The ideas behind the books

The Power of Naming

Did you notice that as soon as the term 'road rage' was invented there seemed to be a lot more of it about? It was as though once the offence had been given a name we felt empowered to commit it. Knowing the name of someone or something is a strong kind of magic. Imagine receiving a nuisance telephone call. If we just hear an empty silence or random threats that is bad enough, but if our nuisance caller calls us by our name then we are immediately much more concerned. We have been watched by someone unknown and our personal name has been discovered and used. We are exposed and vulnerable.

Harry Potter learns about the power of naming. The first hint he receives of the existence of a formidable enemy is Sshhh! You-Know-Who! But after a series of confrontations with the Dark Side which Harry wins Professor Dumbledore tells him: 'Call him Voldemort, Harry. Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.' And later in a triumphal clat Harry bellows: 'VOLDEMORT!...I've met him and I'm calling him by his name.' Perhaps Voldemort was as rattled by this outburst as we were when we received our nuisance telephone call.

In her book A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula Le Guin makes naming the basis of all magic power. In her School for Wizards the students must spend a dark year in the Isolate Tower studying with the Master Namer:

Ged sighed sometimes, but he did not complain. He saw that in this dusty and fathomless matter of learning the true name of each place, thing, and being, the power he wanted lay like a jewel at the bottom of a dry well. For magic consists in this, the true naming of a thing.

For Ursula Le Guin, to know the true name of a thing in the Old Speech is to have power over it. To work a spell of shaping, to change one thing into another thing, it must be renamed for as long as the spell lasts. And in her world of masters and mages every person keeps a use-name and a true-name 'for a man never speaks his own name aloud, until more than his life's safety is at stake.'

This may sound like fantasy fiction, but next time you type your password in to the school computer network, make sure no-one is looking over your shoulder, because to know your secret name is to have power over you...