This story centers around a wizard called Mr. Underhill who lives under a hill on an island on the planet of Earthsea. This island has a rule about names. The rule is actually two principles that everyone lives by. The first principle is that you can never ask someone about his or her “true name”. The second principle is that you can never tell someone your true name.
This is not to say that people do not use names, but another person or a group of people gives these names to them. For example, Mr. Underhill is called “Mr. Underhill” because he lives under a hill. Though Mr. Underhill is the town’s only wizard, typically an esteemed position, the townsfolk do not respect him or believe that he is capable of any real magic.
In addition to disrespecting his magical skills, people generally look down on him because of his age and appearance. In addition to his social awkwardness and incredibly shyness, he is short, pigeon-toed, and bow-legged. He spends the majority of his day hiding in his small home under the hill.
Le Guin then tells of a mysterious traveler who sails to Sattins. The townspeople name him Blackbeard because of his thick, ebony beard. He claims that he is just a traveler, but he is really a man who has come to Sattins in search of revenge. Years ago, Blackbeard had his fortune stolen by a man who slayed a dragon and he tracked that man to Sattins.
He knows that Mr. Underhill knows the location of the stolen riches, so he decides to confront him. Blackbeard is confident that even if an altercation occurs he will be able to control Mr. Underhill because he knows Mr. Underhill’s true name. The people of Sattins believe that revealing the true name of something will reveal its true form.
Just as Blackbeard expected, a fight ensues, and Mr. Underhill transforms into a dragon. Thinking that this is a manifestation of Underhill’s magical powers, Blackbeard calls out Underhill’s true name: Yevaud, expecting Yevaud to revert to his human form.
To Blackbeard’s shock, Yevaud remains a dragon and Blackbeard realizes that Yevaud was a dragon all along. Yevaud quickly defeats Blackbeard and then devours the entire town, with the exception of Birt and Palani who escape by boat.
As a story featured on the world of Earthsea, situated within the broader context of the Earthsea book series, “The Rule of Names” is heavily imbued with magical elements. In Le Guin’s writing, Earthsea is a world made up solely of a large sea and a series of islands of varying sizes. Sattins is one such island. It is a world dominated by mythological figures including wizards, dragons, and mages.
In this way, the events that take place on the island of Sattins fit right within the rest of the Earthsea narrative. “The Rule of Names” focuses on two main concepts: the idea that appearances can be deceiving and the idea that words can hold mystical power.
Underhill’s unassuming appearance makes the townsfolk think that he is harmless, almost pitiable. They deride him and essentially view him as a weird and useless old man. Little do they know that he wields unimaginable power. Even though the villagers are unaware of his abilities, Le Guin gives the reader ample warning in the form of heavy foreshadowing. For example, she writes, “Each breath shot out of his nostrils as a double puff of steam, snow-white in the morning sunshine” (279), and "at the first whack of the hatchet on the door there came a roar of wrath from inside, and a cloud of purple steam… and the boys came to no harm, though they said you couldn’t believe the huge hooting, howling, hissing, horrible bellow that the little fat man could make unless you’d heard it” (280). The last piece of foreshadowing comes when Le Guin writes of Underhill’s encounter with the schoolchildren. She writes, “Somehow the minute he spent watching Palani and the children hade made him very hungry” (282).
As for the idea of the power of words, specifically names, Le Guin borrows from a mystic tradition that knowing something’s true name and using it gives a person power over that thing. Throughout the Earthsea series, a true name is a name of a thing or a person that expresses or reveals its true nature. It is derivative of the idea of sacred words or incantations, a central concept in the study of magic.