(This is Part II of an essay on Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea Cycle. For Part I, click here.)
The third and final aspect of Daoism as present in Earthsea that I will elaborate upon is reversion, particularly of the cycle of life and its inevitability of death. As was mentioned, Daoism views materialism as futile in the wider scope of life; there is no guarantee of reward and any material gain cannot be taken to the grave. Death is viewed as unavoidable, and what lies beyond, unknowable. By coming to terms with these ideas, the finite nature of life on earth has a different value, than, for example, compared to the Christian worldview which sees mortal life as but one step towards an eternal life in a secondary world. Life and death being among the most important subjects under discussion in Earthsea, there exist numerous relevant instances for discussion throughout the Cycle.
While Ged flirts with ideas of death in Wizard, it isn’t until Farthest that a fully realized idea regarding Le Guin’s conception of life and death in the Cycle reveals itself. In this book, Ged and Lebannen seek to find the source of magic leaving the world, and in turn discover that people’s pursuit fear of death and subsequent pursuit of immortality is the cause. Along the way, the duo encounters a variety of characters attempting to come to terms with mortality in different ways. Hare, a former wizard, lives in his own squalor due a dependence on the drug hazia. Disillusioned, Hare believes immortality can be found using hazia, but in fact it only brings him closer to death. Sopli, a former silk dyer, is another person Ged and Lebannen encounter who also has an issue with death. So great is Sopli’s uncertainty regarding mortality and afterlife that he lives in continual confusion. His psychotic bouts likewise infect Lebannen, causing the two to doubt Ged’s leadership. But it is Cob, the main antagonist of Farthest, who exemplifies fear of death to the greatest extent. His fear of mortality is so great that it pushes him egocentric action; the evil wizard is able to convince others to give him their souls such that his own life might be prolonged. While Hare and Sopli’s concerns destroy themselves, Cob’s fears extend beyond himself to have a negative effect on society. Contrasting Cob is Ged’s ideology: “Death and life are the same thing—like two sides of my hand, the palm and the back. And still the palm and the back are not the same… They can be neither separated, nor mixed” (97). Ged’s aim in this statement is to underline the preciousness of living life while one is alive, and to accept death as it comes, each inseparable aspects of existence. After Lebannen asks Ged: “Why should I not desire immortality?”, Ged responds with the most telling of rhetoric regarding death in the whole Cycle:
There are two, Arren, two that make one: the world and the shadow, the light and the dark. Two poles of the Balance. Life rises out of death, death rises out of life; in being opposite they yearn to each other, they give birth to each other and are forever reborn… In life is death. In death is rebirth. What then is life without death? Life unchanging, everlasting, eternal?—What is it but death—death without rebirth? (179)
The finality of accepting life as a natural consequence to life is summed up by Ged when he claims: “I know there is only one power that is real and worth having. And that is the power, not to take, but to accept” (181). This ideology is put to the test at the climax of Farthest when Ged and Lebannen, after crossing the wall of stones, face Cob in the land of the dead. What Loy and Goodhew describe as a “Hades-like realm” (Dharma 12), the land of the dead is a dreary place where “those who had died for love pass each other in the streets,” the “potter’s wheel was still, the loom empty, the stove cold,” and “[n]o voice ever sang” (227). Le Guin does not paint a pretty picture of immortality. In keeping with this imagery, Cob tries to defend his chosen domain and reason for sucking the life from Earthsea. He attempts: “I have seen death now, and I will not accept it. Let all stupid nature go its stupid course, but I am a man, better than nature, above nature. I will not go that way, I will not cease to be myself!” (234). Ged rebuts Cob’s denial of nature, replying that the price Cob has paid is of no longer having a self. “All that which you sold, that is yourself,” he declares, “You have given everything for nothing. And so now you seek to draw the world to you, all that light and life you lost, to fill up your nothingness. But it cannot be filled” (237). In replying so, Ged is pointing out that by avoiding death Cob has forfeited his life, death being “the price we pay for life” (236). At the conclusion of the novel, Ged’s logic prevails and he sends Cob to die his natural death. He also closes the hole between Earthsea and the dry land that Cob had opened to remove mortality from Earthsea. Symbolic in nature, by closing the hole Ged “make[s] the world whole once more” and thus allows the people of Earthsea to once again fall within the natural cycle of life and death and the whole it subscribes (240). No greater literary image could effect the principles of Daoism than this closing the circle of life with death.
Shifting the discussion away from Daoism, I would now like to place Earthsea in a more modern context by discussing the contemporary relevance of several of its additional themes. The first is a subject that has certainly undergone a vast amount of transition, particularly the past century. Gender and gender related issues have come into the vanguard of academic discussion in the fields of sociology, politics, economics, as well as many others. Poignant changes have been implemented not only in the legal and cultural arenas, but in general, a larger shift in perspective can be seen moving toward gender valuation. That Le Guin is a successful female writer is in itself worthy of notice considering previous centuries did not see such a proliferation of women in the field of literature. Concurrently, if it were not for writers such Le Guin as addressing gender issues in their work, it can be argued progress would not be what it is. Earthsea is one such example of a contributory work to the progress of gender issues in the modern era.
Though the setting is certainly medieval, a selection of social values evident in Earthsea are markedly modern, and if not modern, are values challenged by Le Guin. The second book of the Cycle, Tombs, finds a young Tenar, with the help of Ged, breaking free from the proverbial chains preventing her from discovering her potential as a young woman. As the majority of the novel is set in a female-only, quasi-religious institution, Tenar’s behavior is strictly regulated. All contact with men forbidden, she lives a litany of routine, routines that have been in existence so long that none of the other inhabitants of the Tombs knows why they exist but follow along regardless. It seems obvious that setting the story as such, Le Guin creates circumstances wherein the parallels to the society of 1970 (when the book was written) are not that difficult to discern. Thus it is that Tenar’s transition from conformist to non-conformist is not only easily traced, but provides a direct expression of Le Guin’s beliefs regarding the role women are expected to play in society. It is important to note that Tenar’s rebellion is not for the sake of rebellion; rather, it is pointed. Tenar transitions not only from one place to another, but also to a higher degree of knowledge, particularly of the value of freedom towards choosing a direction in life that is most proper for the individual, that is, rather than doing what is expected without question in a discriminative system. If Tenar’s escape was not enough, then Irian’s direct affront to the male-only Master’s of Roke to accept female students at their school in the story “Dragonfly” should drive home the challenge Le Guin issues to Earthsea’s establishment: opportunity should be equal.
A second major area of contemporary discussion Le Guin addresses in Earthsea is social systems; the individual’s role, the family’s role, as well the role of leaders in the socio-political arena are all main thematic contributors to the six novels of the Cycle. The first three stated to be “comings of age” by Le Guin herself, the latter three move into discussion on family and socio-political affairs (“Dreams”). While seeming a paradox in context of the word “social,” the individual is nonetheless the foundational element of a harmonious society according to the ideology outlaid in Earthsea; if the individual is not harmonious within themselves, they cannot go on to join harmoniously with others, either to a family or to society in general. To this point Le Guin devotes the first three books of the Cycle to developing an individual toward self-understanding. As was mentioned earlier, Ged in Wizard comes to terms with the manner in which his actions affect others, and in turn affect himself. Tenar in Tombs comes to the understand the value of her woman in terms of freedom. Lebannen in Farthest must face his own death and accept it, allowing him to live a life free of fearing his own mortality. These three comings of age free the respective protagonist to conquer their fears and accept themselves for who and what they are, which in turn readies them for acceptance into family and society.
Though Ged and Tenar part ways after Tombs and begin Tehanu, like Therru, in disparate places, these three nonetheless come together over the course of the latter novel to form a group that embodies the next level of social system I would like to discuss today: family. Defying categorization, of foremost interest is the symbolism inherent in their union, particularly the bringing together of ethnicity, age, gender, and life experience. Ged is a dark-skinned Hardic, Tenar a light skinned Karg, and Tehanu, while assumedly Hardic by race, also has another skin-type, that which bears irreversible scars and exudes the heat of dragons. Regarding age, decades separate the trio: Ged is the oldest, at least ten years older than Tenar, while Tehanu is but a child, at least twenty years younger than the other two. Ged is male and Tenar female, while Tehanu, just a child, can be argued is sexless. And lastly, the three people represent the widest gamut possible of life experiences. Ged, from boy-wizard to Archmage, has had a lifetime’s experience of adventuring and the supernatural, his path having taken him through the entire Archipelago before his joining the family. Tenar, on the other hand, grew up in the sheltered community of the Tombs, and afterwards spent her time in domesticity on the island of Gont prior to joining the relationship. Tehanu, though the youngest of the three, has nonetheless endured a frightening and scarring incident which few can likewise say to have survived, and thus completes the variety of experiences brought to the table by the three. It can be inferred from such a deliberate union of disparate races, sexes, ages and life experiences that Le Guin intended the family unit of Ged, Tenar, and Tehanu to represent the ethnology, culture, demography of Earthsea toward creating a whole within a whole, what Rochelle calls a “tiny community” (58). That in their relationship the three find peace, love, contentedness, and a reason for living only further establishes the importance of their family as an import dynamic in Le Guin’s view of a functioning social system.
Rochelle’s comment leads to the third point, that of the socio-political discussion inherent to Earthsea. It is at the end of Farthest, particularly when Lebanenn becomes king, that readers are first made aware of the burgeoning social revolution to take place in Earthsea’s future. Lenz writes that Farthest “shifts the drama of restoring wholeness from the inner and interpersonal levels into the larger arena of public life” (59). As a result, the second trilogy is more social and political in nature than the first. Explicated in Tehanu and underlined in Tales and The Other Wind, elements previously outlined by Le Guin come together to effect a drastic change on the archipelago. Firstly, the patriarchal power structures of Roke and the capital Havnor are altered to allow the matriarchal an equal position of influence. Secondly, the souls left trapped in the dry land in favor of Lebannen’s coming of age in Farthest are released in Other. Lastly, in what is perhaps the greatest change in the Cycle, at its conclusion peace and harmony once again reign as a result of looming social issues put to rest. The Kargish and Hardic, formerly at war, are now bound to mutual aims, the eminent marriage of Lebannen and Seserakh representing the change. Finally, the dragons, having flown west on the “other wind,” simultaneously find their own calling while eliminating a threat to the human populace. Problems undoubtedly still exist, but for the time being they remain domestic rather than “international.” However, none of this would be possible were it not for this third collaboration under discussion: the political roundtable that first meets in Havnor and comes to its full depth when all decide to go to Roke where the “roots of the earth” are. It is at this point that the group bonds with the aim of bettering Earthsea, or, as Cadden avers, to focus on “communication for understanding others and the world” (103). Were it not for this collaboration, dead souls would perhaps haunt the dreams of an increasing number of denizens, the Kargish would remain at odds with the Hardic, and the dragons would remain, causing feelings of ill ease among the islanders. From these negated results, the conclusion can be drawn that larger social collaborations with the aim of benefitting the populace play an important role in Earthsea and thus act as a degree of the whole.
In conclusion, Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea is a marvelous vehicle for ideas old and new. These ideas are not treated individually, however, but rather as synthesized notions which utilize history as a means of revisioning the present and future. At the character level, Le Guin casts a positive light on those who are aware of their individual, social, and political power, yet use their capability only when necessary rather than egocentric purposes. Furthermore, Le Guin portrays gender roles which balance traditional modes with the contemporary, and in the process emphasize the family unit as vital for a harmonious society. And lastly, Le Guin shows the positive results of returning our trust to the wisdom of nature. As such, Earthsea can be seen to parallel contemporary theory while retaining a firm belief in the importance of applying knowledge from history.
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