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Volume 23, Number 3
Spring 1996


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Ursula LeGuin's Magical World of Earthsea

Jan M. Griffin

Ursula K. LeGuin is usually labeled as a science fiction writer. It is a categorization she doesn't exactly appreciate because she writes in many genres other than science fiction. Besides science fiction, LeGuin says of her literature, "some of it is fantasy, some of it is realistic, some of it is magical realism." Along with novels, LeGuin writes poetry and essays (Contemporary Authors, p. 5). She disapproves of narrow genre-labeling because many authors write in various genres, and more importantly, she implies that science fiction books are seen as some sort of sub-genre, but "some of this stuff is some of the best writing that's being done in the United States" (C.A., p. 12). LeGuin should know. She is an author who has received critical acclaim for much of her writing. The awards have been for literary merit, not just science fiction awards given to books in that category. The Earthsea Trilogy, her second trilogy and her first attempt at fantasy, has been popular for over two decades. Considered by LeGuin (C.A., p. 6) and some critics (Spivack, p. 26) as her best work to date, the books comprising The Earthsea Trilogy have garnered many awards including a Newbery Silver Medal Award, and four awards for Children's Book of the Year from various committees.

LeGuin began the trilogy when a publisher invited her to write a fantasy for children (Stott, p. 169). She developed the novels from stories she had written earlier about the world of Earthsea, a place similar to the United States in climate, and much like the fifteenth century in its lack of industrialization (Bleiler, p. 410).

Her extensive exposure to Native American legends as well as Norse mythology is evident in her writing (Spivack, p. 2). The latter is quite apparent in The Earthsea Trilogy with the use of the Kargs, a fair-skinned, blond race of big, strong people who worship dual or brother gods. Another aspect of LeGuin's background, prominent in much of her writing, is noticeable in this trilogy. Earthsea revolves around the principles of Taoism. As a self-proclaimed Taoist (American, p. 546), LeGuin manufactures a world based on two of the main principles of Taoism: 1) the theory of inactivity in which one acts only when absolutely necessary, and 2) the relativity of opposites which is the belief that opposites are interdependent, and their interdependence results in the equilibrium (Spivack, pp. 6 & 7). Both of these principles will be explained further in regard to the individual works.

The original three books can be described as coming-of-age novels in which three separate individuals struggle to become mature, responsible, whole adults. This is only a surface aspect used to compare the three.

The Wizard of Earthsea
The first book in the series, A Wizard of Earthsea, is a true "Bildungsroman," a novel which follows the hero to adulthood via a "quest for identity" (Baldick, p. 24). Ged's quest for identity encompasses A Wizard of Earthsea.

The hero, Ged, born with the name Duny, learns magic tricks from his aunt, the town witch, who sees in him the possibility of great power. When his home island of Gont is attacked by the vicious Kargs, Duny casts a simple fog spell which enshrouds the village, hiding the villagers from the enemies and saving the village from certain massacre. Word of this deed spreads to Ogion, the great mage of Re Albi. Ogion comes to Duny's village, gives Duny his "true" name -- Ged, and takes Ged to be his "prentice." Ged, called Sparrowhawk, learns much about magic, but he wants to learn more -- the fun stuff! Ogion allows his prentice to choose between staying at Re Albi or journeying to the isle of Roke. Ged opts for the opportunity of the Isle of Mages and goes to Roke with a message from Ogion dubbing Ged "one who will be greatest of the wizards of Gont" (p. 36).

Ged learns much and proves to have great power. As all of the students do, Ged travels to the Master Namer where he lives for a year learning the names of everything. Though bored, Ged knows the importance of learning the names, the true names of everything. For when one has knowledge of the true name, the name of making of a person or an object, he has power over it.

After Ged returns to the Great House, he challenges his arch-rival Jasper to a forbidden and ill-advised duel of magery. Ged knows he should not invoke this battle of power, but pride overwhelms reason. Ged uses his power, which he has not learned to control, to call a spirit from the dead. He succeeds in this evil spellweaving, but along with the spirit comes a black mass which attacks Ged, scarring him for life. Ged hovers between life and death while the nameless evil shadow roams Earthsea. Ged finally recovers and receives his yew staff, embodying his achievement of magehood.

The mage Sparrowhawk is sent to Low Torning to prepare for the imminent coming of the brood of dragons newly spawned. Ged becomes friends with a boat-maker named Pechvarry. Pechvarry's son grows ill, and the boy's parents beseech Ged to save the youngster's life. The boy is dying. Ged chases the boy's fleeing spirit into the Land of the Dead. He cannot save the boy. Turning to leave the dark place, Ged encounters the evil shadow that he loosed. It stands on the side of the living while Ged is on the side of the dead. Using his power, Ged is able to return to the land of the living; however, seeing his nemesis, Ged realizes that the shadow means to take over his body and his power.

He knows he cannot stay, but, before leaving, he feels he must fulfill his duty of ridding the island of the threat of dragons. Ged sails to the island of Pendor, kills some of the dragons, and bargains with the old dragon. Ged guesses the name of the old dragon and thus has power over him. Under duress the dragon agrees that he and his brood will not attack the islands to the east. This done, Ged, now a dragonlord because he has spoken with dragons, begins his journey to escape the un-named terror of the shadow. After many narrow escapes, Ged flees wearily to Ogion, his mentor on Gont. Ogion advises Ged to turn the tables on the shadow: he must be the hunter, not the hunted. Ged and Vetch, an old friend from Roke, sail to find the shadow. Ged, who has realized the responsibility he has acquired by loosing the evil, "It is my creature" (p. 160), finds it; and able to name it with his own name, Ged, comes to terms with it -- with himself. For the shadow was merely him, his own dark side. This journey was necessary because without it he was incomplete. Without his shadow, he lacked the Balance, the Equilibrium. He was not whole.

This first book of the series exemplifies the beliefs of the Taoist philosophy around which Earthsea revolves. At the end of the novel, Ged embodies the Taoist way. The first principle of the Tao Te Ching is the theory of inactivity which means that people should only act when necessary. Ged learns through his mistakes and the teachings of the Masters that magic should not be used for fun. It serves a purpose and should only be used when it is needed, not because someone wants to see a trick. Ged did not learn this lesson from his master Ogion, who rarely used his magic. Instead of realizing that Ogion was concerned about the Balance, the Equilibrium, Ged found himself irritated that Ogion would let it rain on them rather than turning the storm aside (p. 18). The second principle, the relativity of opposites, is the basis of the stability of Earthsea. In Taoist thought this principle, that opposites are dependent upon each other (light and dark, good and evil) is symbolized by yin and yang, the circle containing black and white swirls which originate from each other and then end in each other. This is the Equilibrium that Ogion as well as the Masters of Roke try to teach Ged. The Master Hand explains the concept of balance: "To light a candle is to cast a shadow..." (p. 44).

By the end of the book, Ged has come of age. Through the choices he makes, Ged proves that he is gaining maturity. Twice, individuals give Ged quick-fix solutions to his problem of the shadow. The first time he is tempted with the name of the shadow is when he finds the dragon. Yevaud, the dragon, informs Ged that he will give Ged the name of the shadow if Ged will release him to be free to attack the islands of the east at will. Ged, rather than endanger the inhabitants of those islands, refuses the enticing offer. Another time, the Lady Serret presents him with the opportunity to ask the Stone of Terrenon for the name of the shadow. Once again, Ged declines an opportunity to learn the name of his nemesis, showing that he is becoming more mature.

The Tombs of Atuan
The Tombs of Atuan, the second book of the trilogy, is also a book dealing with growing up. Five-year-old Tenar is taken from her parents to the Tombs of Atuan, a desert-like island. Because she was born on the day the High Priestess died, Tenar is believed to be the reincarnation of Arha, the eaten one. She learns the rituals and traditions of the Darkness and serves the Nameless Ones. Shortly after Tenar/Arha explores the labyrinth and the sacred places of the underground, places she alone is allowed to go, she stumbles across a young man searching for something and using a light in the place where light is not permitted. At first confused that the Nameless Ones do not strike the intruder dead, Arha realizes that the Nameless Ones are waiting for her to render punishment. Arha leads him into the labyrinth and traps him, planning to leave him there to die. Arha is intrigued by the young intruder Sparrowhawk because of his powers. He remains alive where men should be struck dead. He is also able to use forbidden light in the overwhelming darkness, which shows Arha that the Undertomb is full not of evil, death, and decay, but of incredible beauty. Another aspect of Sparrowhawk that fascinates Arha is the he is a man, not a eunuch or a slave like those she is accustomed to, but a real man. Rather than letting him die of starvation and dehydration, Arha smuggles food and water to him and watches him through peek holes. They become friends. Arha shows Sparrowhawk the way to the treasure room where he will find that which he seeks -- the other half of the ring of Erreth-Akbe. Sparrowhawk persuades Arha to leave the darkness and return to the light. She agrees to leave with the young mage. She also desires to bestow upon him the gift of the ring because he gives her back her one possession which had been taken when she became the eaten one -- her name, Tenar.

The Great Palace crashes into the tombs as Sparrowhawk, who is Ged, and Tenar escape. Darkness has lost its power and the Equilibrium is re-established. Traveling over the barren desert of Atuan, Tenar begins to hate Ged for taking her away from the only life she knew, for opening in her an emptiness that the darkness had filled. She comes to realize, however, that rather than having taken her life, he has actually given her life back. They journey to Havnor and restore the reunited ring.

Like Ged, part of Tenar's journey into adulthood is taking responsibility for her actions and becoming a whole person instead of a dark half. As Arha, she only served the dark ones, the evil. There were no consequences for her actions because she was the High Priestess. She answered to no one. When Ged gives back her name, the light and the dark come together to form one whole. The rejoining of the ring of Erreth-Akbe symbolically represents this wholeness. Once again, Taoist thought permeates the novel.

The Farthest Shore
The final book of the initial trilogy introduces a new character who, like Ged and Tenar, goes through a struggle to maturity. In The Farthest Shore, Arren, son of the Prince of Enlad journeys to Roke to bring grim news to the Archmage: wizards have lost their power in Enlad. Spells, even simple spells of binding and finding, have been forgotten. Our friend Ged, now Archmage, and Arren begin their odyssey, searching for the cause of the forgetting of the art of magic. During their voyage they realize that this loss of craft is spreading. After nearly being sold into slavery, losing hope, recuperating among the legendary raft-people, and being sought by dragons seeking help (for even they were losing their power), Ged and Arren encounter Cob, the wizard responsible for the problem. This wizard, whom Ged had met before, has opened a doorway in the land of the shadows. He offers eternal life to the men of power, the mages, but it is actually eternal death -- life in the land of the shadows. Arren and Ged journey there. Using his power, Ged closes the breach; Arren struggles to get Ged and himself out of the land of the shadows. Kalessin, the old dragon, carries them to Roke, leaves Arren, the future king, and takes Ged back to his home island of Gont. Ged truly comes full circle. He begins on Gont; he returns to Gont. He begins virtually powerless because he doesn't know his power; he ends powerless because he used all of his power. The Equilibrium is restored: Ged closed the door of darkness, but, in the process, he depleted his strength. Dark and light, evil and good give to and take from one another. Through Ged's willing sacrifice, the Equilibrium is in order.

Besides being a coming-of-age novel, The Farthest Shore  focuses on the acceptance of death as a part of life. The title itself can refer to death (Dooley, p. 110, footnote 6), and the Taoist philosophy of yin and yang supports the idea that life comes from death as death comes from life. The twist in The Farthest Shore is that one wizard is trying to eliminate death. Ged and Arren are not trying to stop Cob because he is inherently evil; he is not. But he is disturbing the Balance. His fear of death has caused him to search for a way to overcome death, and he believes he has. Ged and Arren have to master their own fear of death and realize that it is a natural part of the Equilibrium in order for them to defeat Cob, close the gap, and restore balance. Thus ends the original trilogy with the Equilibrium restored -- for now.

Tehanu
After nearly two decades LeGuin added a final book to the series. Tehanu traces Ged's life after he is no longer a mage. It also reunites Tenar and Ged and introduces a new power, a new champion of the Equilibrium -- Tehanu.

Tehanu/Therru, a young girl who has been raped, burned, and disfigured by her "parents," is adopted by Tenar and is raised as her own. The two travel to Re Albi at Ogion's summons. He is dying and wishes to see Tenar, his student. Ogion immediately sees some kind of potential in Therru and the instructions he gave Tenar shortly before his death continue to repeat themselves, "Teach her... Teach her all! Not Roke" (p. 21). After Ogion's death, Tenar and Therru stay to set things in order. Soon, Kalessin brings an unconscious Ged. Tenar speaks to Kalessin, becoming a dragonlord. She nurses Ged back to some semblance of health. When Arren, the soon-to-be-king of Earthsea sends for Ged to officiate the crowning ceremony, Ged flees to Tenar's home in Middle Valley, embarrassed that he is no longer a mage, naked without his power. Later, Tenar and Therru also return to Middle Valley.

Tenar's son returns after many years at sea and claims the farm that is rightfully his after his father's passing. Tenar, ashamed of her son's behavior and unaccepting of his domineering attitude, goes back to Re Albi with Ged and Therru. Upon arrival, the two adults are intercepted by the evil mage Aspen who wants to punish them --Tenar a woman with powers and Ged for ruining his chance at immortality (The Farthest Shore). Just as Aspen is ordering the spell-bound Ged to push the equally spellbound Tenar off a cliff, Kalessin the dragon, summoned by Therru, kills Aspen and his evil cohorts. Kalessin, who is Segoy the maker, gives Therru, who is his daughter, her true name -- Tehanu. She chooses to stay with Ged and Tenar rather than return with her father Segoy, and he replies, "It is well. Thou hast much work to do here" (p. 223).

Whereas the first three books deal mainly with the issues of growing up, learning to accept responsibility as a part of growing up, and accepting death as a part of life, Tehanu delves into the issues of love and the roles of men and women. Though the main female character, Tenar, is strong wherever she appears, in Tehanu, LeGuin seems to be portraying a feminist angle in questioning the traditional roles. Tenar is not happy with the way the world is. She wonders why women cannot become mages, why the only hope for Therru seems to be learning about weaving or other equally domestic trades.

This again mirrors Taoist philosophy. Two opposites that are interdependent are males and females. Tenar comes to realize that men and women, though they have different kinds of power, are both powerful nonetheless. Aspen, the evil mage, does not realize this. He is resentful of women who think they are powerful and so tries to kill Tenar. Such an action would destroy the Balance, and he is not permitted to do so.

Though the books of The Earthsea Trilogy are classified as children's books, Robin McKinley advises that young readers wait until they are older before reading Tehanu (NY Times Book Review). It's true that the books are for children. Children will enjoy reading about Ged and his adventures, and LeGuin even gives them a map of Earthsea so they can orient themselves to this world. But, Earthsea is also a series for adults. They are so well-written that adults will find a level within them worthy of intellectual reading. They are enjoyable, intriguing, and stimulating, even for adults. And the map is there for us, too.

Works Cited
Baldick, Chris. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. Oxford University Press, 1990, p. 24.

Bleiler, E. F. Science Fiction Writers. Charles Schribner and Sons, 1982, pp. 409-416.

Bucknall, Barbara J. American Women Writers. Vol. 2. Frederick Ungar, 1980, pp. 546-547.

Contemporary Authors. CD Rom. Gale, 1994.

Dooley, Patricia. Children's Literature. Vol. 8. Francelea Butler, Ed. Yale University Press, 1980, pp. 107-112.

LeGuin, Ursula. The Farthest Shore. Antheneum, 1972.

______. Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea. Antheneum, 1990.

______. The Tombs of Atuan. Antheneum, 1970.

______. A Wizard of Earthsea. Parnassus, 1968.

McKinley, Robin. Review of Tehanu. New York Times Book Review, May 20, 1990, p. 38.

Spivack, Charlotte. Ursula LeGuin. Twayne's United States Authors Series, Twayne, 1984.

Stott, Jon. Children's Literature From A to Z. McGraw-Hill, 1984, pp. 168-170.


Jan Griffin is a high school English teacher from Gilbert, Arizona. She is currently working on her first novel, an adolescent fantasy.

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