“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.
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.
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.
This is one of my favorite stories and the first text based book I read when I was little. Rereading it over and over through the years I am continually struck by the unsaid, but clearly specified details of her world. Ursula K. Guinn had someting of an unfair advantage in writing and envisioning societies. Her father was the renowned California anthropologist Krober (most of us know him vie Ishi: Last of His Tribe) and her author mother who did the actual writing of the people and myths Krober studied.
Very nice review and discussion of one of my favorite books and authors.
It’s always to hear other people’s experience with a beloved work. I agree with you: What she leaves out is just as important as what she puts on the page. And yeah, she definitely got a leg-up when it comes to having influential parents. The Taoist themes in her writing came from her father as well.
Thanks very much for reading!
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You are right about the book’s power and wisdom. I have used it as a parable for facing my own difficulties, our own shadows.
It’s really nice to hear that others have found words of comfort and wisdom in some of my treasured works. Thanks for sharing your experience in confronting and integrating your own shadow.
It is a treasure and appreciated your deep reading of it.
Tell me more about the epigram at the beginning of Earthsea. I find it rather awkward to translate (remember I am translating it into Arabic. Actually finished a very potent draft and editing it these days)
Can I hear what you have to say about these lines?
Good to hear from you. I’m not sure if my take will be very insightful, but the poem to me speaks of the necessity of balance and the interdependency of opposites for creating the whole. Words needs silence around them to have meaning, life without death means the end of change and renewal for a species. I think there is a tendency to say one thing is good and the other bad, whereas the poem suggests that no, both elements are needed to create meaning, beauty, the world in its entirety. Ged’s adventures throughout the book culminates in him understanding that he must accept his shadow to grow as a person.
I think rather than saying that the opposites provide meaning to one another, it is clearer to say that they define one another.
“only in silence, the word”: If everyone talks at once, then no one is listening, and even if one person was listening amidst all that talking, it would be very difficult to hear anything but noise with everyone talking over one another. However when someone speaks in a silent room, then they can be clearly heard.
this is wrapped up neatly with “bright the hawks flight across the empty sky”. In a cluttered sky the hawk’s flight is not easily discerned. But in an empty sky, the bird’s form and flight come into focus as your eye gravitates to them. Think of a photograph well composed with a hawk flying across an empty sky. The picture is clearly of a hawk in flight. A lesser photographer however might include a great deal of other things in their frame (an airplane, lots of clouds, powerlines, the roofs of buildings, mountain peaks, the tops of trees, and maybe the hawk somewhere in there) and thereby have a picture of nothing really, just the sky with various random things happening in it rather than a picture of a hawk in flight.
In anycase, not a big deal. I really liked your review of this book, but in seeing your comment, even a year later, I wanted to provide my point of view.
I appreciate your comment. Rereading my comment, I think your take gets closer to the truth of what is being expressed. Opposites provide contrast, and in that contrast lies clarity and wholeness. Meaning is independent of those elements, or is a step removed from the process.
Thanks for coming back to this essay. It was the first piece I wrote for this blog, so it’s interesting to revisit it.
Great Isaac. You are just great
I’m researching this novel for a literature class I’m teaching, and your summary is the best I’ve read. Well done.
Thanks for reading – I hope you found the piece useful for your class!
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Earthsea is excellent — a richly detailed fictional world, very introspective with much to offer. Le Guin’s prose is clear and coherent, but never plain. While it seems to be in the fantasy/adventure mold, it also subverts the genre, as you said. Really, this is one of the more insightful write-ups I’ve found on this topic. Thinking about the central theme of the books, and what sets them apart, I’ve finally come up with the answer. Ultimately, Earthsea is about mending what’s broken and restoring balance; the imbalances that must be righted throughout the books range from the individual to the cosmic.
The first 3 books are classic. Tehanu feels different, I wouldn’t say it’s bad, but it’s kind of an interregnum. Tales provides some nice backstory/fleshing out, with Dragonfly as a continuation. The Other Wind is a decent conclusion, it fits into the main series moreso than Tehanu, but there’s still a different sense to it. There’s no harm in reading it all of course, but my favorite parts are the first trilogy + some of the Tales.
While the world & dry land are quite vivid, the part that stuck to me the most was the Court of the Terrenon.
Hope you don’t mind a late reply! Just wanted to share my thoughts.
Just thought I’d drop another comment, in light of recent thoughts and insights. It occurred to me that the beginning and end of the original trilogy are thematically tied together. In Wizard of Earthsea, the conflict begins when Ged opens a gate to the afterlife out of pride and anger. In The Farthest Shore, the (much larger) conflict is resolved when Ged, having traveled into the nether realm, seals a gate to the living world in a heroic act of self-sacrifice. These events fit so well as complementary opposites that this must’ve been by design.
Also, I’d like to add that Tehanu is like a very long epilogue, and Other Wind is like one half of a good book; although I do like the twist on the Dry Land, since it always seemed very dreary, like Hades.
My apologies for the late reply, and thank you for reading one of the first pieces I wrote for Ekostories. Yes, there seems to be an intended arc for Ged, and as a kid reading The Farthest Shore I totally saw him through the eyes of Arren, and was sad in seeing how he had to give up his power to heal the world. I also saw Cob in the third book as a mirror to Ged’s shadow in the first book, both gebbeths.
I have not written about the second trilogy here, but I have learned to love them in a different way. Rarely do authors have something new to ask and to say in their established world, but Le Guin did, in a different stage in her life. Tehanu lays the foundation for those new questions and possible answers; Tales contains arguably two of my favourite short stories ever (Bones of the Earth and The Finder); The Other Wind to me is so immensely satisfying in how it reshapes the world through highlighting of other voices, rediscovering lost histories, and reconciling disparate perspectives. “We broke the world to make it whole.” That always stayed with me.
Not a problem! Yes, his sacrifice was bittersweet — he saved the world, but he lost his potency, which is a huge part of who he was. of course it completed his arc, and the only alternative was for the living world to become another Dry Land (the natural consequence of trying to upset the balance in one’s favor, everyone loses), but still, quite a sacrifice to make.
However, I don’t think Ged’s shadow was a gebbeth. I believe that word refers to a zombie-like being in which a malevolent spirit has destroyed the person’s consciousness and/or driven out their soul, and then possesses the body. the shadow was a malevolent spirit who wanted to convert Ged into a gebbeth, so there’s a distinction. as for Cob, I don’t think it’s stated whether he’s a gebbeth or not, but he could be. I agree that there’s a parallel between the two.
I was reading about Earthsea elsewhere, and another commentator made a great point: three female characters (Serret, Tenar, Tehanu) are thematically linked: Serret is beholden to the Old Powers, Tenar escapes them, and Tehanu is firmly aligned with dragon-magic (or whatever you call the force in opposition to the Old Powers of Earth).
Ursula K Le Guin was definitely in a different phase of life when writing the later books, and it shows. Likewise, I approve of the later developments, while having reservations about the overall narrative structure.
This was a fantastic review & analysis. My thanks for it!