Alone among authors in the 20th century, only Ursula Le Guin could have possibly written a book like A Wizard of Earthsea. Technically it’s a children’s book.
And I mean, on the surface, there’s certain qualities that A Wizard of Earthsea shares with children’s lit that make the categorization almost fit. It’s a short novel, barely 56,500 words long, and the edition I read (with the cover featured as my image) features large, clearly printed type to aid in ease of reading.
It’s a novel that focuses on a single subject and with a very minimal cast of characters. Le Guin is, excepting one notable adventure, very parsimonious with her deployment of characters, and very few figures of note arise in the first half of the book who don’t play a role in the second. While told in third person, the narration is very centered on Ged and we understand the story almost entirely from his singular point of view.
And, of course, it is a coming of age story. Although here we see Le Guin’s restlessness with convention as she pushes against the Campbellian structure of the coming of age story, featuring a protagonist who never refuses a call and who returns home half-way through his quest only to leave again.
However, despite these hallmarks of children’s fictions, this is a book with a density of theme and topic that could prove challenging for an undergraduate university student to fully disentangle. While I have positive things to say about some of the very inventive structural and pedagogical things done in modern children’s lit, for instance, Elizabetta Dami‘s use of modified type to emphasize key words is a very interesting artistic choice, and one with an obvious pedagogical benefit, I don’t think there’s a single voice in children’s literature in the 21st century who would tackle the very abstract topics like the ones that are at the center of Le Guin’s book. Because instead of taking readers on an exciting adventure, of creating a mystified simulacrum of a child’s social milieu, Le Guin digs into central ontological questions: What is the significance of a name? How do we address the being of death? What, ultimately, is it to be?
Perhaps we can say that Le Guin has more trust in children to grapple with problems that are difficult to hold. Or perhaps Le Guin, aware as she was of her singular intellect and talent, was arrogant enough to say that a Le Guin Children’s book shouldn’t deal with small, concrete, things but should rather aim in the same direction that any work of powerful literature does: toward the ineffable. Perhaps these things are inseparable, and Le Guin’s certainty in the ability of kids to keep up comes directly from her own intelligence, and the pride and will that come with it. Regardless, we can say, with certainty, that A Wizard of Earthsea presents a powerful standard against which much of children’s literature cannot compete.
The question of being
Since no thing can have two true names, inien can mean only "all the sea except the Inmost Sea". And of course it does not mean even that, for there are seas and bays and straits beyond counting that bear names of their own.
Le Guin comes to the question of being via the name. This is integrated into the story at a fundamental level. Names are important to people. They have a name they are given in childhood. This name is then discarded in a ritual during which a figure of ritual significance (in the case of Ged it’s his master Ogion the silent) will give a person a true name which is known only to them, their namer, and anyone they choose to tell. Such a disclosure is considered one of the greatest signs of trust a person can confer to another, as a person’s true name allows a magic user to do some pretty frightening things to a person. For general use, characters will have use-names: effectively nicknames that don’t carry the metaphysical tie to being that a true name has.
All this matters because a true name is a fundamentally unique thing and it is through the inhabiting of this unique address that a being is differentiated from all other beings. This largely derives from the thread of Taoist metaphysics that runs through the book. And this helps inform some of the limits of magic. A wizard can use the true name of a category of animal to transform themselves into that animal. This being is seen as false, or at least as not true, as it is a form of being assumed, the placement of a mask upon the unmediated being of the wizard. But this falsehood is in tension because wizards work their spells in the Old Tongue with which men can only speak truth. If a person says truthfully, “I am a hawk,” to become one his true being and the assumed being of the hawk are in tension. This leads to the risk that one could become lost in the transformed form. A wizard who transforms too often into a dolphin might end up becoming one in truth and not just in seeming. Of course this raises the question: if “I am a hawk” is a true statement but if it is also not true being, what differentiates the character of true being from that of assumed being? The text provides an answer, suggesting that true being lies in the continuous flow of identity, the process of a life lived taken whole. Or, as Ogion says:
At the spring of the River Ar I named you, a stream that falls from the mountain to the sea. A man would know the end he goes to but he cannot know it if he does not turn, and return to his beginning, and hold that beginning in his being. If he would not be a stick whirled and whelmed in the stream, he must be the stream itself, all of it, from its spring to its sinking in the sea.
And so we get this idea that being is an enunciation of difference, signified in a name, but that this isn’t all of being. Rather this is the shape of being. But what gives it thickness or truth is that it is a whole thing. Of course this is tricky because the nature of what constitutes a whole thing is vague. When Ged takes the form of a hawk he doesn’t become, in truth, this or that individual hawk. He becomes Ged, the hawk. The being he shares in when transformed is the category of being a hawk. But the category of hawk is not an individual category. It can be split into species of hawks. Families of hawks. Individual hawks. The wing of a hawk. the feather of a wing. Just as the name of an entire ocean must consider the name of every bay within it, so too is being fractal unless it’s given a final shape. It must have limits. One limit is when a thing begins, and the text is very clear about where things begin. “Years and distance, stars and candles, water and wind and wizardry, the craft in a man’s hand and the wisdom in a tree’s root: they all arise together.” Every true name is, to Ged, a syllable of the great word and as such is spoken in turn. But just as the syllable of a word has a definitive start, so too must it have an end. And, of course, that means that death is a definitive cutting off of being. To know one’s self is to understand every moment of a life between being named and the extinction of that name in death.
But names persist in memory, and so a thread of being exists even in death. This dialectically introduced ambiguity, which refuses to fully deny being to the dead in the same stroke that it refuses to fully define the being of the living, creates the central tension of the book. Because Ged is much like Le Guin: sharply intelligent, deep in lore, powerful and arrogant.
In Human All-Too-Human, Nietzsche provides a genealogy of revenge. He categorizes two principal forms of revenge one can commit. The first is an act of self-preservation in which the only thought is to escape from a source of harm. The second form of revenge, rather, is a premeditated one in which the person seeking vengeance doesn’t care even if they are harmed so long as they are able to do harm to their target. Nietzsche describes it thus:
This is a case of readjustment, whereas the first act of revenge only serves the purpose of self-preservation. It may be that through our adversary we have lost property, rank, friends, children—these losses are not recovered by revenge, the readjustment only concerns a subsidiary loss which is added to all the other losses. The revenge of readjustment does not preserve one from further injury, it does not make good the injury already suffered—except in one case. If our honour has suffered through our adversary, revenge can restore it. But in any case honour has suffered an injury if intentional harm has been done us, because our adversary proved thereby that he was not afraid of us. By revenge we prove that we are not afraid of him either, and herein lies the settlement, the readjustment. (The intention of showing their complete lack of fear goes so far in some people that the dangers of revenge—loss of health or life or other losses—are in their eyes an indispensable condition of every vengeful act. Hence they practise the duel, although the law also offers them aid in obtaining satisfaction for what they have suffered. They are not satisfied with a safe means of recovering their honour, because this would not prove their fearlessness.)
While Ged is at school he has a bully. This bully isn’t as clever or as talented as Ged and both of them know it. But the bully is older than Ged and has access to higher level instruction. The bully is also from a wealthy family, while Ged is quite proudly a rural goatherder. Ged resents the bully for his unkind barbs and provocations and things come to a head one night when Ged tells the bully quite straightforwardly that he is a superior magic user to the bully. Ged and the bully (Jasper – a precious stone, but not too precious) agree to a duel of magic power and Ged asks Jasper to set a task for him. “Summon up a spirit from the dead, for all I care!” Jasper tells Ged, and Ged replies, “I will.” As Ged and Jasper proceed to the place where Ged will summon a ghost, the text tells us, “Jasper was far beneath him, had been sent perhaps only to bring him here tonight, no rival but a mere servant of Ged’s destiny.”
What Jasper offends is Ged’s honour. His presence, his ability to, on the basis of wealth and age, lord anything over Ged is an affront to Ged’s dignity. And so he takes his revenge and he does so in a way that is deeply harmful to himself. Ged, in this act, unleashes the gebbeth, and suffers terrible wounds that take the better part of a year to recover from physically. The spiritual injury of this moment represents the principal conflict of the book. Ged is telling Jasper, by taking up any challenge Jasper can propose to him, that he has no fear of Jasper, and he is restoring his honour in this self-destructive act of revenge.
Ged succeeds in calling forth a ghost – that unifying thread that dialectically ties death to living and that gives the dead just enough being to still be differentiated from all the other things that can be named is enough for him to grasp on and bring forth the being that is named. But in the process something else comes through. The nature of this other thing then becomes something of a central concern of the book. The Archmage speaks to Ged after his recovery and says, “Evil, it wills to work evil through you. The power you had to call it gives it power over you: you are connected. It is the shadow of your arrogance, the shadow of your ignorance, the shadow you cast. Has a shadow a name?”
And of course, the Archmage is correct and gives Ged good council here, but Ged hasn’t the understanding of himself to see the answer there. So later when a dragon and when Ogion both insist that the shadow has a name, Ged treats this information as at odds to his teacher’s instruction. But here’s the thing. In Nietzsche’s genealogy of revenge, he ultimately concludes that the two modes of revenge cannot be disentangled from each other. In the judicial act of punishment, a public desire of social self-preservation is combined with a private desire to see honour restored. Sometimes these competing modes of a thing get bound up with each other, entangled in complicated ways. The archmage tells Ged that the shadow wants to inhabit Ged and do evil so he runs from it and in running he gives the shadow power. Eventually Ogion tells Ged that his flight gives the shadow power so he hunts it and in hunting he weakens it. Ged is tied up with the object created by his revenge in such a way that he cannot be disentangled from it. But how he knows it and what he knows of it help to define it. It is gebbeth – nameless – a shadow – his shadow – named – him.
But we get ahead of ourselves. There are two incidents that come before the flight and the hunt. In the first, Ged fails to save a child from death by sickness. In the second he kills five dragons and mortally wounds a sixth. Le Guin handles this juxtaposition easily. Ged is able to bring an ending to the stories of these wyrms simply. He binds their wings and pulls them from the sky. He transforms to a dragon himself and burns them to cinders. He binds the eldest dragon with its true name and commands it not to threaten the settlement under his protection. The whole encounter has an uneasy sense of ease about it. It is narrated in a way that makes it seem easy. But to outsiders this looks hard. The smallest dragons are the length of a forty-oar boat.
Before he kills the dragons he fails to save the child. The kid is the son of a fisherman who Ged befriends. Ged works together with the fisherman, his neighbour, regularly. He casts spells of protection on the fisherman’s boat and in return the fisherman teaches him how to sail without magic – a talent that will serve Ged well later. The child falls ill with a fever and Ged tries to save him but he’s too far gone before Ged arrives – his spirit is slipping into death. Ged is so concerned for the wellbeing of his friend’s son that he follows the child’s spirit into death and barely escapes himself. The shadow is waiting at the wall between living and death and finds Ged there. This is the incident that sets in motion Ged’s need to flee it.
Ged flees and the shadow becomes powerful. He is manipulated, in the fear of his flight, into a perilous adventure and barely escapes, having to flee again, pursued again. He returns home, and there learns from Ogion what he needs to know. That he never should have run from it.
Completeness in being
Ged chases the shadow and it weakens.
He catches up to it and it tricks him into a shipwreck. He rebuilds his ship and continues his chase and he catches it – it has begun to look more like him. He tries to grab hold of it but it’s a shadow and there’s nothing to hold. “The body of a gebbeth has been drained of true substance and is something like a shell or a vapour in the form of a man,” we are told, and like vapour the shadow slips through Ged’s fingers. Later he encounters rumours that he passed by before. People he meets see him as an uncanny doubling – they’re troubled by this man who fled across their lands and who afterward chased himself.
Ged chases the shadow until it runs out of world to be chased through. He finds himself in an abstracted plain where the sea has turned to sand but which is also still the open sea. There he finally catches up with the spirit.
Aloud and clearly, breaking that old silence, Ged spoke the shadow's name and in the same moment the shadow spoke without lips or tongue, saying the same word: 'Ged.' And the two voices were one voice. Ged reached out his hands, dropping his staff, and took hold of his shadow, of the black self that reached out to him. Light and darkness met, and joined and were one.
The archmage was right that the gebbeth is the shadow he casts. Later in Human All-Too-Human, there is a dialog between the Wanderer and his shadow. In it, the Wanderer says, ” Now I see for the first time how rude I am to you, my beloved shadow. I have not said a word of my supreme delight in hearing and not merely seeing you. You must know that I love shadows even as I love light. For the existence of beauty of face, clearness of speech, kindliness and firmness of character, the shadow is as necessary as the light. They are not opponents—rather do they hold each other’s hands like good friends; and when the light vanishes, the shadow glides after it.”
Ged is the arrogant young man who seeks revenge when his honour is slighted by a man he sees as inferior. Ged is the man who wades into death to save a child and fails. Ged is the man who drags dragons from the sky and who gives a well with clean water to two mute exiles on an abandoned sandbar far from home. Ged is the light and the darkness and the only thing that gives his shadow power over him, the only thing that allows his shadow to harm him, is his unwillingness to face it. In the world of A Wizard of Earthsea every thing that is is that which can be announced to be different from all other things. The gebbeth lacks a name because that cannot be announced – it is merely a part of Ged as surely as the feather on the wing of the hawk – and it waits for Ged patiently at the boundary between life and death because one of the aspects of the shadow is death.
Ged is the wellspring of power that rises out of the primordial origin of all things. He is the doer, the agent of action in the story. The gebbeth is the un-doer, the reactive, the end of things. Ged, to come into an understanding of himself, must see his end as clearly as his beginning. He must be as aware of the ways in which he un-does as the ways he does. Unexamined, Ged’s shadow-self seeks revenge against Jasper and it is let loose, it rampages. It kills. It hounds Ged from crisis to crisis. But when faced, when Ged points to his own darkness and calls it with his name, it comes; it becomes; it comes into being. But by coming into being it is done away with because it becomes nothing but the awareness Ged has of his own potential toward death. There is no other here. There isn’t a wanderer and his shadow – there is a river, all of it, from its spring to its sinking in the sea.