Although A Wizard of Earthsea follows the major conventions of heroic fantasy, it also subverts them. Earthsea is presented as a hierarchical world, medieval in technology, but made materially rather comfortable by the use of magic. Magic is based on a knowledge of language. Ged explains that the universe is a long word, spoken by the shining of the stars, the syllables of which are the true names of all things. The magician learns these syllables, which also make up the language of dragons, and by manipulating them can participate in and to some extent direct the form and disposition of things. This creative magic is believed to be the province of men. Only men are trained in it. Although there are female amateurs, village witches who pass on a “minor” traditional knowledge of spells associated mainly with feminine domestic life, the women who achieve special power usually are seen as connected with the dark powers opposed to creation. In this story, the few powerful women are also dangerous. As the trilogy develops, and especially as it is extended into Tehanu, it becomes clearer that women’s association with destructive magic is more a cultural than a natural phenomenon. Kept at the margins of culture by traditional social and political structures, women seem to be forced to seek power from dark forces. Because the culture associates women with darkness and nonbeing, whatever powers they show tend also to be connected with evil.
In A Wizard of Earthsea, Ged’s meetings with women seem to be either dangerous temptations or minor events, but in each he learns something vital to his success. The dangerous women bring him into contact with his shadow, which proves to be necessary to his maturing. The helpful women, such as Vetch’s sister, Yarrow, and an aged, exiled princess, help Ged to understand the values of domestic life and the suffering that results from the current political order. Such learning becomes increasingly important in the later books, which concern themselves in part with reforming the political and social...
(The entire section is 848 words.)
“Only in silence the word,
only in dark the light,
only in dying life:
bright the hawk’s flight
on the empty sky.”
– The Creation of Ea, A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin, p. 1
The books that profoundly shape one’s thinking don’t come along very often. I was fortunate enough to stumble upon one at the age of ten. Randomly grabbed out of a crate of assorted novels for English reading class, A Wizard of Earthsea immediately drew me deep into its world of magic, adversity, and adventure. But unlike other young adult books that were read and subsequently forgotten, Wizard’s story stayed with me. The beautiful use of language and imagery, coupled with the mythic quality of the writing style, definitely didn’t hurt. But I think as a child of two cultures, I was most particularly attracted to the unique way in which Le Guin wove Eastern philosophy into her works of fantasy.
Whatever its appeal was, I have reread Wizard of Earthsea and subsequent entries of the Earthsea series many times since that first time – as a child, as a teenager, and as an adult. The text remains the same, but the meanings and insights I take from each of the stories changed as I changed. They have come to be my hidden treasures, my sources of inspiration, and my stepping stones into a lifetime of exploration of what it means to be human. That is why I chose to start off this blog delving into the first trilogy of the Earthsea series. Intensely moral and profoundly humane, I believe they are vital parables for our times.
The protagonist, Ged, is born with the gift of magery, a great power that is grounded in words and speech. Unwisely, he abuses that power by channeling it through pride and hate, unleashing a dark shadow upon himself and the world. Crippled and humbled, he begins a journey of traveling the world to undo what he has done. Through his travels and experiences, he comes to understand that power must not be wielded without understanding the consequences. At the conclusion of the story, Ged realizes that the evil he brought upon the world is in fact a part of himself, his inner darkness. Only in this understanding and acceptance is he finally able to heal himself and the world.
A Non-traditional fantasy
A quick summary of Wizard of Earthsea as presented above reads like most typical young adult fantasy stories. After all, who hasn’t heard of the reluctant hero with great inner powers? But I believe that Wizard is actually a subversion of the typical heroic fantasy narrative. The quest for wealth, fame, and love is replaced by a personal journey, focused on undoing damage that was wrought. It is a journey of redemption. The protagonist does not get swept up with outside forces that are beyond his control, nor does he acquire more powers and ability throughout the story. Instead, he is responsible for the evil unleashed, an evil that is forged through his own hate and pride. It falls upon his shoulders, and no one else’s, to resolve the situation. There are concrete threats, such as the Old Powers in the Court of the Terranon and the Dragon of Pendor, but they are presented primarily as temptations to lure Ged away from his duty and responsibility with riches, safety, and mastery.
The central conflict of the book is internal. Ged needed to overcome his pride, understand the purpose of his art, resist the temptations of power, and acknowledge his dependence on friendship and kindness. The abuse of power is what got him into this situation: More power is not the solution. The climax of the story is unique in that it does not culminate in a show of force to defeat external evil, but in accepting responsibility for the darkness within him.
The Ethics of Power
A central theme of Wizard of Earthsea is the ethical and proper use of power. Le Guin’s created world is not merely a depiction of an idyllic pastoral world in which people still practice subsistence lifestyles; all inhabitants are aware of something called the Equilibrium. Maintaining the Equilibrium means maintaining the pattern and the order of the Earthsea universe. This is something that is always on the minds of mages; the wise must possess a deep understanding of how the world works before performing any deed of magic, great or small. One of Ged’s teachers on Roke, the Master Hand, conveys the responsibility associated with the power of magery, the major human ability for change in Earthsea:
“But you must not change one thing, one pebble, one grain of sand, until you know what good and evil will follow on that act. The world is in balance, in Equilibrium. A wizard’s power of Changing and of Summoning can shake the balance of the world. It is dangerous, that power. It is most perilous. It must follow knowledge, and serve need. To light a candle is to cast a shadow…”
– Wizard, pp. 43-44
There is an implicit ethical responsibility towards maintaining the Equilibrium. Even small deeds can have unintended consequences on the greater whole. The school on Roke is built upon the principle that learning to harness the gift of magic is not enough; pupils must acquire the wisdom of if and when to use it. Students learn how to apply their disciplines and hone their craft, but more importantly spend time learning how to think critically and ethically about its applications. As the narrative unfolds and Ged unleashes the shadow that scars him and kills the Archmage, we recognize the disastrous consequences of using that power inappropriately.
The ethical use of power, when to act and when not to, is a major recurring theme of the series, and one that I’ll come back to in subsequent entries.
- Are ethics and critical thinking given sufficient consideration in our educational institutions?
The Fourfoil and the Grove
Embedded within the narrative of Wizard of Earthsea is a deep and inherent appreciation for nature and its mysteries. There is an exchange quite early on between Ged, still an impatient apprentice, and his taciturn master Ogion, which provides an excellent example:
“When you know the fourfoil in all its seasons root and leaf and flower, by sight and scent and seed then you may learn its true name, knowing its being: which is more than its use. What, after all, is the use of you? Or of myself? Is Gont Mountain useful, or the Open Sea?”
– Wizard, pp.17-18
Ogion’s first important lesson to Ged is one of appreciation: man should observe and welcome the mystery of each being as it is, and not presume to weigh anything from humanity’s perspective or meddle with its existence unless need dictates. For me, this brief conversation brilliantly conveys an unyielding respect for life while simultaneously introducing the concept of intrinsic worth – the value of life for life’s sake, beyond its utility to humanity. The fourfoil exists and deserves to do so, unless we believe we are wise enough to judge that we know better than nature.
My own Immanent Grove. Photo by author.
Wizard of Earthsea introduces the Immanent Grove, located on the Isle of Roke where Ged attends the school of magic. It is depicted as an uncanny stand of trees that is always more than meets the eye, and is never quite what one expects. It represents the source of magic and power in the Earthsea universe. Within it resides the Master Patterner, a mage who spends his entire life attempting to discern and understand the pattern of the world. The Grove is best described in the third book in the series, The Farthest Shore:
“What is learned in the Immanent Grove is not much talked about elsewhere. It is said that no spells are worked there, and yet the place itself is an enchantment. Sometimes the trees of that Grove are seen, and sometimes they are not seen, and they are not always in the same place… It is said that the trees of the Grove themselves are wise. The novices, the townsfolk, the farmers consider that the Grove moves about in a mystifying manner. But in this they are mistaken, for the grove does not move. Its roots are the roots of being. It is all the rest that moves.”
– The Farthest Shore, p. 11
I find its “mysterious” quality fascinating. The Grove exists as a tangible place, and is described as a wellspring of life and vitality of the world. But it is also depicted as something that can never quite be fully comprehended, and some quality of it remains eternally inexplicable to human perception. To me, the Immanent Grove is an intriguing metaphor for Nature itself – not quite abstract and not quite real, but is within us and all life.
Illustration by Ruth Robbins.
The depiction of animals in Wizard is of note as well. Le Guin does not seek to anthropomorphize animals (Dragons are a different matter entirely, and that will be explored in future posts). The animals of Earthsea represent Otherness. Their thoughts and actions are foreign and hidden to us, as they are in the real world. But Wizard states that we have much to learn from them. There is a scene in which Ged was rescued from death’s domain not by any acts or powers of man, but rather an otak, his furry little companion:
“It was only the dumb instinctive wisdom of the beast who licks his hurt companion to comfort him, and yet in that wisdom Ged saw something akin to his own power, something that went as deep as wizardry. From that time forth he believed that the wise man is one who never sets himself apart from other living things, whether they have speech or not, and in later years he strove long to learn what can be learned, in silence, from the eyes of animals, the flight of birds, the great slow gestures of trees.
– Wizard, p. 82
Wizard of Earthsea conveys the notion that there is much to learn from the Other; wisdom can come from a wide array of unexpected sources, including the natural world. We must be open-minded enough to learn from them in order to fully understand ourselves. This central theme is revisited in the last book of the series, The Other Wind.
- What degree of importance do we give the intrinsic worth of life?
- To pet owners and animal lovers, what insights have you drawn from your relationships with animals?
A Non-traditional Hero
To me, Wizard of Earthsea presents a different type of hero than traditional fantasy hero. Ged displays many of the virtues of a resilient, sustainable, and integrated individual, people we need more of in today’s world as we deal with an uncertain and complex world. He understands the significance of connection and consequence. He learned the hard way that his actions have both positive and negative impacts on the world which he is a part of. He is respectful of the Other, whether it be animals or trees or people he meets along the way. He exercises moderation and does not seek power for power’s sake, having learned his lesson harshly early on. Ged is able to acknowledge mistakes arising from arrogance and pride, altering his thinking and behaviour to become a more humble individual. He understands his limits and accepts them. Finally, Ged has accepted his own inner darkness and establishes an equilibrium within himself:
“And he began to see the truth, that Ged had neither lost nor won but, naming the shadow of his death with his own name, had made himself whole: a man: who, knowing his whole true self, cannot be used or possessed by any power other than himself, and whose life therefore is lived for life’s sake and never in the service of ruin, or pain, or hatred, or the dark.”
– Wizard, Chapter 10, the Open Sea
Having faced his own shadow self, he is equipped to deal with the world, and live life fully and rightly.
LeGuin draws significant influences from Taoist philosophy, particularly the ideas that come from the Tao Te Ching, a book that she calls “funny, keen, kind, modest, indestructibly outrageous, and inexhaustibly refreshing”. For me, Ged’s character development through Wizard can almost summed up in one particular passage:
“Knowing other people is intelligence,
Knowing yourself is wisdom.
Overcoming others takes strength,
Overcoming yourself takes greatness.
Contentment is wealth.”
– Chapter 33, Kinds of power, Tao Te Ching: An English Version by Ursula K. Le Guin
Ged is a character that comes to understand and accept integration and balance within himself. It is my opinion that we would all do well to look within ourselves and think about what virtues are necessary to make us better, more resilient, more integrated, and mentally healthier people that can live more sustainably in our complex world today.
- What personal qualities are desirable if we are to be sustainable in our lives? (Your definition of “sustainable” may vary, but that’s OK)
Next up:The radically different sequel to A Wizard of Earthsea.
Le Guin, Ursula K. A Wizard of Earthsea. New York: Bantam, 1969.
Le Guin, Ursula K. The Farthest Shore. New York: Bantam, 1972.
Le Guin, Ursula K. Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching. Boston and London: Shambhala, 1997.
Featured Image by Rebecca Guay at www.rebeccaguay.com.