The Magic of Earthsea

The Earthsea Cycle is a collection of five novels and nine short stories written by Ursula K. Le Guin, with its publication spanning decades—from the first novel, A Wizard of Earthsea in 1968 to the last installment of the series, The Other Wind in 2001.  The world building in the Earthsea series is masterful, taking place in a fantastical realm with magic, dragons, and wizards, but within a complex society with vivid cultures and politics, not unlike our own world. David Mitchell writes that Earthsea has  “so human a world – with trade-routes, local politics, class hierarchies, infant mortality, abuse, addiction and slavery – that its fantastical elements feel almost quotidian.” (The Guardian) Within the novels, Le Guin explores themes of gender, race, existentialism, and identity through the use of magic. The conflicts that arise within stories are intrinsically linked to magic’s existence and how it is used, whether that be on a smaller scale with characters’ arcs revolving around the use of magic, or on a grander, all encompassing scale that effects the world at large. The stories surpass a binary of good and evil, focusing on cultural differences and power dynamics that require complex reflection; none of the problems within the books are easy fixes, just as people and society in our world are nuanced. Think all the intrigue of Game of Thrones, but without all gratuitous sex and brutal violence. To quote Le Guin herself:

As for my stuff, how anybody can call it a Battle Between Good and Evil is beyond me. I don’t write about battles or wars at all. It seems to me that what I write about—like most novelists—is people making mistakes and people—other people or the same people—trying to prevent or correct those mistakes, while inevitably making more mistakes. Immature people crave and demand moral certainty: This is bad, this is good. Kids and adolescents struggle to find a sure moral foothold in this bewildering world; they long to feel they’re on the winning side, or at least a member of the team. To them, heroic fantasy may offer a vision of moral clarity. Unfortunately, the pretended Battle Between (unquestioned) Good and (unexamined) Evil obscures instead of clarifying, serving as a mere excuse for violence—as brainless, useless, and base as aggressive war in the real world.

Magical power stems from having an innate gift or affinity for sorcery, but also an arduous schooling process, in which male wizards learn the true language. This language, spoken by dragons, is what is referred to as the “language of the making”—To know someone or something’s true name is to have power over them or it. So, each person is given a “use name” as well as learning their true name from a wizard in a naming ceremony. Words, being the ultimate source of power, create a straightforward metaphor for identity; names are hidden out of fear of vulnerability, given as nicknames or signifiers, taken and reclaimed by characters, and some characters choose to make their true name known to all, rising above fear itself.

Being that magic within Earthsea is dependent upon the knowledge of another language, it is difficult to exploit, and a privilege to learn; the use of magic is thus limited to a mage’s knowledge of a language that they can never be fluent in.

“Any witch knows a few of these words in the Old Speech, and a mage knows many. But there are many more, and some have been long over the ages, and some have been hidden, and some are only known to dragons and to the Old Powers of Earth, and some are known to no living creature; and no man could learn them all. For there is no end to that language.”

Magic in Earthsea is also balanced in that there must be an equilibrium in regards to the laws of nature. Defying death or bringing a person back from the dead is unnatural and often disastrous, requiring a skilled mage to even attempt such spells. Wizards can also overexert themselves or spend all of their magic at once, rendering them powerless afterwards, so it is not often that mages risk the loss of their powers by using them unnecessarily or putting all of their energy into a single spell.

The titular wizard in the first novel of the series, A Wizard of Earthsea, is a man named Ged, who is commonly known as Sparrowhawk. As a child, Ged comes from modest means as a goat herder; he learns a handful of spells from a witch, calling birds and other animals to his side, earning his nickname. Ged discovers that he has the makings of a powerful wizard by saving his village from a raid, cloaking his home island of Gont in a mystical fog that scares away the invaders. A wizard called Ogion sees Ged’s potential and takes him in as an apprentice, but his method of teaching proves to be esoteric, filled with long, silent walks through the forest and little use of magic at all. Ged, craving glory and validation, absolves himself from his duties as Ogion’s apprentice, and sets sail for wizarding school. (Thirty years before Harry Potter, by the way). His lust for power and his arrogance spark a rivalry with his other classmates, leading him to attempt to bring back the dead in order to impress them. Instead, he summons a shadow monster that scars his face, kills the Archmage of the school, and follows him relentlessly to the death. Ged, a petulant child turned condescending teenager, learns to respect the art of magic and to not abuse it. Over the course of the book, Ged defeats the darkness within himself, accepts his own mortality, and learns to only use magic in dire circumstances. Ged grows in age and wisdom throughout The Earthsea Cycle; his folly and defiance of the laws of nature grow into a patient and empathetic understanding. 

The first trilogy of Earthsea are archetypal fantasy coming-of-age stories that use magic to delve into complicated themes of identity, mortality, and existentialism. The next trilogy, published almost twenty years later, extrapolate on those themes, while bringing in more poignant meditations on gender and race.

Tehanu, the fourth book published in the series, shifts the focus to how women’s magical power is perceived in society. While A Wizard of Earthsea tokens the phrase, “weak as woman’s magic, wicked as woman’s magic,” it presents little commentary on how witches are viewed as hags, hermits, and tricksters. They are shunned out of academia, and work with the knowledge that is passed by way of mouth through the generations.

“A woman’s a different thing entirely. Who knows where a woman begins and ends? Listen mistress, I have roots, I have roots deeper than this island. Deeper than the sea, older than the raising of the lands. I go back into the dark … I go back into the dark! Before the moon I am, what a woman is, a woman of power, a woman’s power, deeper than the roots of trees, deeper than the roots of islands, older than the Making, older than the moon. Who dares ask questions of the dark? Who’ll ask the dark its name?”

In Tehanu, the principle female character, Tenar, who is also the protagonist of the second book in the series, The Tombs of Atuan, is a widow who adopts a child who has been abused, burned alive, and left for dead by her biological parents. When Tenar is reunited with Ged, he, for reasons that I will not spoil, is dropped off on Gont by a dragon, and she must nurse him back to health. Tehanu is bold in that to push the point about gender dynamics further, Ged is shown to have biases based on the culture that surrounds him. An otherwise wise and grounded character still exhibits misogynistic views:

“If women had power, what would men be but women who can’t bear children? And what would women be but men who can?”
“Hah!” went Tenar; and presently, with some cunning, she said, “Haven’t there been queens? Weren’t they women of power?”
“A queen’s only a she-king,” said Ged.
She snorted.
“I mean, men give her power. They let her use their power. But it isn’t hers, is it? It isn’t because she’s a woman that she’s powerful, but despite it.”

“What is a woman’s power then?” she asked.
“I don’t think we know.”
“When has a woman power because she’s a woman? With her children, I suppose. For a while…”
“In her house, maybe.”
She looked around the kitchen. “But the doors are shut,” she said, “the doors are locked.”
“Because you’re valuable.”
“Oh yes. We’re precious. So long as we’re powerless.”

To me, Tehanu is a beautiful story because of Le Guin’s take on femininity–not as being a subset to masculinity, but exploring how women can be powerful witches that cast spells, but they can also be nurturing, and neither traits are invalid or inconsequential. Le Guin’s “strong female characters” are not women mimicking masculinity and repressing or rejecting their femininity outright. Look, I love when women are written as unabashed badasses wielding swords and taking names, but it is refreshing to read about women that are strong, not only in brute strength, but as mothers, lovers, and friends full of vigor and compassion.

The short story “Dragonfly” in the fifth book, Tales from Earthsea, has a woman enter the wizarding school Ged attended, only to have the nine Masters debate the validity of her admission. The story challenges preconceived notions of how magic is supposed to be practiced, and exposes archaic, sexist traditions to be just that. Similarly, another short story in the same book, “The Finder,” gives the backstory of the founding of the school, specifically noting that women were involved with the school’s conception from the beginning, and an extreme faction of misogynists gained power and excluded them, making it against the rules for women to practice magic there.

Magic is also linked to the culture and races of Earthsea; Le Guin does not create a white-dominated Eurocentric mythology that is typical within fantasy. Most of the people in Earthsea in the islands of the archipelago are non-white. Ged’s skin color is described as copper-brown, while Tenar’s race, the people from the Kargad lands, are white-skinned and often framed as barbaric or ignorant. Though some Kargs practice magic, they are more apt to worship their kings and the shadow creatures that Ged summoned in the first novel. Therefore, many of the Kargs view magic as blasphemous trickery, and even think of literacy as evil as if books are full of deceit. The cultures within Earthsea are vividly realized and play into how each character views magic and other people; representation of race was deliberate on Le Guin’s part:

“I kind of eased the information about skin color in by degrees—hoping that the reader would get “into Ged’s skin” and only then discover it wasn’t a white one.”

“I think it is possible that some readers never even notice what color the people in the story are. Don’t notice, don’t care. Whites of course have the privilege of not caring, of being “colorblind.” Nobody else does […] As an anthropologist’s daughter, I am intensely conscious of the risk of cultural or ethnic imperialism—a white writer speaking for nonwhite people, co-opting their voice, an act of extreme arrogance.”

Some magical stories take the approach of non-magical people being cut off from the world of magic’s existence, which creates some massive plot-holes logistically (Sorry, J.K. Rowling). However, Le Guin frames the disbelief of magic as blatant ignorance of reality and bigotry. Rather than making wizards a part of a separate society, they are nomadic, helping people wherever they are needed, often staying in towns and getting a free meal because of their magical powers. The islandic geography of Earthsea also plays into the nomadic lifestyle of wizards, as they are seafaring folk. Some towns have a local witch or sorcerer to assist in day-to-day affairs, but the wizards educated on Roke are viewed with reverence, and can choose to specialize their magic to assist in healing, naming, weatherworking, illusion, and summoning, to name a few.

Earthsea is beloved, yet the series rarely garners the same support and admiration in the mainstream as its fantasy genre contemporaries. Its sparse adaptations to film, Studio Ghibli’s 2006 Tales from Earthsea, and Syfy’s 2004 television miniseries, Legends of Earthsea, were both critically panned, and to greater or lesser degrees, viewed as unanimously poor adaptations of the source material. In 2018, the film rights to the series were acquired by Jennifer Fox, an Oscar nominated film producer. Although there may be a glimmer of hope for bringing these books to life on the big screen, the true magic of Earthsea will always lie within the pages of these wonderful books.