A Wizard of Earthsea – True Names, Wizard Schools, and Shadows

Ursula Le Guin’s 1968 young adult novel A Wizard of Earthsea and its followers are some of the most influential works in YA fantasy. These novels have seen numerous adaptations, including a Sci-Fi Channel miniseries and a Studio Ghibli iteration (both of which Le Guin was displeased with). Additionally, comparisons may be drawn between between Earthsea and such contemporary works are the Harry Potter series and the Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini.

The Plot: This novel is written as a previously untold legend of an already widely-known and wide-praised man, Ged. It begins with Ged’s childhood, his initial training by his ignorant witch aunt, and his rescue of his village from vicious raiders by using his power to summon thick mists. After this feat, he is accepted as an apprentice by the wizard Ogion, a very quiet man whom Ged grows to love, but soon Ged tires of not actually learning how to use his power; Ogion instead focuses on trying to get Ged to learn to listen, to be still and silent, to learn humility. After a brush with the daughter of an enchantress, with some power in her own right, and almost calling forth a shadow out of the darkness, Ged opts to leave Ogion for the island of Roke, where there is a school for wizards. Ged proves to be an extremely apt pupil, but also an extremely proud one, quick to anger and lusting to use his power. While he makes a friend, Vetch, he also makes an enemy, Jasper, who goads him into performing a bit of difficult magic: calling forth the dead. Unfortunately, when Ged succeeds, the shadow also comes into the world and attacks Ged. He is saved by the masters of the school, but spends a long time recovering from the attack and is left with scars on his face and body and a new hesitancy in his learning. He is never the same quick pupil again. After Ged receives his mage’s staff and leaves the school, he is stationed in Low Turing, a collection of islands living in fear of the near-by dragons. Ged performs his duties as mage well, healing the sick and helping construct sturdy boats for fishing and travel, but when a friend’s son falls ill, Ged tries too hard to save him, sending his own spirit into the world of the dead to chase after the boy. When he turns back, he finds his way blocked by the shadow, and only the instinctual ministrations of his little pet, an otak (something like a weasel or rat?), brings him back to life. He decides to leave Low Turing so that the shadow may not harm the people there, but before he does, he deals with the dragons, killing five of them outright and mortally wounding a sixth before making a pact with the dragon patriarch, who is bound to keep his word because Ged knows his true name. Ged begins his travels, ending up on the island of Osskil, where the shadow has possessed a man’s body and attacks Ged. He is saved by the lord and lady of Osskil, the lady being the same enchantresses daughter who tried to ensnare Ged as a boy. She again tries to trap Ged using a stone of Old Power, but Ged again escapes, this time in the body of a hawk. He returns to Ogion, who tells him that the only way to defeat the shadow is to hunt it, which Ged then sets out to do. After quite a bit of sailing, Ged ends up on the same island as his friend Vetch and tells Vetch of his quest. The other wizard opts to join Ged, and together they sail east past the last island known to them, until they reach the land of the dead at the edge of the world. There Ged again confronts the shadow and calls it by his own name, realizing it to be the shadow of his own death and therefore uniting it with himself. Vetch and Ged safely return home and so ends this legend.

A Wizard of Earthsea is one of the first novels to feature a wizard school. Previously, wizards were largely conceived of as getting their education either through books or in a master/apprentice relationship. However, the wizard school idea proved to be extremely popular, and I don’t just mean Harry Potter. Between the publication of A Wizard and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, a number of books have features wizard schools, including Jillian Murphy’s The Worst Witch series, Terry Pratchett’s Unseen University in his Discworld novels, Jane Yolen’s Wizard’s Hall, and arguably Professor X’s school for mutants in various incarnations of The X-Men. I would argue that this shift is belatedly following a shift in education. On the one hand, general education by and large moved from the hands of individuals tutors or priests to the hands of teachers in schools a long time ago. On the other hand, institutions for teaching “trade skills” — welding, auto mechanics, plumbing, electrical work — are quite a bit newer. It seems that in this sense, the idea of magic as a practice has won out over the concept of magic as a philosophy; students at Hogwarts are often seen learning how to do things, not so much the principles behind them. It’s like learning how to make an omelet with learning how the chemical nature of the eggs changes as they cook (I once had someone try to teach how to make an omelet in this manner; it was extremely confusing).

The second thing about A Wizard of Earthsea that I found resonating with more contemporary fantasy that I’ve read is this idea of the True Name, perhaps most obviously in Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle. The idea is that in order to harness power, you must learn the Old Language in which things have their True Names. In A Wizard, this Old Language is a precursor of the Hardic language; in other iterations, it might be the language of elves or something like that. This connection between wizardry and knowing the right words is a long-standing and deep-seated one, though there are some notable breaks from the tradition, including Gandalf the Grey in The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Orson Scott Card’s Alvin Maker novels. Now, as a rhetorician and post-modernist, I scoff at this notion of true names holding power, though perhaps somewhat hesitantly. After all, parents are warned not to let their children wear clothing with their names clearly displayed for a reason; we seem to give an inordinate amount of trust to someone who walks up to us and knows our name.

Finally, it is worth noting that, much like The Left Hand of Darkness, this book is very concerned with shadows and their relationship to light and to the material world, a theme which I had been told runs throughout Le Guin’s work, but now I can see that for myself.

So now that I’ve said all that, here’s what I really want to say: I found this novel extremely troubling because it is extremely sexist. Here are the female characters we meet or hear of:

  • Ged’s aunt, who is a small-time witch and is described as ignorant. In reference to her, we hear the phrases “weak as woman’s magic” and “wicked as woman’s magic.”
  • The evil enchantress who is Lady of Gont
  • The daughter of the enchantress, whom Ged meets on Gont and again at Osskil
  • The village witch of Low Turing, who has little power or knowledge, though she knows enough to know that Ged is not dead when he falls into his coma
  • The Karg woman on the little reef who was probably once a princess or lord’s daughter
  • Yarrow, Vetch’s sister, who keeps house for him and for her brother. At one point she says to Ged, “I wish I could truly understand what you tell me. I am too stupid.”

There are no female mages. Women with magical skill may not enter the School of Roke. Instead they become backwater witches or, apparently, evil. Now, I’m not quite sure what to do with this. It is possible that this is the sexism of the narrator and the sexism of this society; after all, myths and legends are prime places for ideologies to hide. At the same time, I feel like this reading is overly generous, because Le Guin does little to create any kind of contrast by which we may look at this sexism rather than through it to the story. I’m anxious to continue through with the series (I’m waiting for book 2 to arrive in the mail because it was the only one I couldn’t find at my local Half Priced Books) just to see how this mess plays out.

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2 thoughts on “A Wizard of Earthsea – True Names, Wizard Schools, and Shadows

  1. Great observations. Couple of thoughts:

    Le Guin’s is heavily influenced by Taoism, and as such opposites (light and dark, male and female, life and death) are really prevalent in a lot of her works.

    Reflecting on the first Earthsea trilogy, Le Guin herself admitted in hindsight that she wrote them from a man’s perspective because that was the only way she knew how to write. She had to discover and work on writing as a woman. She does this in the second half of the Earthsea trilogy, particularly Tehanu; they are very different in tone and actually explore the notion of power in men and women. Women not being allowed on Roke is a major topic of exploration in later Earthsea books.

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