There be dragons!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Earthsea Trilogy

When Ursula K. LeGuin first wrote “The Word of Unbinding” in 1964 she perhaps did not foresee the world of Earthsea in the short story giving rise to one of the greater pieces of fantasy of the 20th century. The later Trilogy of Earthsea, consisting of A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore, is a work which, taken as a whole, rivals the power and insight of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Though far darker and creepier than Tolkien’s work, the Earthsea Trilogy offers a great vision of the nature of imagination, the human spirit, and the world of evil. It’s also an excellent and thrilling read.

The series is set in the Archipelago of Earthsea, a fictional world of rocky islands in which magic, artwork, and science coexist. LeGuin’s use of magic is far more complex than in the Harry Potter series or in Tolkien’s trilogy. In Earthsea magic works not as a haphazard entity of cabalistic phrases, nor as the obscure power of suggestion and hidden strength of Tolkien’s Ainur. Rather magic on Earthsea consists of the discovery of the true name of objects. Wizards are trained to learn the names given to physical objects at their first creation and to use such knowledge to alter reality. The craft is available mostly to men and women, but the world is also populated with dragons of great power and knowledge and spirits of various degrees who have access to magical abilities as well.

The first title in the series, A Wizard of Earthsea, follows the life of a young wizard named Ged, also called “Sparrowhawk” who is sent by his mentor, Ogion, to study at the school for wizards on Roke Island. Here, rankled by the insults of a rival, Sparrowhawk ignores the injunction against the misuse of magic and conjures into this world a demon of shadows, or Gebbeth, that brutally scars his face and escapes into the world to cause ruin and destruction. The rest of the novel is about Sparrowhawk’s recovery and attempt to hunt down the Gebbeth.

LeGuin’s emphasis on responsibility in the novels contributes to the gravity of the writing. Sparrowhawk begins his wizardly life in a flippant, almost negligent way – as though he does not understand the power involved in what he is doing. His tremendous error and resultant pain are a reminder of the seriousness involved in any craft. Moreover, the craft of wizardly “namecalling” is a metaphor for the artistic process itself. Man, unlike other animals, traffics in images – each of which works to raise, or conjure, in the mind of subsequent viewers a response of understanding. Artists are, consequently, like wizards. They use imagery in order to create a type of magic in the mind; by fitting image to reality they illuminate truth. This craft is one of tremendous responsibility since the image could falsely represent reality and since such illumination always causes change. To use it carelessly causes “shadows” to enter the world.

The Tombs of Atuan, the second title in the series, deals primarily with shadows. It involves Tenhar, also called Arhan “the eaten one”, a priestess of the old, chthonic, gods of blood and human violence, called “The Nameless Ones” who are kept under control by constant vigilance and by a vast spiderweb of labyrinthine tunnels under the earth leading to the main cave of their dwelling. Sparrowhawk arrives on the island to find the lost half of the Ring of Erreth-Akbe and finds himself trapped in the labyrinth where he must confront the old gods. He wins Tenhar over with his kindness and shows to her the cruel slavery with which the Nameless Ones hold her in thrall. With her help he succeeds in his quest and escapes from the labyrinth.

The chthonic gods of Earthsea are only dimly understood and never fully seen; rather they are a presence of terror and unease who threaten the foundations of the world. In many ways they are terrors out of the subconscious; the use of the labyrinth image certainly reflects the Greek labyrinth at the center of which resided the man-eating Minotaur. Sparrowhawk’s descent into the darkness is, therefore, like a journey into the heart of the subconscious in order to find truth. Yet the focus of the work concerns Tenhar and her imprisonment to the old gods. Her freedom comes through her love of Sparrowhawk whose near death experience reveals to her that the Nameless Ones, the spirits of subconscious terror, only consume life and give nothing back to the world. She comes to see that the wisdom of love is better than the folly of slavery, just as light is better than darkness.

In the final work of the series, The Farthest Shore, Sparrowhawk must enter the land of the dead in order to stop a spiritual disease that is spreading through Earthsea, destroying magic and causing songs and artwork to cease. In the land of the dead Sparrowhawk confronts the necromancer, Cob, who has opened a rift between the two worlds in order to cheat his own death. Sparrowhawk must sacrifice all his magical ability in order to seal the rift and allow magic to return to Earthsea.

All three of LeGuin’s novels have an element of creepiness and terror about them but the last of the three most especially. This element of terror gives great weight to her observations about truth. Ultimately, we only know reality through images, as an image reflects the reality of things around us. We call a thing true when it correctly embodies the reality of the thing imaged. However, there always exists a vast chasm between the image and the thing imaged since we are never able to directly experience the reality of a thing, only the image of that reality. Thus we see not men but “the likeness as the appearance of a man” as Ezekiel 1:26 says. Over the deeps of that vast chasm truth moves like a wind and our magic is an attempt to make land out of the ocean of darkness and fear residing in the subconscious. But such an attempt always requires tremendous sacrifice and must give way, ultimately, to the realization that we are mortal and subject to the laws of our fallen world. Thus when Cob tries desperately to save his own life he not only loses it and becomes one of the dead but threatens the very life of the world itself. Only the magical death of another man succeeds in healing that rift and restoring the world to its proper order.

LeGuin’s stories are an engaging and remarkable read and her insight into human nature and the nature of magic are not to be missed. Though she may not have intended so powerful a story when she created her first little island in the Archipelago, she eventually crafted an excellent alternative universe and, through the magic of her craft, gave us all a fine bit of dry land in the vast world of literature.

FYI, there is a very bad rendition of The Earthsea Trilogy done by American studios. It truncates the story, takes out all the profundity of the novels and substitutes real drama for predictable boilerplate. The acting is poor and the sets are nothing to write about. I did just learn today that Goro Miyazaki (of Spirited Away fame) released a rendition of the series in 2006 named Teru no Uta (Tales from Earthsea), but have not yet seen it. Here is a clip:


  1. I've been meaning to check those out, they sound like a great alternative to J.K. Rowling.

    Haven't seen that film yet, though Goro is actually the son of the famous Hayao Miyazaki. Hate to be the nerd who always has to correct people (everyone knows at least one). This is his first film, and apparently there was a lot of tension between him and his perfectionist father. Some uncharitable words were exchanged, but I think they've since made up.

  2. I'll have to check these out. Thanks!