126–129: The Earthsea Quartet

Only in silence the word,
only in dark the light,
only in dying life:
bright the hawk’s flight
on the empty sky.
The Creation of Éa

I have been looking forward to this for so long. Opening these covers is like meeting an old friend. This book – tattered, curling at the corners, with pages crinkled from the damp – this book – with its tales of Sparrowhawk and the art-magic, the crisp beauty of Gont and the elemental wildness of the dragons – this book – of poetry and knowledge and achingly well-crafted characters – this book more or less defined my childhood. Le Guin is not a great science fiction author, or a great fantasy author. She is a great author, without qualification.

Earthsea revolves around dichotomies – darkness and light; silence and language; death and life; trite as it sounds, earth and sea. “Out of the sea there rise storms and monsters, but no evil powers: evil is of earth.”

The world of Earthsea, as the name suggests, is made up of islands. Some are larger than others, but nothing could meaningfully be called a continent. The central islands are the Archipelago; they are surrounded by the North, East, South and West Reaches, and the four islands of the Kargad Lands to the north-east.

Although there are other languages, the lingua franca of the Archipelago and the Reaches is Hardic, whose roots lie in the first language – the Old Speech, the True Speech, which was spoken to raise the islands from the waves, which is still spoken by dragons and wizards, and in which it is impossible for men to lie. Knowing something’s true name is tied up with knowing its nature, grants mastery over it, and all but a select few humans and dragons jealously guard their own true names.

“It is impossible to say just what I mean!” wrote TS Eliot, and it’s very much how I feel about the Earthsea novels. They are delightful and touching and powerful; they send shivers across my skin and irrepressible smiles across my face. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to articulate it properly. Instead, I’ll give sketches of the books themselves in turn.


Have you never thought how danger must surround power as shadow does light? This sorcery is not a game we play for pleasure or for praise.

A Wizard of Earthsea begins on Gont, a rough land famous for goatherds, pirates, and wizards, where the young Duny learns petty witchcraft from his aunt, and tricks from passing conjurers. He learns to summon the birds from the sky and call the mists to heel. He learns charms for finding and mending, and an unsystematic smattering of the great poems and the true names of things.

Overspending his power in defending his village from the marauding Kargs – who, unlike the inhabitants of the Archipelago and the Reaches, are pale-skinned and blond-haired – he is revived by the taciturn Ogion, famed far and wide for having tamed a potentially devastating earthquake. When Duny turns thirteen, his old name is taken from him and he is named Ged. To be accurate, I suppose he is told this name rather than given it. Names in the true speech are not contingent labels, assigned by conscious whim; they are tied to something’s essence. To have a different name is to be a different thing.

Ged, or Sparrowhawk, as he is known for his habit (never lost) of calling the birds of prey to his wrist, is then taken to be taught by Ogion. But his apprenticeship is far from what he imagined it would be. Ogion tends his goats, and walks from place to place on foot, rather than taking the form of an eagle. “To hear, one must be silent,” says the great man; but Ged’s imagination is fired by adventure and action. He chooses go instead to the great school of wizardry on Roke, to learn from the masters of the craft.

Ogion’s seemed a long road towards mastery, a slow bypath to follow, when he might go sailing before the seawinds straight to the Inmost Sea, to the Isle of the Wise, where the air was bright with enchantments and the Archmage walked amidst wonders.

On Roke, his pride stoked by his quick ability, by his own consciousness of it, and by his rivalry with another student, Ged accidentally conjures an abomination. “To light a candle is to cast a shadow,” the Master Hand tells him; and Ged’s talent and hubris are more like a bonfire.

You have great power inborn in you, and you used that power wrongly, to work a spell over which you have no control, not knowing how that spell affects the balance of light and dark, life and death, good and evil. And you were moved to do this by pride and hate. Is it any wonder the result was ruin?

So says the Archmage after the horror has fled and Ged has recovered from its attack. Names are mastery; the shadow’s name is Ged’s defence against it, his only chance to conquer it. But, the Archmage continues, “It is the shadow of your arrogance, the shadow of your ignorance, the shadow you cast. Has a shadow a name?” “All things have a name,” insists Ogion; and he means, all things can be known. All things have a nature which can be labelled and understood. But in parallel with Ged’s knowledge and mastery of his shadow must run his knowledge and mastery of himself. He cleaves to light and to the work of his own hands (“I had forgotten how much light there was in the world, till you gave it back to me,” says a fisherman whose incipient blindness he cures). His fear of the creature drives him towards a dragon’s jaws, to stake his life on a gamble; it drives him to the Court of the Terrenon, where the Old Powers of earth and stone promise him the knowledge he seeks; and it drives him to turn, to follow the fear and chase his enemy.

There are other characters in this first instalment. The otak, a small, loyal, rodent-like creature that lives in Ged’s hood and revives him from stupor; Vetch, a jolly fellow-student from the East Reach who is a friend to Ged; Ged’s father, the village smith, a stubborn but essentially good man. But above all it is the story of the Sparrowhawk confronting the demons of his own creation. He will, we are promised, do other great deeds, become dragonlord and Archmage, “but this is a tale of the time before his fame, before the songs were made.” And what a tale. Le Guin’s plotting is masterly; her characterisation is superb; her prose is sublime. This book is a pleasure and a privilege to read.


The glimmer died from the high cell walls. The little girl, who had no name any more but Arha, the Eaten One, lay on her back looking steadily at the dark.

Arha. The Eaten One. The One Priestess of the Nameless Ones, of the Tombs of Atuan, “highest of all high priestesses of the Kargad Lands.” Taken from her family as a child, stripped of her name, taught the rites and dances of the First Priestess, Tenar becomes Arha, the servant of the nameless powers of the dark, mistress of the oldest and most holy site of the Kargad Lands, so hallowed that its only name is the Place.

The same dualities are in play in this second book, most notably light and dark. Beneath the titular Tombs lie the caverns where the power of the Nameless Ones is strongest – the Labyrinth, whose indistinguishable pathways mean death to all but the initiated; the Room of Chains, where prisoners are kept to live or die at the One Priestess’s pleasure; and the Undertomb, most sacred of all, whose dark is never to be broken.

Into this world – unchanged, unchanging – comes Ged, whose boldness and sacrilege terrify and fascinate Arha. He makes light in the places that should remain forever dark; he speaks of learning the name of one of the Nameless Ones. He strikes at the foundations of all she knows.

All I know is the dark, the night underground. And that’s all there really is. That’s all there is to know, in the end. The silence, and the dark. You know everything, wizard. But I know one thing – the one true thing!

But he knows them too.

Did you truly think them dead? You know better in your heart. They do not die. They are dark and undying, and they hate the light: the brief, bright light of our mortality. They are immortal, but they are not gods. They never were. They are not worth the worship of any human soul.

The Tombs of Atuan is in many ways very different from A Wizard of Earthsea, and in other ways very like it. Sparrowhawk is mysterious, alien, seen through the eyes of this woman who has been dedicated to the darkest Powers of the earth. Since we last met him he has sailed again in the West and spoken with dragons; he is older, wiser, than the young Ged. Like Arha, we are captivated by him; by his incomprehensibility, by his otherness. Le Guin is bold, after the intense focus in the first book on Ged’s identity and self-mastery, to zero in so completely on another character, and also bold to skip Sparrowhawk’s intervening adventures. As it is told, the story is Tenar’s – Tenar’s story of self-(re)discovery, of choice.

Le Guin is always and everywhere a fabulous prose writer, but this in particular of the Earthsea books contains some of my favourite passages.

You must make a choice. Either you must leave me, lock the door, go up to your altars and give me to your Masters; then go to the Priestess Kossil and make your peace with her – and that is the end of the story – or, you must unlock the door, and go out of it, with me. Leave the Tombs, leave Atuan, and come with me oversea. And that is the beginning of the story.


Freedom is a heavy load, a great and strange burden for the spirit to undertake. It is not easy. It is not a gift given, but a choice made, and the choice may be a hard one. The road goes upward towards the light; but the laden traveller may never reach the end of it.


The Earth is beautiful, and bright, and kindly, but that is not all. The Earth is also terrible, and dark, and cruel. The rabbit shrieks dying in the green meadows. The mountains clench their great hands full of hidden fire. There are sharks in the sea, and there is cruelty in men’s eyes. And where men worship these things and abase themselves before them, there evil breeds; there places are made in the world where darkness gathers, places given over wholly to the Ones whom we call Nameless, the ancient and holy Powers of the Earth before the Light, the powers of the dark, of ruin, of madness…

GK Chesterton famously wrote: “Fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St George to kill the dragon.” Or, in Neil Gaiman’s concise paraphrase, “Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.” In Atuan, Le Guin takes this idea to its logical conclusion. We do not need to be told to fear the dark. It is the most primeval human terror. We have feared the dark since our first sunset. “Penthe might disbelieve in the gods, but she feared the unnameable powers of the dark – as did every mortal soul.” But Atuan tells us that, with courage and light and trust, the darkness can be beaten. “It is light that defeats the dark,” Ged declares in A Wizard of Earthsea, “light”, and that light burns fiercely even from the heart of the darkness.


The sense has gone out of things. There is a hole in the world and the sea is running out of it. The light is running out. We will be left in the dry land. There will be no more speaking, and no more dying.

Prince Arren of Enlad brings word to Sparrowhawk, now Archmage, corroborating reports that the old certainties are crumbling. Singers are forgetting their songs, sorcerers their spells. Things have been changed that should never have been changed. We’ve known Ged first as a rash youth, then as an intrepid young adventurer; now he’s a figure of wisdom and authority. He spends his days concerned with the Balance of the world.

The truth is that as a man’s real power grows and his knowledge widens, ever the way he can follow grows narrower; until at last he chooses nothing, but does only and wholly what he must do.

The Master Summoner says this to Ged in A Wizard of Earthsea. By The Farthest Shore, its promise has been realised:

When I was young I had to choose between the life of being and the life of doing. And I leapt at the latter like a trout to a fly. But each deed you do, each act, binds you to itself and its consequences, and makes you act again and yet again.

Even so, Ged is not quite Ogion. He delights in his craft, in what he can do with it. When Arren asks why he has not, as so many have, begun to lose his power, he replies, “Because I desire nothing but my art.” And he is tired of his life as Archmage, tired of the life of doing. “I have been many things, and last of all, and maybe least, an Archmage,” he says, and elsewhere:

It is time to be done with power. To drop the old toys, and go on. It is time that I went home. I would see Tenar. I would see Ogion, and speak with him before he dies, in the house on the cliffs of Re Albi. I crave to walk on the mountain, the mountain of Gont, in the forests, in the autumn when the leaves are bright. There is no kingdom like the forests. It is time I went there, went in silence, went alone. And maybe there I would learn at last what no act, or power can teach me, what I have never learned.

Arren’s story is almost a classic “coming-of-age” tale. “So the first step out of childhood is made all at once, without looking before or behind, without caution, and nothing held in reserve,” says Le Guin in the first chapter; and in the prepenultimate one, “You enter your manhood at the gate of death,” says Ged. (I hate that term, “classic coming-of-age story”, because it so often serves to cover weak work. But there is nothing weak about this book.) “And he smiled then, a smile both sombre and joyous, knowing, for the first time in his life, and alone, and unpraised, and at the end of the world, victory.”


There is a saying on Gont, Weak as woman’s magic, and there is another saying, Wicked as woman’s magic.
A Wizard of Earthsea

Tone shift time! Tehanu, originally billed as “The Last Book of Earthsea”, is radically different from what went before. The first three books weren’t homogenous by any means, but this one is a real change. It was published long after them – they came out hard on each other’s heels – and is almost domestic, in the best possible way. Ged is powerless, all his magery “one cup of water in all the desert,” poured out “on the sand, in the bed of the dry river, on the rocks in the dark.” Tenar is Goha, mother and widow. There is none of the glittering, spectacular magic of the earlier books; none of the commonplace miracles either. From being able to reweave reality at a word, Ged is no longer Archmage, no longer Sparrowhawk. He is Hawk, able to labour and tend goats.

It’s not an easy transition. “Think how easy it would have been,” says Hawk, “when I was a wizard.” “She saw a light like a star in darkness, underground, long ago, and his face in the light.” There is Therru, the burned child, and the lawless vagabonds who burned her; there is Aspen, the supercilious court wizard of the Lord of Re Albi; there is Ogion, living until Ged’s triumph in Farthest Shore but dead before his student can return to him. Ogion’s death is necessary though heartbreaking; the principals of this story can have no such mastery. Tehanu is not a story about the art-magic, as the first three were.

Let’s talk about women in Earthsea. There never has been – perhaps indeed there never could be – a female mage. The art-magic of Roke is men’s power. Just after the above Gontish sayings, A Wizard of Earthsea makes particular mention of “the high arts of traffic with Old Powers,” and the Tombs at Atuan are forbidden to men. The distinction is not absolute – Benderesk, the Lord of the Terrenon, has his power from the Stone, and male Pelnish wizards engage in similar bargains (cf. The Other Wind) – but it gropes towards something. It is “right, and yet not altogether right; there was something left out of that.”

“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.” Moss’s eyes shone with a weird brightness in their red rims and her voice sang like an instrument. “I go back into the dark! Before the moon I was. No one knows, no one knows, no one can say what 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?”

If Earthsea is about dualities, this is one that has remained tacit. “I didn’t know what women are, because women were all I did know. Like men who live among men, sailors, and soldiers, and mages on Roke – do they know what men are?” All true wizards are celibate, it transpires, though more minor weavers of magic need not be. It’s not always necessarily bad; Aspen is disgusted by the temerity of a woman in addressing him as if they were equals, but “Ged and Ogion had lived here, bachelors, without women; everywhere Ged had lived, it was without women; so he did the ‘women’s work’ and thought nothing about it. It would be a pity, she thought, if he did think about it, if he started fearing that his dignity hung by a dishcloth.”

There is no such thing as a woman mage, or even a woman sorcerer. The why of this is unclear. There is something unsatisfying, something not quite convincing, about the assurances from both sides of the equation – from the witch Moss and the former Archmage of Earthsea Sparrowhawk – that it simply doesn’t make sense, that the art-magic is men’s power, not women’s. Ogion was happy to teach Tenar, though she chose marriage and children instead, and if we’ve learnt one thing over the course of the series it’s that where Ogion disagrees with received wisdom, received wisdom is usually wrong. Infinite are the arguments of mages is a wry proverb, quoted frequently, but when the arguments are settled he tends to have been in the right. But Tehanu raises more questions about the nature of male and female power than it answers. “If women had power, what would men be but women who can’t bear children? And what would women be but men who can?”

The previous three books are important to understanding this one – if you ask me, The Tombs of Atuan most of all. “I have been patient with you for twenty-five years,” says Tenar. This is a what-came-after story; in some sense, the mirror of A Wizard of Earthsea, whose events predate those recounted in the (fictional) Deed of Ged. “He has done with doing,” the Doorkeeper has said. “He goes home.”


The first four Earthsea books were followed in 2001 by The Other Wind (q.v.) and Tales from Earthsea.


A Wizard of Earthsea
Author Ursula Le Guin
Published 1968
Pages 156
Best line “All power is one in source and end, I think. Years and distances, 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. My name, and yours, and the true name of the sun, or a spring of water, or an unborn child, all are syllables of the great word that is very slowly spoken by the shining of the stars. There is no other power. No other name.”
Best character Vetch. “In trouble and from darkness you come, Ged, yet your coming is joy to me.”

The Tombs of Atuan
Author Ursula Le Guin
Published 1971
Pages 126
Best line “Dragons think we are amusing.”
Best character Ged. This is Tenar’s story; we see him through her eyes.

The Farthest Shore
Author Ursula Le Guin
Published 1972
Pages 176
Best line “You sold the green earth and the sun and stars to save yourself. But you have no self. All that which you sold, that is yourself. 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. Not all the songs of earth, not all the stars of heaven, could fill your emptiness.”
Best character The Master Doorkeeper. “But the Doorkeeper, though seldom seen, was not changed. He bore no shadow in his eyes. He smiled, and kept the doors of the Great House against its lord’s return.”

Tehanu
Author Ursula Le Guin
Published 1990
Pages 209
Best line “They looked from Aspen to Tenar with bland and courtly expressions, as if regretting the necessity of preventing a wizard from laying a curse on a middle-aged widow, but really, really, it would not do.”
Best character Lebannen, unable to understand why Sparrowhawk would hide away from him.


Photo copyright © Penguin Books.

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