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Monday, March 14, 2011

Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea: Musings

Ursula K. Le Guin is arguably the best writer of fantastic literature in English of the last half of the 20th century. (She is still alive, and, as far as I know, still writing.) She has won numerous awards, all well-deserved. She has written in a variety of literary forms, including criticism and literature for young children.

Le Guin's Earthsea trilogy was published from 1968 through 1973. The series was designed for young people, and the final volume, The Farthest Shore, won the National Book Award for Children's Books. (Nearly 20 years later, Le Guin wrote three other books about the same sub-creation, and including stories about some of the characters in the trilogy. I have read the first three books numerous times. Recently, it occurred to me that I had never blogged about them, and I decided that it was time to fill that gap.

The first book in the trilogy is A Wizard of Earthsea. The previous sentence links to the Wikipedia article on the book, which has a good summary of it, and some references to works about the book.

I wish to muse about several aspects of A Wizard of Earthsea.

The book is written in the third person. It is well written, and well organized. The setting is the many islands of Earthsea -- not all of them, just a few. There is a good map. The location of Earthsea is not given, but it seems to be a non-earth planet, mostly water, with one sun and one moon, probably much like our own moon. Le Guin's father was an important anthropologist. Her mother was a writer and also an anthropologist. The book has anthropological aspects. One of them is that there are hints that the islands are inhabited by different ethnic and racial groups, many, but not all, dark-skinned. Another is that, regardless of the location, the people engage in two ceremonies, one as the days begin to lengthen, the other on the longest day: . . . the Long Dance began. Townsfolk and Masters and students and farmers all together, men and women, danced in the warm dust and dusk down all the roads of Roke to the sea-beaches, to the beat of drums and drone of pipes and flutes. Straight out into the sea they danced, under the moon one night past full, and the music was lost in the breakers' sound. As the east grew light they came back up the beaches and the roads, the drums silent and only the flutes playing soft and shrill. So it was done on every island of the Archipelago that night: one dance, one music binding together the sea-divided lands. (p. 69)

The book is a coming-of-age novel. Ged begins his life in a poor and isolated village on Gont, one of the many islands that make up Earthsea. He learns some of his father's blacksmithing trade, but the most important thing about his life is that he has magical ability. Ogion the Silent, the local mage, takes Ged as an apprentice. Ged is not thrilled by this. Ogion doesn't often perform any magic. He is concerned about preserving the equilibrium of the world: ". . . Ged, listen to me now. Have you never thought how danger must surround power as a shadow does light? This sorcery is not a game we play for pleasure or for praise. Think of this: that every word, every act of our Art is said and done either for good, or for evil. Before you speak or do you must know the price that is to pay!" (p. 35, Ogion to Ged)

Ged decides to leave Ogion, and travel to Roke, where the school for wizards is located. At first, he does well at the school, probably better than any other student. (All the students, and the Masters, are male.) But he has a problem, one that Ogion knew about, and hoped to cure -- Ged is proud. He cannot endure being looked down upon. One of the other students, Jasper, delights in looking down on Ged. Finally, Ged can endure it no longer, and declares that he will perform one of the most difficult acts of magic, and, of course, one that will endanger the equilibrium of the world. He calls, from the land of the dead, the Dry Land, a legendary woman, Elfarran, who has been dead for centuries. He succeeds, but in the process, he not only brings a dead woman from the Dry Land to the real, living world, but he allows a nameless evil being to enter it, too. That being scars Ged's face, and leaves him ill in body and mind.

The Masters repair the damage Ged has caused. Nemmerle, the Archmage, expends so much of his power that he dies in the process. When Ged returns to health, he is permanently scarred, and not as quick a student as he used to be. But he is allowed to complete his training, and the new Archmage sends him to be wizard to a group of small islands that is threatened by a dragon.

Three important events happen during Ged's first tenure as a wizard. One of them is that a small boy becomes sick. Ged believes that the boy is dying, but tries to save him, anyway. He does not succeed, and, for the first time, enters, in spirit, the Dry Land, the land of the dead. He almost does not return, but his small pet licks him until Ged regains consciousness. Ged realizes that he has to escape the being he released earlier, and therefore must leave the people he has served as wizard. Before he does so, Ged confronts the dragon, and, by using that animal's secret name, which gives him power over it, he guarantees that the dragon will never attack the islands he has tried to protect. So, in a year or so, Ged has encountered two of the things he studied about, but never experienced, the Dry Land and a dragon. The third important event is more of a process. Ged learns, from the fishermen of the islands, how to repair a boat, using tools and magic.

Ged flees, trying to get away from the threat of the evil being he released earlier. In his flight, he comes to another island where an Old Power, a spirit of a stone, the Terenon, holds sway. He escapes, changing himself into a falcon, and flies back to Gont, to the home of Ogion. Ogion advises Ged not to flee the shadow being, but to hunt it down. Ged does so. The being he is chasing leads Ged to ground his boat on a tiny sand island, and there are other difficulties. On the sand island, Ged finds an old couple, probably brother and sister, who do not share a common language with him. They come to trust him, and the woman gives Ged an old piece of metal, broken from something larger. This will be significant in the second book of the trilogy, but doesn't seem so to Ged at the time.

Finally, in the open sea, in a boat he has repaired, Ged meets this being. The two speak Ged's secret name, "Ged," to each other, and embrace, becoming a single entity, which seems to be mostly Ged, and, judging by the subsequent books, a good person. Probably Le Guin meant to say that, by accepting his darker self, Ged becomes a whole, mature, person, able to do what must be done in the world.

Le Guin is a Taoist. There are a couple of elements that one wouldn't expect to find in a Christian story. One of them is the resolution described in the previous paragraph. A Christian story would have such an evil being destroyed, rejected, not assimilated.

The second element is that there is no god of any kind in the book. In fact, the culture that the wizards inhabit rejects the very idea: "It is no secret. All power is one in source and end, I think. Years and distances, stars and candles, water and wind and wizardry, the craft in a man's hand and the wisdom in a tree's root: they all arise together. My name, and yours, and the true name of the sun, or a spring of water, or an unborn child, all are syllables of the great word that is very slowly spoken by the shining of the stars. There is no other power. No other name." (p. 185, Ged to Yarrow, a minor character.)

In spite of these religious ideas, the book is well worth reading. Thanks for reading this.

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