“…there is great power, and great peril, in a name.” The Tombs of Atuan
Ursula Le Guin is one of the best-known science fiction and fantasy authors of our time. For the last fifty years and more, she’s woven gripping stories and tackled no end of big topics: gender, class, the environment, the power of words – and the power of names.
She’s best known for her books about the world of Earthsea. If you’ve read any, you’ll probably remember it contains wizards (and a wizarding school long before Hogwarts was dreamt of), dragons, kings, dark powers and ordinary people. You might also remember names are hugely important – literally a matter of life and death.
The idea is that a person’s true name is their very soul. If someone knows it they have power over you, so you keep your name secret and only reveal it to those you trust with your life. In fact, the whole art of magic is based on knowing the true names of things. No names, no magic.
In everyday life, the people of Earthsea go by use-names that aren’t magical at all. They’re interesting to us, though, because a lot of them are word names – especially nature names – that would fit right into our world. You don’t always find them on the gender you’d expect, either. Rose and Lily are women, but so are Pippin and Mead, while Beryl and Ivory are men.
Here are 30 more of the best word names in Earthsea:
And what about Le Guin’s other characters from Earthsea and beyond, the ones who don’t have convenient English nature names? As we’d expect of people who come from all over space and time, some of their names are well outside our comfort zone. I’m not going to try to convince you of the merits of Abundibot or Shusgis (though if you want to use them, be my guest).
But plenty of Le Guin’s characters do have usable names. Here are some of the best – they’re a bit out of this world, but they’d also work well in it.
Ged (everyday name: Sparrowhawk) is our hero, a powerful yet humble wizard who talks with dragons and travels to the edges of the earth. His name is short and sweet, but it’s a pronunciation hazard. Le Guin favours a hard G sound because (she says) “‘Jed’ sounds like a Mountain Man from Kaintucky more than a wizard”.
Arren is the young heir to the throne, with one of the most usable names of all. It could be an alternative spelling of biblical Aaron or Scottish island Arran, and it’s a way to get to the nickname Ren.
Caspro (Annals of the Western Shore)
Orrec Caspro is a renowned poet and storyteller in Le Guin’s most recent young adult series. This name combines the sound of Casper and Caspian with a cool -o ending, plus bonus points for containing the word “pro”.
Estrel (City of Illusions)
An attractive but tragic woman, Estrel’s name looks like a streamlined twist on starry Spanish Estrella. (Incidentally it’s also Germany’s largest hotel, named after owner Ekkehard Streletzki.)
Genly (The Left Hand of Darkness)
A diplomat who grows to accept the cultural differences of the planet he’s sent to, Genly fits right in with surnames and place names like Gentry and Henley. Le Guin pronounces it with a hard G, but she thinks “the reader has the right to pronounce a made-up name or word just the way she or he wants to.”
A strong woman who breaks through the glass ceiling of the all-male wizards’ school. Irian feels like it should already be a name, probably because it’s an anagram of Irina and looks like a smoosh of Imogen and Marian.
In Virgil‘s Aeneid (and this novel) Lavinia was the wife of Aeneas and legendary foremother of the Romans. Shakespeare and later poets used the name, and it was fairly common in the 19th and early 20th century. With a similar sound to Olivia and the tomboy nickname Vinnie, it would be an ideal vintage name to revive.
In a novel that’s uncannily similar to the film Avatar, Raj Lyubov is one of the good guys on the side of the forest people. Raj means “king” in Sanskrit and modern Indian languages, so it’s related to royal names like Reign, Rex and, well, Royal. There are already a few Indian names that have come to be used in other cultures, like Taj and Bodhi. Could Raj join them?
Rocannon (Rocannon’s World)
Gaveral Rocannon, a telepathic planet-hopping researcher, is the hero of Le Guin’s first novel. His name has an on-trend sound – like a smoosh of Rocco and Cannon, which have both risen through the charts in recent years – as well as strong geek credentials.
Solly (Four Ways to Forgiveness)
You might think of Solly as a diminutive of Solomon, but this space-travelling diplomat proves that it works as a female name too. It could stand alone, like Molly and Holly, or be short for a name like Soleil or Isolde.
A mysterious child, part-girl part-dragon, in the books she shares her name with a star. Tehanu is probably too unfamiliar looking to have mass appeal, as is Tenar, her mother and the heroine of the series. But if you’re looking for an exotic, ethereal literary name, either one could be perfect.
A great wizard who makes a dubious return from the dead. If the name Thor continues to rise in popularity, helped by the Marvel character, we might see growing interest in names starting with the same sound, like Thorold, Thorsten, and why not Thorion too?