Wednesday, February 13, 2013

A Wizard of Earthsea - Fear the Wizard, not the Magic

A Wizard of Earthsea
Author: Ursula K.Le Guin
Publisher: Bantam Spectra Books, 1975
First Published: 1968
Genre: Fantasy

Ged was the greatest sorcerer in all Earthsea, but once he was called Sparrowhawk, a reckless youth, hungry for power and knowledge, who tampered with long-held secrets and loosed a terrible shadow upon the world. This is the tale of his testing, how he mastered the mighty words of power, tamed an ancient dragon, and crossed death's threshold to restore the balance.
Fear the Wizard, not the Magic

Magic in Earthsea is treated with respect. It’s something those who are not familiar with fear, and those who use it do so with care. But while people fear the magic, they don’t fear the wizard. This is where they’re wrong, and Ged more than proves this point.

Ged is raised among those who dread magic, but due to his personality and proficiency in the craft, he doesn’t fear it. He also doesn’t respect it much either. After opening a book of higher magic and accidentally unleashing his shadow, his Master scolds him, “This sorcery is not a game we play for pleasure or for praise” (23). It’s a lesson Ged should’ve and would’ve learned if he’d stayed with the old wizard. But he moves on to Roke Island and enrolls in the School of Wizards where—from the entrance door, to the Long Table, to the students practicing and challenging each other to do spells—magic is everywhere and used for everything. Magic is so common on Roke Island the town’s people don’t find it strange or fascinating.

“It was a strange town, and strange also its people, fishermen and workmen and artisans like any others, but so used to the sorcery that is ever at play on the Isle of the Wise that they seemed half sorcerers themselves. They talked (as Ged had learned) in riddles, and not one of them would blink to see a boy turn into a fish or a house fly up into the air…” (39)

On Roke Island respect of magic is less of a rule and more like a guideline. The Masters at the school spoint out that magic should be treated with caution, but it’s not the severe warning Ged’s old Master gave. For example, the Master Hand reminds Ged that pebbles are as important to have in the world as diamonds, and says, “Enjoy illusions, lad, and let the rocks be rocks” (44). But he also tells Ged he will learn how to change things permanently once he studies the higher magics. The Master Namer speaks of true-naming, of how “that which gives us the power to use magic, sets the limits of that power” (47), and the importance of keeping balance in the world. The Master Summoner tells his students how summoning “earthly forces is to change the earth of which they are part” (54). Again, this is more of a caution sign than an outright ‘don’t do this.’

Even with all the warnings to be careful, Ged treats magic lightly. He’s more interested in besting other students and proving he is the best. Ged is often portrayed as being haughty and proud. After learning the magic of Illusion, he complains that it is no real feat because illusions are just ‘foolery’ to which a classmate respond that ‘even foolery is dangerous, in the hands of a fool” (45). And a fool Ged proves to be when, due to his arrogance, he tries to summon a spirit without the required knowledge to do so. The result is the death of the Archmage at the hands of the shadow and serious injuries to Ged himself.

It’s his terrible pride that makes Ged a dangerous wizard. Every action he takes, from leaving his old Master to learning everything faster than others, is due to his pride. It says Ged though “the more he learned, the less he would have to fear, until finally in his full power as Wizard he needed fear nothing in the world, nothing at all” (54). Ged soon learns that this is not the case, when he comes face to face with his shadow, a creation brought out by his own power.

The story turns in this direction then. Realizing how arrogant and careless he’s been with magic, Ged turns repentant—“since the night on Roke Knoll his desire had turned as much against fame and display as once it had been set on them” (77). Even then, Ged tries to outdo all he’s been taught when he’s called to heal the fisherman’s son. Ignoring Master Herbal’s warning of “heal the wound and cure the illness, but let the dying spirit go” (80), Ged goes after the boys soul and almost ends up dead himself.

Ged still has much to learn, and he spends the rest of the book battling the temptation of reaching for greater magic. When he goes battle the dragons, Yevaud offers Ged knowledge—the name of the shadow that follows him, the gebbeth. Ged considers the offer, but ultimately refuses the dragon’s offer. But then he learns from a traveler of the great magics in the land of Osskill, magics that could help him against the gebbeth. This time he follows temptation and ends up in the Court of Terrenon, where Serret strokes his ego and offers him the power of the stone:

He who can make the Terrenon answer what he asks and do what he wills, has power over his own destiny: strength to crush any enemy, mortal or of the other world: foresight, knowledge, wealth, dominion and a wizardry at his command that could humble the Archmage himself! (117-118)

Ged considers the offer but struggles with the refusal. He’s so afraid of the gebbeth that he wavers, but in the end refuses Serret. The last few chapters show a defeated Ged. He thinks the key to winning against his shadow is acquiring the strongest magic or learning its name in true-speech. But in the end it’s neither; “Ged had neither lost nor won but, naming the shadow of his death with his own name, had made himself whole: a man: who knowing his whole true self, cannot be used or possessed by any power other than himself” (180-181). What defeats the shadow is Ged accepting the truth about himself. The shadow is part of him, the evil, dark, greedy, arrogant part that he’s been battling with all this time. In accepting his true self, he gains full control over himself and his magic.

The people of Earthsea fear magic, but magic is never at fault when something goes wrong, the wizard is. Every bad thing that occurs to Ged, happens because he thinks he knows everything. It takes an entire book for him to learn that until the wizard can master himself, he won’t be able to master the magic

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