The Rule of Names

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"The Rule of Names"
AuthorUrsula K. Le Guin
CountryUnited States
Published inFantastic
Publication typeMagazine
Media typePrint
Publication date1964
Preceded by"The Word of Unbinding"
Followed by"A Wizard of Earthsea"

"The Rule of Names" is a short story by American writer Ursula K. Le Guin, first published in the April 1964 issue of Fantastic, and reprinted in collections such as The Wind's Twelve Quarters.[1] This story and "The Word of Unbinding" convey Le Guin's initial concepts for the Earthsea realm, most importantly its places and physical manifestation, but not most of the characters appearing in the novels, other than the dragon Yevaud.[2] Both stories help explain the underpinnings of the Earthsea realm, in particular the importance of true names to magic.[3]

Plot summary[edit]

The story is set on Sattins Island, a small rural island among the Islands of Earthsea, and opens with the schoolteacher, Palani, introducing the concept of naming to her pupils: people have one name as children, then are given their adult name at puberty, but this name must be kept private as it can be used by magicians to cast spells on the person. Sattinsmen are very superstitious. They believe that to wish a neighbor "good morning" will change the weather for the worse; that dragons are fond of eating maidens; that two wizards in one town are trouble. Their resident magician is a fat, incompetent man nicknamed "Underhill" because he lives in a cave outside the village.

One day, a stranger from the archipelago arrives on the island. The locals dub him Blackbeard. He hires a village lad called Birt to guide him to Underhill's home. Once there, Blackbeard reveals that he is a mage, searching for the treasure of his ancestors, which was stolen by a dragon. He believes Underhill to be a wizard who defeated the dragon and made off with the treasure.

The two enchanters engage in a shapechanging battle, ending with Underhill in dragon's form. Blackbeard uses his secret weapon by using Underhill's true name, Yevaud, in a spell which will lock him into his true form. This proves effective, but not as Blackbeard expected; Underhill proves to be the dragon who stole the treasure of Pendor, and so his true form is the dragon. Yevaud devours Blackbeard. Birt flees the island, taking his love Palani with him. With his true identity revealed, and with his predatory dragon nature reinforced by being called by his true name, Yevaud wreaks havoc on Sattins.

In A Wizard of Earthsea, Ged knows this tale as an ancient bit of lore and makes a desperate gamble based on it.[4]

Literary significance and criticism[edit]

Susan Wood points out that it was during the early 1960s when Ursula K. Le Guin was selling stories such as "The Word of Unbinding" and "The Rule of Names" that she "was an accomplished writer, expressing valuable insights with grace and humour".[5]

The story underscores the importance of language to the entire Earthsea cycle. In particular, the use of "names" in the title, along with the use of "word" in "The Word of Unbinding" solidifies this message in the first two Earthsea stories.[6] Specifically, within the Earthsea realm, knowing another man or dragon's true name gives one power over them; as a corollary, sharing one's true name with another is an act showing complete trust.[4]

In later parts of the Earthsea cycle, the concept is developed of humans and dragons being akin and having been originally one species, and some persons such as Tehanu have a dual human-dragon nature. However, there is no hint of that in this early story. Yevaud had turned himself into a human being for the purpose of hiding, as Ged turned into a bird in A Wizard of Earthsea and Festin into a fish in "The Word of Unbinding", and there is no suggestion that being human was in any way an inherent nature for him.


  1. ^ "The Rule of Names". Internet Book List. Retrieved 2011-07-10.
  2. ^ Le Guin, Ursula, The Wind's Twelve Quarters, (New York, Harper & Row, October 1975), foreword.
  3. ^ Le Guin, Ursula, The Wind's Twelve Quarters, (New York, Harper & Row, October 1975), page 65.
  4. ^ a b Spivack, Charlotte, Ursula K. Le Guin, (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1984), page 27.
  5. ^ Wood, Susan, Ursula K. Le Guin, (New York:Chelsea House, 1986), page 186.
  6. ^ Mathews, Richard. Fantasy: The Liberation of Imagination. (New York: Routledge, 2002), page 135.


  • Bernardo, Susan M.; Murphy, Graham J. (2006). Ursula K. Le Guin: A Critical Companion (1st ed.). Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press. ISBN 0-313-33225-8.
  • Bloom, Harold, ed. (1986). Ursula K. Le Guin (1st ed.). New York, New York: Chelsea House. ISBN 0-87754-659-2.
  • Cadden, Mike (2005). Ursula K. Le Guin Beyond Genre: Fiction for Children and Adults (1st ed.). New York, New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-99527-2.
  • Le Guin, Ursula (1975). The Wind's Twelve Quarters (1st ed.). New York, New York: Harper & Row. ISBN 0-06-012562-4.
  • Mathews, Richard (2002). Fantasy: The Liberation of Imagination (1st ed.). New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-93890-2.
  • Spivack, Charlotte (1984). Ursula K. Le Guin (1st ed.). Boston, Massachusetts: Twayne Publishers. ISBN 0-8057-7393-2.

External links[edit]