Birthday Reviews: Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Rule of Names”

Birthday Reviews: Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Rule of Names”

Cover by Frank Bruno
Cover by Frank Bruno

Ursula K. Le Guin was born on October 21, 1929 and died on January 22, 2018.

Le Guin’s The Dispossessed is in the Prometheus Hall of Fame and has won the Jupiter Award as wells as the Nebula Award and Hugo Award. The Left Hand of Darkness has also won both the Hugo and Nebula Award, as well as the James Tiptree Jr Award and the Gaylactic Spectrum Award. She has also won the Nebula Award for Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea, Powers, the novella “Solitude,” and the short story “The Day Before the Revolution,” which also won the Jupiter Award. Le Guin has also won the Hugo Award for the short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” the novelette “Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight,” the novella “The World for World is Forest,” and back-to-back best related works for Words Are My Matter: Writing About Life and Books, 2000-2016 and No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters, the last of which earned her the award posthumously. “Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight” won Le Guin her first World Fantasy Award and she received another for her novel The Other Wind. She won a Jupiter Award for “The Diary of the Rose,” a Rhysling Award for “The Well of Bain,” and a Ditmar Award for The Compass Rose. Both Tales from Earthsea and The Telling won the Endeavour Award and “The Matter of Seggri” and “Mountain Ways” both won the James Tiptree, Jr. Award. She won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for “Forgiveness Day” and the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire for Four Ways to Forgiveness. Her book Paradises Lost won both the Kurd Lasswitz Preis and Italia Award.

Le Guin has received many lifetime achievement awards, being recognized by the Forry Award in 1988, the Pilgrim Award in 2001, and the Eaton Award in 2013. She received a Gandalf Award in 1979 and was named a Grand Master by SFWA in 2003 and the World Fantasy Convention in 1995. In 2001, Le Guin was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. She was the Worldcon Guest of Honor at Aussiecon 1 in 1975 and the World Fantasy Guest of Honor in Seattle in 1989.

“The Rule of Names” was first published in the April 1964 issue Fantastic Stories of Imagination, edited by Cele Goldsmith. It was reprinted in The Most Thrilling Science Fiction Ever Told No. 13 in the Summer of 1969 and again in Algol #21 in November 1973, edited by Andrew Porter. In 1975, the story was included in the Le Guin chapbook Dreams Must Explain Themselves. That same year, Le Guin included it in her collection The Wind’s Twelve Quarters. In 1977, Jane Mobley included the story in her anthology Phantasmagoria” Tales of Fantasy and the Supernatural and Robert H. Boyer and Kenneth J. Zahorski chose it for The Fantastic Imagination anthology in the same year. In 1981, the story was reprinted in Cary Wilkins’s A Treasury of Fantasy. Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois included it in Bestiary! In 1985 and Martin H. Greenberg and Patrick L. Brice used in in Fantastic Stories: Tales of the Weird and Wondrous in 1987. In 1988, David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer reprinted the story in Masterpieces of Fantasy and Enchantment. In 1995, it was included in The Ultimate Dragon, edited by Keith R. A. DeCandido, John Betancourt, and Byron Preiss. Peter Haining used the story in The Wizards of Odd: Comic Tales of Fantasy and Magicians’ Circle: More Spellbinding Stories of Wizards. Greenberg again used the story in Dragons: The Greatest Stories and The Horse of the War God and Other Selections by Newbery Authors, the latter co-edited with Charles G. Waugh. Jonathan Strahan and Marianne S. Jablon printed it in Wings of Fire and it was included in Le Guin’s massive collection Outer Space, Inter Lands, part of her The Unreal and the Real: The Selected Short Stories of Ursula K. Le Guin. In 1917, the story was released as an e-chapbook as well. “The Rule of Names” has twice been translated into French, and once each into Germany, Spanish, Croatian, Italian, and Dutch.

Published four years before The Wizard of Earthsea, “The Rule of Names” is an early story set in Le Guin’s Earthsea. With the action taking place on Sattins Island, far from Sparrowhawk’s home island of Gont, the story introduces the concept of True Names, the differences between wizards and Mages, and Dragons.

Mr. Underhill is the local wizard on Sattins Island, although he isn’t a very good wizard. He tends to keep to himself and isn’t personable. His spells are haphazard and the locals can never be sure which spells will work and which ones won’t. However, Mr. Underhill is the only wizard they have and they make do with him, just as the inhabitants of the out-of-the-way island also have to make do with a subpar carpenter and other craftsmen.

Eventually, a wizard who the locals decide to call Blackbeard shows up. He claims that his family’s treasure has been stolen and brought to Sattins Island and there is a good chance that Mr. Underhill is the thief. Since Blackbeard knows Mr. Underhill’s real name, he has a level of control over the wizard, although their encounter doesn’t turn out the way Blackbeard expects it to and the ramifications are surprising for the islands residents.

Looking back at the story with knowledge of the Earthsea saga, the most important part of the story isn’t the way Mr. Underhill interacts with the islanders or Blackbeard’s revenge, but True Names, which are first brought up early in the story and expanded upon during a sequence where Mr. Underhill ventures near an outdoor classroom where youngsters are being taught. Once the groundwork is laid for the importance of True Names, Blackbeard can be introduced as a catalyst for action, although most of his encounter with Mr. Underhill is offstage and his backstory is provided in a data dump. “The Rule of Names” winds up feeling more like an outline for the ideas Le Guin will expand on in the Earthsea books rather than a story in its own right.

Reprint reviewed in the collection The Unreal and the Real: Volume II: Outer Space, Inner Lands, by Ursula K. Le Guin, Small Beer Press, 2012.


Steven H Silver-largeSteven H Silver is a sixteen-time Hugo Award nominee and was the publisher of the Hugo-nominated fanzine Argentus as well as the editor and publisher of ISFiC Press for 8 years. He has also edited books for DAW and NESFA Press. He began publishing short fiction in 2008 and his most recently published story is “Webinar: Web Sites” in The Tangled Web. Steven has chaired the first Midwest Construction, Windycon three times, and the SFWA Nebula Conference 6 times, as well as serving as the Event Coordinator for SFWA. He was programming chair for Chicon 2000 and Vice Chair of Chicon 7. He has been the news editor for SF Site since 2002.

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