just camouflage.
But not only things have true names in Earthsea, also persons do. Revealing one’s true name, the name given as the initiation of adulthood, is the ultimate mark of confidence in somebody else, normally reserved at most for very few selected relatives and friends, as sharing this knowledge also means opening up the core of one’s existence to somebody. In all other circumstances, Earthsea’s inhabitants address each other with their use name that is devoid of any magical properties. Somebody’s true name is generally revealed only in death so that those remaining behind can fittingly remember their friend.
At first glance Earthsea’s true names might look like what medieval philosophers would have called universals, “natural classes […] independent of our thought”[^fn1] as Charles Sanders Peirce put it in his review of the philosophy of George Berkeley. A closer look reveails that nothing could be further from truth. True names are, as the master namer Kurremkarmerruk explains, specific to each individual entity, be it a person, a place or a part of the sea. It is not “the sea” in the abstract, less still the class of all possible seas, but a specific stretch of water that bears the name. Since nothing can have more than one true name, the Old Speech focusses on naming individual objects rather than classes, at least for sentient beings and places. The situation is less clearcut for plants, animals and inanimate things where their use in spells seems to suggest that these are named as “natural classes” such as hawks or boats. But also in this case true names are intimately linked to the objects they name.
[^fn1] Charles S. Peirce: “Fraser’s The Works of George Berkeley”. North American Reviewer, 113(October 1871):449-7. http://www.iupui.edu/~peirce/writings/v2/w2/w2_48/v2_48.htm
In Earthsea, true names are therefore what Peirce calls “indexes” for the designated objects. Signs — the second class in Peirce’s three-fold theory of representations — are representations “whose relation to their objects consists in a correspondence in fact”[^fn2], “physically connected with its object”[^fn3]. Being correspondences in fact, a wizard of power can generally discover true names, albeit possibly with the investment of significant effort and time. Also the original naming ceremony at the initiation of adulthood is the ceremony of discovery of the true name rather than a traditional name giving ceremony- In contrast, other names both in Earthsea’s and our languages are just conventional representations “whose relation to their objects is an imputed character”, symbols in Peirce’s terminology.[^fn4]
[^fn2] Charles S. Peirce: “On a New List of Categories” Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 7 (1868), pp. 287-298. Pesented to the Academy May 14, 1867. http://www.cspeirce.com/menu/library/bycsp/newlist/nl-frame.htm
[^fn3] “Index” is Peirce’s “canonical” terminology as defined in his manuscript What Is a Sign?, °5 and §7 (MS 404,http://www.iupui.edu/~peirce/ep/ep2/ep2book/ch02/ep2ch2.htm). Confusingly, “On a New List of Categories” called index simply sign.
[^fn4] Confusingly, symbols are what Saussure and in his wake indeed most other semiotics call signs.
In much of a sense Earthsea is a utopia of indication (in Peirce’s sense), a place where somebody’s and something’s inalinated, true identity exists and finds its unique and factual expression in the true name. In this, true name and designated object are not just Saussure’s signifié and signifiant, signified and signifier, linked by convention, but truly two sides of one coin. Knowing a true name is inseparable from knowing the being’s true essence and vice versa.
Furthermore, since speaking in the Old Speech — the speech of identity — implies speaking true (though not necessarily without ulterior intentions), true knowledge can both be expressed and understood, at least by beings of power. In fact, being able to speak and understand the Old Speech is a sign of true understanding. Two individuals can at least in principle attain a level of mutual understanding that ordinary language in our present reality cannot deliver. In this, Le Guin created with Earthsea not only a fantasy world, but a utopian archipelago in which true interpersonal communication is at least a possibility.
Going on from here I will explore the utopia of true names in two different directions, one technical and one literary.