The fantasy of Ursula K Le Guin, Adam’s first job—and me
ADAM NAMED THE ANIMALS, we were told as kids. And if you heard anything like the version I heard in Sunday school, he was apparently going round saying, “Hey, you’ll be ‘Monkey.’ And you, you’re ‘Lion,’” and so on. (You had to wonder about cockroach and caterpillar.)
But even as a kid, the explanation didn’t quite make sense to me.
I mean, the whole thing was held up as an example of his intelligence, but I didn’t see how that worked out. All I could make of that was that he must have had a pitiably tedious job of it.
Then I grew a little older — not sure exactly but it was before I turned ten—and read Ursula K Le Guin’s “A Wizard of Earthsea.”
I LOVED it. It had such a hold on my imagination I was unable to forget it, despite reading it only once. My mind would wander back to it many times in years to come.
So it was, that although I found it no more at first than a really good story, it grew in my mind to mean far more over the years.
Wizard of Earthsea is the story of Ged, a young boy who, early in life, had the stirrings of magical ability, learned to master the art over time: first at a Wizards’ School (reputedly the literary inspiration for JK Rowling’s Hogwarts) and later on in his own adventures.
One of the key aspects of magic Ged had to master was names.
In the Earthsea universe, a name was no small matter. Magic lay in naming things truly, in what was known as the Old Speech, the only language things responded to. People got their true names when they turned thirteen, in an elaborate ceremony. At its climax, the person would be taken to a river or some other element of nature by someone skilled in magic who had the task of naming them. To share that name with anyone was to put your life in their hands. And a wizard whose enemy knew his true name was done for.
The idea was a powerful one for my childhood mind. I loved the concept of names as something that mattered, something rich and powerful and filled with meaning. And like the best fantasy does, it stirred a sense of mourning in me that such wonder did not exist in “real life.”
And then, sometime in my early adult years, it all came together: I found in Le Guin’s masterpiece a powerful new lens for seeing the Adam story in a new light, as well as a bunch of other stuff. So here’s some of what I learned from Ursula K Le Guin about names.
1. A true name stood for identity.
I can’t remember exactly how it hit me, but I know at some point, I realised that names represented identities. (I got the thought from a book, I think.) And that was like the missing piece of the puzzle that brought it all together. That’s why names mattered so much, in the Earthsea universe and in the Bible: they represented identities, the very essence of a thing. It also explains why people took them so seriously, and I think some of this thinking permeated the ancient world as a whole, right down to our Nigerian (and other African) cultures.
Thinking of it that way gives new meaning to the “names” we use for ourselves, the identities we hold. Stupid, smart, creative, boring, beautiful, unattractive—all names, often hurtful and untrue. And those identities, true or false, come often from those who have some influence (legit or otherwise) over us—parents, significant others, close friends. Which brings me to my next point.
2. Knowing a true name gave you authority.
To name was to have authority over the thing you named. That’s how it was in the Earthsea universe, and with time, I came to see that was how it was in biblical history as well. Adam, in being told to name the animals was actually, on this view, being given authority over them on behalf of the humanity he represented.
(Would that mean he wasn’t given a similar authority over the elements of nature, which weren’t given him to name? A possible theory, except the fact of his being given dominion over nature as a whole would belie that. It’s more likely his naming was him being given a unique authority over animal life as a conscious form of life, compared to say plants which have a more or less unconscious life, or compared to inanimate nature.)
3. A true name was a definition.
In the Earthsea universe, the true name of a thing was what it was, and nothing else. So water did not have one true name, but a different name depending on where it was. A sea somewhere had a different name from a lake somewhere else, and both different from some water in your house. A name, it turns out, was a definition: not only what a thing was, but also in a sense, all it could be.
And it was this that gave me a handle on something I’d long found a little mysterious: the question of why God’s seeming reluctance, in the scriptural record, to reveal his name in scripture:
Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” (Genesis 32:29 ESV)
And the angel of the Lord said to him, “Why do you ask my name, seeing it is wonderful?” (Judges 13:18 ESV)
And then the one time God himself gives a name he would be called by, it’s as non-name as a name can get.
Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” (Exodus 3:13–14 ESV)
(This may, by the way, also suggest one way Jesus is God’s express image.)
4. Another’s true name was a gift.
Given the power a name represented, to share one’s true name, in the Earthsea universe, was a great honour, a way of saying you counted them truly intimate and that you could trust them with your life. Even now, in our much less informal times, to be on first name basis with someone still means something. (Again, this gives new meaning to God giving Moses his “true name.”)
Imagine what the following verse suddenly meant to me, then, in light of that:
To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it. (Revelation 2:17 ESV)
Unless I misinterpret this completely, this is a promise that even in the afterlife, a degree of intimacy with God will exist that will be limited to God and each individual, like how a married couple may sometimes share names known only to themselves. Or put differently, human existence in the afterlife will not be a mass affair, all of us lost in some kind of “holy crowd”—we will each remain uniquely known to him.
5. We all get to name.
The final thing I learned was not a lesson from the book in itself, but from what it helped me see in the Bible. And it was this: we all get to be Adam. We all get to name, but we, like the wizards in Earthsea, must learn the true names of things. Because in the end, the names matter, and to live under the burden of a false name may be one of the worst things to which we can subject ourselves and others—especially those who look up to us. So…
What name do you give your experiences?
What name do you call those you love?
What name do you call yourself?
Could we say, maybe, that maturity—really growing up—is about learning “true names”? Could the ability to name things truly be our greatest superpower?
A final note
I am grateful to Ursula K Le Guin for her writing, and especially for A Wizard of Earthsea. I remain grateful despite her staunchly anti-religious position (enough to win an award for it in 2009), because her books really did help me see all of this. And I saw it all even more clearly on rereading it this year. And I am, above all, grateful for a faith that allows me to gratefully learn from even those who do not share it.
You can buy Le Guin’s masterpiece here.
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