‘The Rule of Names’ is a 1964 short story by the American science-fiction and fantasy author Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018). Le Guin’s literary style is rightly praised as being several rungs above the usual style found in science fiction, and ‘The Rule of Names’ is an early example of her then-burgeoning talent. It’s a fantasy story in which people never reveal their true names, because they believe that to know someone’s name is to possess power over the person who owns that name.
‘The Rule of Names’: plot summary
The main character in ‘The Rule of Names’ is a wizard named Mr Underhill who lives in the village on Sattins Island, a fictional island in a fantasy world. Except, that Mr Underhill isn’t his true name: it’s merely what the people of the island call him, because he lives under a hill. Nobody on the island knows his true name, because the people of the island believe that to know someone’s real name is to acquire power over them.
Mr Underhill is a rather feckless wizard: for instance, he can cure someone of a wart only for the wart to return a few days later. But he has a powerful spell which he uses to lock his cave and keep any intruders out. Indeed, nobody on the island has ever properly set foot inside his cave.
One day, a young handsome man whom the islanders call ‘Blackbeard’, on account of his appearance, turns up in a boat. He becomes popular with the people of the island, and when talking with them he asks whether the island has a wizard. They tell him about Mr Underhill, who has been in his cave since Blackbeard arrived.
Blackbeard reveals that he has come to the island to recover his family’s treasure, which a dragon stole from his people on the isle of Pendor many years ago. The dragon, it is said, made off with the treasure, but when the dragon was found it was nothing but a heap of bones; meanwhile, a wizard had made off with the treasure.
Blackbeard goes to Mr Underhill’s cave and confronts him. When the wizard comes out, he looks weak and feeble, but when Blackbeard reveals that he is here to reclaim his treasure, Mr Underhill transforms into a lion. Blackbeard, in response, transforms himself into a tiger, and leaps at the lion. The lion turns into a grove of trees, so Blackbeard the tiger transforms into a tongue of flame to burn the trees down. The trees promptly turn into a ‘cataract’ or waterfall to quench the flame, so the flame becomes a hillock or small hill ready to swallow up the waterfall.
And the waterfall becomes a dragon with black wings. Blackbeard turns himself back into human form, and merely laughs at the dragon. He reveals Mr Underhill’s true name, Yevaud, and in response Underhill/Yevaud admits that a dragon is his true form, just as Yevaud is his true name.
Yevaud then reveals that the bones of the dead dragon that were found belonged to another dragon. He was indeed the wizard who made off with the treasure, but he was also the dragon who stole it: they are one and the same person. The dragon then leaps, talons outstretched, at the figure of Blackbeard. The islander who witnesses this, a fisherman known as Birt, cannot bear to watch what happens next and closes his eyes. When he opens them, both Blackbeard and Underhill/Yevaud have gone, and it is implied that the dragon has killed Blackbeard.
Birt runs to fetch Palani, the young schoolmistress, and they both take a boat and leave the island, never to be seen again. Three days later, Mr Underhill emerges from his cave. But since he assumes his ‘truename’ is now common knowledge, he figures he may as well adopt his true shape: that of a dragon. The story ends with him heading into the village, and it is implied that he is going to kill and eat some of the villagers.
‘The Rule of Names’: analysis
‘The Rule of Names’ plays around with several key ideas, including the conventions of fantasy literature. She overturns the common plotline whereby a young hero faces a dreadful foe in order to recover his rightful property: here, Blackbeard is thwarted in his attempt to recover the lost treasure and, on this occasion, it turns out that David will not vanquish Goliath. Long before George R. R. Martin subverted common fantasy tropes and character arcs, Ursula Le Guin was doing the same thing.
But the climax to the story comes as more of a surprise because of the subtle way that Le Guin had built up our expectations around the story’s core theme. ‘The Rule of Names’ presents a world in which names are believed to have talismanic or magical properties, so that a person keeps their true name a closely guarded secret. So when Blackbeard faces Underhill and speaks his true name, Yevaud, we expect him to be able to vanquish Underhill/Yevaud and claim his victory.
But clearly the islanders’ faith in the power of names has been vastly overstated, for speaking the name only seems to make Underhill more powerful, rather than weakening him and giving power to his foe. In speaking Underhill’s true name, Blackbeard actually brings about the downfall of the village because Underhill/Yevaud is emboldened to assume his true form and go about like a dragon from now on. This shows Le Guin’s skill in working with old myths: ‘The Rule of Names’ is not about a hero vanquishing a dragon from a village (compare the story of St George, the patron saint of England) but about a hero bringing a dragon into a village, albeit unwittingly.
But Le Guin has even more fun with her central concept. For the only three people who hear Underhill’s true name spoken are Underhill himself (who already knows it), Blackbeard (who is promptly killed by Underhill), and Birt (who flees the island immediately without telling any of the other villagers about what he has heard). So none of the remaining villagers know Underhill’s true name anyway, just as before. If names do have special properties, their power lies in the bearer, not the one who utters the name.
‘The Rule of Names’ has a bit of fun with names. The name the villagers use to refer to Yevau, Mr Underhill, is a nod to J. R. R. Tolkien and the name that Gandalf advises Frodo to assume, to avoid detection, in The Lord of the Rings.