The Authentic Voice of Wizardry

Sometimes I need a little reminder of why I read fantasy.

A Wizard of Earthsea, cover by David Smee

“He looked for a spell of self-transformation, but being slow to read the runes yet and understanding little of what he read, he could not find what he sought. These books were very ancient, Ogion having them from his own master Heleth Farseer, and Heleth from his master the Mage of Perregal, and so back into the times of myth. Small and strange was the writing, overwritten and interlined by many hands, and all those hands were dust now…”

(…from A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin.)

“Thou read the book, my pretty Vivien!
O ay, it is but twenty pages long,
But every page having an ample marge,
And every marge enclosing in the midst
A square of text that looks a little blot,
The text no larger than the limbs of fleas;
And every square of text an awful charm,
Writ in a language that has long gone by.
So long, that mountains have arisen since
With cities on their flanks — thou read the book!
And every margin scribbled, crost, and crammed
With comment, densest condensation, hard
To mind and eye; but the long sleepless nights
Of my long life have made it easy to me.
And none can read the text, not even I;
And none can read the comment but myself;
And in the comment did I find the charm…”

(…from “Merlin and Vivien” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Read it here.)

Tales of Zothique, cover by Jason C Eckhardt and Homer D Eckhardt

“Now, in all ways that were feasible, we interrogated the shadow, speaking through our own lips and the lips of mummies and statues. But there was no determinable answer; and calling certain of the devils and phantoms that were our familiars, we made question through the mouths of these, but without result. And all the while, our magic mirrors were void of any reflection of a presence that might have cast the shadow; and they that had been our spokesmen could detect nothing in the room. And there was no spell, it seemed, that had power upon the visitant. So Avyctes became troubled; and drawing on the floor with blood and ashes the ellipse of Oumor, wherein no demon nor spirit may intrude, he retired to its center. But still within the ellipse, like a flowing taint of liquid corruption, the shadow followed his shadow; and the space between the two was no wider than the thickness of a wizard’s pen…”

(…from “The Double Shadow” by Clark Ashton Smith. Read it here.)

The Dark Is Rising (cover)

The Dark is Rising, cover by Michael Heslop

“The window ahead of them flew open, outwards, scattering all the snow. A faint luminous path like a broad ribbon lay ahead, stretching into the snow-flecked air; looking down, Will could see through it, see the snow-mounded outlines of roofs and fences and trees below. Yet the path was substantial too. In one stride Merriman had reached it through the window and was sweeping away at great speed with an eerie gliding movement, vanishing into the night. Will leapt after him, and the strange path swept him too off through the night, with no feeling either of speed or cold. The night around him was black and thick; nothing was to be seen except the glimmer of the Old Ones’ airy way. And then all at once they were in some bubble of Time, hovering, tilted on the wind…”

(…from The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper.)

“I have been in wastelands beneath the moon’s eye, in rich lords’ courts with the sound of pipe and heartbeat of drum… I have been in high mountains, in hot, small witches’ huts watching their mad eyes and fire-burned faces; I have spoken with the owl and the snow-white falcon and the black crow; I have spoken to the fools that dwell by thousands in crowded cities, men and women; I have spoken to cool-voiced queens…”

(…from The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A McKillip.)

In the Land of Time, cover by Sidney Sime

“But as the feet of the foremost touched the edge of the hill Time hurled five years against them, and the years passed over their heads and the army still came on, an army of older men. But the slope seemed steeper to the King and to every man in his army, and they breathed more heavily. And Time summoned up more years, and one by one he hurled them at Karnith Zo and at all his men. And the knees of the army stiffened, and their beards grew and turned grey, and the hours and days and the months went singing over their heads, and their hair turned whiter and whiter, and the conquering hours bore down, and the years rushed on and swept the youth of that army clear away till they came face to face under the walls of the castle of Time with a mass of howling years, and found the top of the slope too steep for aged men. Slowly and painfully, harassed with agues and chills, the King rallied his aged army that tottered down the slope…”

(…from “In the Land of Time” by Lord Dunsany. Read it here.)

The Other Wind by Ursula Le Guin

The Other WindAlder, a sorcerer whose talent is fixing broken things, arrives on Gont to seek help from the former (and still unreplaced) Archmage, Ged. Every night in dreams, Alder finds himself standing by the wall that borders the land of the dead, whose occupants gather before him, clamouring for release. His own dead wife begs to be set free, but when Alder uses her true name, it has no effect. Meanwhile in Havnor, King Lebannen hears of dragons harrying the lands of men, attacking villages and burning forests, where previously they had been content to keep to their own lands far to the west.

As I said in my review of Tehanu, Le Guin seems to have progressed through the Earthsea series by answering, in each new book, a question implied by her previous work. Tehanu finished with (and “Dragonfly” in Tales from Earthsea underlined) a question about the relationship between humans and dragons, how some humans can, somehow, also be dragons. And, though Earthsea’s version of the land of the dead was present in the first book, it was The Farthest Shore that brought that limbo-like land into full, desperate detail. Surely a place like that is wrong, in a world like Earthsea? In The Other Wind, Le Guin embodies these two issues in two characters: Alder, who, thanks to his dreams, carries around with him the problem of the land of the dead being such a place of ‘suffering where suffering is past’, and Tehanu, now 15 years older than in the book named after her, who literally embodies the question of people-as-dragons.

ModernScholarOf the two, I hadn’t expected the question about the land of the dead to need answering, though I said in my review of The Farthest Shore that that book’s vision of a dull and unpleasant afterlife seemed out of keeping with the series’s general affirmation of the natural course of things. In his lecture series The Modern Scholar: Rings, Swords and Monsters, Professor Michael D C Drout says that one of the things Le Guin does as the Earthsea series progresses is to correct what he calls the ‘buried Christianity’ it began with (the assumptions taken on wholesale from Western Christian culture — or ‘the heroic fantasy tradition’ as Le Guin put it — which don’t fit her own Taoist/Buddhistic beliefs). Drout says The Other Wind performs the final fix, correcting the hellish afterlife of trapped, tormented souls into one in which the souls of the dead are free to rejoin the world, either through reincarnation, or by being reabsorbed into the life of the whole.

(Another way of looking at it is that, while the first two books dealt with the coming-into-selfhood of young people — Ged in A Wizard of Earthsea, Tenar in The Tombs of Atuan — later books deal with the necessary letting go of self that comes with a preparation for death. Cob, in The Farthest Shore, refuses to die and thereby unbalances the world. Ged defeats him by relinquishing his own power, then has to learn to deal with his new powerlessness in Tehanu. In The Other Wind, we find him fully reconciled and at peace.)

As I say, I wasn’t expecting the problem of the land of the dead to be dealt with in this last book of Earthsea. What I was expecting were two questions raised by both Tehanu and Tales from Earthsea: ‘Why can’t women study at Roke?’ and ‘Who will be the new Archmage?’ The first question isn’t dealt with explicitly, but its answer may perhaps be found in Alder’s marriage to Mevre, a witch with a similar talent to his. Their relationship was one of equals, both emotionally and in terms of magical ability:

‘So rather than his teaching her, they put their skills together and taught each other more than either had ever known.’

Here, then, Le Guin seems to be saying that, whatever the rule of Roke is, women and men are equals in magic-use, and their talents can only be improved by their joining together.

OtherWindThe other question, about what will happen at Roke now Ged is no longer Archmage, isn’t answered. In its place, The Other Wind seems to raise a whole host of other questions to do with the future of magic. The Earthsea mode of wizardry — using the true names of things to control or change them — is, in The Other Wind, linked with the wrongness represented by the land of the dead. It’s implied that what to me is the founding notion of the whole Earthsea series — that people have a true name as well as a use-name, and that it gives access to both the power and the vulnerability that derives from selfhood — is part of the imbalance and wrongness of the world. The Other Wind fixes the problem of the land of the dead, but what does this do to Earthsea wizardry, and to Roke? Is magic itself finished?

It’s obvious Le Guin likes those of her wizards who seek knowledge and understanding, or who work directly with the Balance — the Master Doorkeeper, the Master Patterner, the Master Namer — but has grown to distrust those who use magic as an active, wilful power — the Master Summoner in particular, whose speciality is conjuring the spirits of the dead. Ged, her ultimate wizard, has found his own ultimate in the renunciation of power, and the destiny of Earthsea — and its story — has passed into the hands of Lebannen, a king and a non-wizard. (Who, here, has the makings of a screwball romance with a Kargish princess. If only Le Guin could do screwball romance! David Eddings did the whole awkward arranged marriage thing a lot better in The Belgariad, but The Other Wind doesn’t really have room for that degree of humour.) As in Tolkien, whose Elves in The Lord of the Rings are departing from Middle Earth to leave it un-magical and in the hands of men, here Le Guin’s dragons are also departing — are her wizards going to lose power, too? It’s a question I felt was raised but never answered.

The Farthest Shore, cover by David Smee

The Farthest Shore, cover by David Smee

My reaction to The Other Wind is similar to my reaction to The Farthest Shore. In both books, the central character is Earthsea itself, and as a result I found myself intellectually drawn by the themes of these novels, but not emotionally drawn, as I would have been by a more character-centred story. Fantasy, I think, works best when it interweaves the personal and the epic as one — Frodo’s journey to Mount Doom is a small-scale personal story that leads to an epic-scale result — and the books I love most in the Earthsea series (A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, Tehanu) are those which are primarily character stories, only tangentially touching wider events.

I’m glad, though, that I finally got round to reading the whole series. I’ll certainly come back and re-read the first two books. I don’t think I ever needed the world presented in A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan to be expanded, but I’m certainly glad Le Guin wrote Tehanu (though it took me a few years to come back to it and fully appreciate it). Maybe the same is true of the series as a whole? The books I’ve liked most are those I’ve re-read, rather than read for the first time. Maybe I’ll come to a fuller appreciation if I ever go through the whole sequence again. But, that’s not something I’ll be doing for a few years yet!

Tales from Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin

Tales from EarthseaTales from Earthsea collects five stories written between Tehanu and the final Earthsea novel, The Other Wind. Three of them are short: “Darkrose and Diamond” is a love story and a fable about finding your true calling; “The Bones of the Earth” relates an incident mentioned briefly in A Wizard of Earthsea, the mage Ogion’s laying of an earthquake on Gont; and “On the High Marsh” is, as Le Guin puts it in her preface, a minor event from ‘the brief but eventful six years that Ged was Archmage’. (I like that ‘brief but eventful’ — it sounds like a writer reserving the right to find more stories to tell.) In terms of the series as a whole, though, the two longer stories that cap and tail the collection are where the real weight lies.

“The Finder”, set three centuries before A Wizard of Earthsea, is about the founding of the School for Wizards on Roke. A young shipwright’s son, Otter, has a magical talent for finding things, but this isn’t a world that nurtures talent. This is a world ruled by a bunch of robber barons, pirate lords and self-proclaimed kings, all tussling for power. It’s a world in which those born with magical abilities are best off hiding the fact, lest the local bigwig decides they’re a threat (and kills them) or useful (and enslaves them). Only the most powerful sorcerers have any sort of autonomy, and Otter is given into the hands of one such man, the alchemist Gelluk, who is more than half insane in his pursuit of knowledge and power, and utterly indifferent to the suffering of others. Otter escapes thanks to a strange bond he develops with a woman, one of Gelluk’s slaves in his ‘roaster tower’, where he purifies ‘the watermetal’, mercury, in a horrible and life-costly process. Afterwards, Otter comes into contact with an organisation known as the Hand, ‘a loose-knit league or community concerned principally with the understanding and the ethical use and teaching of magic’ (as Le Guin puts it in her notes on the history of Earthsea at the end of this book), and this ultimately leads him to a handful of magically gifted teachers hiding out on Roke. Significantly (in terms of the themes raised in this book) at this time, ‘All the teachers of the art magic on Roke were women. There were no men of power, few men at all, on the island.’

LeGuin-TalesEarthseaThe final story, “Dragonfly”, takes place a few years after the events in Tehanu. Like “The Finder”, it is about its protagonist’s journey to Roke, but this, in Earthsea terms, is a very different sort of protagonist: Irian is a ‘big, strong, awkward, ignorant, innocent, angry woman’. When she meets a student from Roke, Irian asks what it’s like to study there, and he offers to disguise her as a man and get her enrolled. Anyone who remembers the Master Doorkeeper from A Wizard of Earthsea will guess this isn’t going to work. But things are changing in Earthsea, and this is one of those moments of change.

Tales from Earthsea finds Le Guin worrying at a problem, one that’s been implicit in the series from the start: Why can’t women study wizardry at Roke? As she says in her essay, “The Young Adult in YA”, the ‘supremacy and celibacy of wizards’, along with their maleness, was something she ‘just bought wholesale from the heroic fantasy tradition’. And so the students at the School of Roke, like monks in a monastery, were exclusively male, and celibate. After A Wizard of Earthsea, the next two books in the series almost seem designed not to have to deal with the question of women-as-wizards: The Tombs of Atuan is set in the Kargish Empire where there are no wizards, and The Farthest Shore has no major female characters. Tehanu, though it asks the question, does so rhetorically, as a statement about the world rather than a mystery to be solved. But in Tales from Earthsea’s five stories, four include relationships between women and wizards, and in three of these the women also have magical power. It’s as if Le Guin keeps finding herself picking up these two character types — woman of power, man of power — and pushing them together, trying to work out what’s drawing them together and what’s keeping them apart, like someone who’s just discovered magnets.

But there aren’t any answers here. In “The Finder”, where we see the founding of the school on Roke, the teachers are, at first, all women. Three hundred years later, in “Dragonfly”, the mere presence of a woman in the school brings it to the brink of civil war. What happened? In “A Description of Earthsea” there’s a when and a how, but no why:

‘When in 730 the first Archmage of Roke, Halkel of Way, excluded women from the school, among his Nine Masters only the Patterner and the Doorkeeper protested; they were overruled.’

Didn’t the women — powerful women, long established on Roke — object, resist, protest, or form their own school?

Perhaps there is no answer to this question, because it’s one that can be asked of our own history, too. But if there is, perhaps it’s to be found in the series’ attitude to power. Power in Earthsea, unless handled with great care and attention to the Balance, dehumanises and isolates. ‘There’s no way to use power for good,’ someone says in “The Finder”. Set against power is trust. As one of the characters says in “The Finder”:

‘I think there’s an evil in us, in humankind. Trust denies it. Leaps across it. Leaps the chasm.’

Atuan_HBIn The Tombs of Atuan, trust is what brings people together and saves them from darkness. That book’s message (‘Alone, no one wins freedom’) is repeated almost verbatim in “The Finder”: ‘Nobody can be free alone.’ And in Tehanu, trust between two human beings is seen as the only way to heal the abuse of power. Perhaps this also explains the Roke rule of celibacy. Wizards are all perfect little self-realised individuals, inviolate but isolated. To open up to another — to trust — is to risk sharing that power.

Meanwhile, “Dragonfly” returns to another two questions raised at the end of Tehanu: who will be the new Archmage at Roke, and what is the link between people and dragons? Those, at least, I’m hoping, will be answered by the last book of Earthsea, The Other Wind.

Tehanu by Ursula Le Guin

Tehanu_1991After The Farthest Shore, Le Guin began work on a fourth Earthsea book. This one was to be about Tenar’s life after The Tombs of Atuan, but a chapter in, Le Guin came to a halt, ‘because I didn’t understand what was happening to Tenar. She had given up magic, she was a farmwife with a couple of kids. What was she thinking of?’ It took 17 years before Le Guin could answer that question, and the answer came in the form of Therru, ‘a young child who has been terribly used’.

As Tehanu opens, Tenar is a farmer’s widow, whose two grown children have moved out. Four vagrants — two men, a woman, and a child — have been lingering near the village, and one day, before they disappear, one of the men tells Tenar’s friend Lark that the child has had an accident and needs help. In fact, the girl (whom Tenar names Therru), has been thrown into a fire in an attempt to kill her off. Now she’s burned and scarred down one side of her body, the fingers of one hand welded into a claw, and she talks to no one. Tenar takes her in, because she sees something of her own story in the young girl: the only way Tenar, when she was Arha the Eaten One, could escape the dark labyrinth of her inhuman masters’ power, was to learn to trust another human being (Ged); now, she has to teach the badly abused Therru a similar lesson, though the girl will never be able to escape the pain and scarring, a sort of dark labyrinth burned into her very body.

The Tombs of Atuan, cover by David Smee

The Tombs of Atuan, cover by David Smee

The Earthsea series seems to have progressed by a series of self-corrections, or perhaps ‘balances’ is a better word, ‘the Balance’ being something Le Guin’s wizards strive to maintain. Each successive book can be seen as balancing or answering something in the one before. After the young man’s coming-of-age story of A Wizard of Earthsea, we get the young woman’s coming-of-age story of The Tombs of Atuan. (Which could also be seen as following a tale about learning to face darkness with one about learning to turn away from it.) Atuan left us with the question of why Ged went to such trouble to find the missing piece of the Ring of Erreth-Akbe and repair the broken Sign of Peace, and so, in The Farthest Shore, we learn about the wrongness in the world, and the quest to end it.

The events in Tehanu overlap those of The Farthest Shore (Tehanu begins while the ‘wrongness’ of the previous book still has hold), and balances that book’s epic, world-spanning quest with a scaled-down, domestic tale. The previous book’s pairing of the Archmage Ged and Prince Arren — the most powerful man in Earthsea, and the one destined to be — is here balanced by a tale of two of the least powerful: an ageing farmer’s widow and an abused, scarred ‘little ferret of a thing’ she’s trying to nurse back to trustfulness in a world of casual abuse, bullying, and day-to-day fears. The Farthest Shore was, in part, about power: Arren’s coming into power, Cob’s lust for power, Ged’s renouncing of power. Tehanu is about those who are powerless to begin with.

tehanuIt could also, in contrast with the coming-of-age themes of the previous three books (becoming oneself and righting the world’s wrongs), be said to be about the concerns of the second half of life: acknowledging the compromises and mistakes of one’s life, and learning to accept the world as it is, faults and all. The book asks a lot of questions (‘What’s a child for? What’s it there for?’, ‘Who are we? What is it to be a man?’, ‘Who knows where a woman begins and ends?’, ‘Who dares ask questions of the dark? Who’ll ask the dark its name?’, ‘Is power that – an emptiness?’), but rather than being there so the author can provide us with answers, these questions are rhetorical, as though, with age, the world only becomes more and more a mystery that’s never going to be solved.

Perhaps the most telling question of all, though, is ‘Why do we do what we do?’, which is what Tenar asks when first presented with Therru’s injuries. This is another part of Tehanu’s balancing out of the high fantasy of The Farthest Shore. There, power — in particular magical power — forced the powerful to do good or evil, but the battle was mostly among the powerful. Here, we get to see the petty uses of power — even the non-magical power of a man’s physical strength or higher social standing — and how casually it can lead to awful abuse.

Tehanu(1stEd)I previously read Tehanu when it first came out in paperback, but don’t remember what I thought of it. This time, I found it immensely moving, no doubt in part because I’m middle-aged myself. (Tenar, though presented as ageing — mostly through her own point of view, and perhaps her society’s, too — can only be middle-aged, if this book takes place two decades after The Tombs of Atuan.) It’s a far subtler book, with all the high magics, darknesses, nobility and world-spanning of the previous three toned down, though it is in no way less meaningful.

At the time it was published, Tehanu was presented as ‘the last book of Earthsea’, but it’s obvious from the ending that it leaves some very unrhetorical questions unanswered. Throughout the book, there are a few scattered stories about humans and dragons being, originally, one species:

‘But her song told also that then, in the beginning, dragon and human were all one. They were all one people, one race, winged, and speaking the True Language.’

In a way, the idea of unification is part of the series’ DNA. Earthsea is an archipelago — both a unity and a disunity, a series of separate islands that are also a single group, one world. Le Guin’s heroes and heroines are also in the process of self-unification: Ged with his shadow, Arha with her more human side. There’s always the search for ‘True Language’, true names, true natures, a balance, a unification. Is Le Guin about to perform her ultimate unification, between her magnificent dragons and her often very flawed, but always very human humans?

I haven’t read the remaining two Earthsea books before, but I’m certainly looking forward to doing so.