Growing up in Earthsea


Growing up in Earthsea

[Published in Children’s Literature in education, 16, No 1; Whole Number 56, Spring 1985.  My surname was then ‘Jenkins’]

Two of the most important strands in Ursula Le Guin’s ideology are the Jungian concept of universal archetypes and the Taoist idea of balance or equilibrium between complementary forces throughout creation. These are interwoven in complex and subtle ways that condition both the structures and themes of her fiction. The Earthsea Trilogy in particular embodies her peculiar vision or awareness of the processes of human maturation in terms derived from these two systems of thought.

The Earthsea Trilogy is High Fantasy; that is, the actions depicted in the stories take place in a secondary world of the author’s invention, and involve an irreducible element of the “impossible” or “unreal.” Causality in Earthsea is magical causality, and the most powerful and important members of that society, in the absence of an heir to the throne, are those who wield the Art Magic. Le Guin asserts the importance of the Equilibrium at an early stage in the trilogy; she is concerned with re‑emphasising it in the closing stages:

   The world is in balance, in Equilibrium. A wizard’s power of Changing and of Summoning can shake the balance of the world. It is dangerous, that power. It is most perilous. It must follow knowledge and serve need. (Wizard)

 The word must be heard in silence. There must be darkness to see the stars. The dance is always danced above the hollow place, above the terrible abyss. (Shore)

The similarities and differences between these two quotations are important both thematically and structurally in the Earthsea stories. Insofar as they both assert the same philosophy, the idea of balance, they state the underlying philosophical or moral background against which the development of the individual protagonists is worked out. The first statement is made to the young Ged, when, in his teens, he is too impetuous and self-willed to accept or fully to understand what he sees as a restriction on individuality and self-fulfilment.  The second is made by him many years later, for the instruction of the younger Arren and as an expression of how completely the realities of the Equilibrium and its imperatives have become part of his personal growth and awareness. To this extent, the two quotations show how thoroughly bound up with each other are the two concepts of maturity of the individual and the maintenance or sustaining of the Equilibrium of Creation, in Le Guin’s imagined world. There is a profound sense in which the identification of oneself as on the side of, as a supporter of, “good” or Light and, through these, of Equilibrium, is equivalent to growing up, becoming mature, autonomous, responsible. Although it seems to the immature and arrogant Ged that he is merely being asked to fit his individual abilities and potential into a pre-existing system without consideration for his personal need, the mature Ged, the Archmage, can see the free‑will decision to fit into that system as a valid way into maturity and freedom. He is able to embrace and contain the paradoxes inherent in that notion. Superficially it may seem that he has only consented to “behave well” according to a preconceived and conventional system of belief.  But in fact both the value system and the individual are validated and revitalised by this meeting, within Ged, of identity and morality. Each individual’s insight and realisation changes the system; the system provides the measure and sounding board for the emerging individual. There is a close parallel and an unbreakable link between the two decisions which Le Guin sees the emerging individual consciousness making. In the outer, social sphere, the maturing person has to decide on his or her commitment to the Light, and through that to the sustaining of the Equilibrium. This, like the choices of the folk‑tale or epic hero, will involve a denial of self-interest and a dedication to some quest or task of importance to others, possibly to the whole society. In the inner or psychic dimension too, the themes of light and darkness emerge. Le Guin states clearly in one of her essays, discussing Hans Andersen’s The Shadow:

 The man is all that is civilised ‑ learned, kindly, idealistic, de­cent. The shadow is all that gets suppressed  . . . thwarted selfishness, his unadmitted desires, the swearwords he never spoke, the murders he didn’t commit. The shadow is the dark side of his soul, the unadmitted, the inadmissable. And what Andersen is saying is that this monster is an integral part of the man and cannot be denied…… (Language of the night)

So within the individual there must also be an Equilibrium; the dark, or in Jungian terms the shadow side of the individual, must be in an active and constructive balance with the light or conscious side.  According to Fred Inglis, Identity and morality cross. Successful integration with society, positive response to the moral or social imperatives outside oneself, cannot be reached without integration between the apparently opposed elements within the self.  The story of Earthsea is the story of the acquisition of that balance and integration by three different individuals. It also shows, in the personal stories and in the wider adventures and descriptions of society, how the balance may be threatened or disturbed and what the consequences of that disturbance might be.

Le Guin was expressly asked to write for younger readers when she produced the Earthsea books.  She records in the essay: Dreams must explain themselves (Language of the night) her own view of what the trilogy is about and why its themes are important for older adolescent readers.  She feels that the dominant theme of the first novel, A wizard of Earthsea, is that of coming of age, growing up.  In The Tombs of Atuan the theme is more specifically the adolescent’s need to come to terms with sexuality.  The third book, The Farthest Shore, deals with acceptance of death. These themes are indeed overwhelmingly  important; but in another sense all three novels are about coming‑of‑age. The growth to self-awareness, inner integration, and commitment to ‘Something outside itself, beyond itself, bigger than itself,” is delineated three times; once in the story of Ged’s struggle with his shadow, once in Tenar’s fight to regain her true self, and again in the story of Arren’s quest to the dark land where he grows sufficiently in stature to fit the throne he is heir to. In each case there is some degree of imbalance or lack of awareness in the protagonist that reflects or threatens to contribute to an imbalance in the outer world. In each case the protagonist must take positive steps to correct both the outer and inner imbalances; by going on a quest, by making a new commitment, by broadening his or her awareness.

In the first story, Ged is too fiercely proud of his undeniably great magical power; his could be said to be an imbalance on the side of too much light.  He cannot see the need to wait and learn control and caution:

. . . surely a wizard, one who had gone past these childish tricks of illusion to the true arts of Summoning and Change, was powerful enough to do what he pleased, and balance the world as seemed best to him, and drive back darkness with his own light.

In another context this might be seen as the ofermod which was the sin of Lucifer and the downfall of heroes in the Anglo-Saxon tradition. Tao has its own answer to this urge to impetuous and individualistic action: wu wei . . . refraining from activity contrary to nature.  That is, from insisting on going against the grain of things, from trying to make materials perform functions for which they are unsuitable, from exerting force in human affairs when the man of insight could see that it would be doomed to failure, and that subtler methods of persuasion, or simply letting things alone to take their own course, would bring about the desired result. (Needham)

Ged’s quest for his shadow teaches him the futility of over‑violent action and self-assertion. He learns to accept the dark side of himself, the destructive possibilities that can only be effectively controlled by humble acceptance of them and by their integration into the total personality. In the wider sphere of relationships with the rest of creation, he learns the value of restraint and of balancing the needs and desires and rights of others with one’s own impulses. Clearly LeGuin feels that this is a vital step toward self-awareness for the adolescent. The first stirrings of a real sense of the individual self, of its potential power for effective action in society, join with the energy and enthusiasm of youth to plunge young people into what may be violent, aggressive, and rebellious activity. There is frequently a rejection of the values associated with tradition, such as Ged directs towards his teachers. LeGuin tries to express for the young reader the senses in which true maturity involves establishing a sense of proportion, and in which discipline and self-control are not self repressive, but self developing. Awareness of and sensitivity to the lives of others, the attitudes of others, is a vital part of this. The loyal friendship of Vetch and the way in which Ged grows up sufficiently to allow himself to lean on that friendship, gives moving expression to that idea. Le Guin shows deep compassion for the suffering of Ged, but makes it clear that he brings it on himself by his refusal to cultivate these qualities of awareness and responsiveness. She evidently feels that youth cannot be allowed to go on being an excuse for the wilful abuse of power in a way that brings harm to the young individual himself and threatens harm to the rest of society. The Archmage Gensher sternly tells Ged that he is in danger of being possessed by the Shadow ‑ of becoming a servant of evil. So Ged learns that power ‑ adulthood ‑ carries with it responsibility and duty, and that freedom itself is shaped by the necessary limitations each must impose upon his or her actions. The Master Summoner puts this into words for him:

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

Ged is still only nineteen years old at the end of A Wizard of Earthsea; but he has come through his first battle for identity and integration:

… 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, and whose life therefore is lived for life’s sake and never in the service of ruin, or pain, or hatred, or the dark.

The story of The Tombs of Atuan is the story of Tenar’s escape from the service of the dark. Tenar is priestess of the Nameless Ones, believed to be the reincarnation of the One Priestess who has served these dark forces for thousands of years. Her willing service to this cause, which subsumes her to such an extent that she loses her individual name and identity, becoming Arha, the Eaten One, shows that the imbalance in her nature is the opposite of Ged’s. There is too great a dominance of the dark, the negative, the passive. She is, like the fairy‑tale protagonists described by Bruno Bettelheim, in an enchanted sleep of paralysis of the will and loss of purpose. She is Sleeping Beauty or Snow White. Applying Bettelheim’s schema, Tenar and Ged can be seen as embodying the two characteristic features of adolescent experience, “. . . periods of utter passivity and lethargy alternating with frantic activity . . . … Her journey to adulthood is a journey towards the light and towards accepting the necessity of integrating the light with the dark; the mirror image of Ged’s progress. In Taoist terms, he is yin and she is yang; he is the active, light, forward‑reaching principle traditionally regarded as masculine, but present within both male and female. She is the dark, passive, conserving force traditionally regarded as female, but also present within both female and male. The balance of these two forces is the Equilibrium.  Tenar lacks all confidence in herself, all true sense of her own identity, and hides in the darkness and apparent security of the only place she knows.  Ged, who has never known these lacks in his own psyche, breaks into her private world and literally takes her out of herself, out of the dark, out of the Place of the Tombs, to experience the fuller possibilities of life.

So Tenar has help that Ged did not have; he is the only one of the three Earthsea protagonists who is forced to learn chiefly through the bitter pain of his own mistakes ‑ which is, perhaps, what gives him the authority and the strength to help in turn at the emergence to adulthood of Tenar and Arren.

The imbalance within Tenar is linked with an imbalance in society, the existence of which brings Ged to Atuan and motivates the story. In Tenar’s keeping in the Treasury of the Tombs is one half of the  Ring of Erreth‑Akbe. This arm‑ring, missing for many years, is broken in such a way that the Lost Rune, the Rune of Peace, is also broken where it is engraved on the ring. Ged, having retrieved the first half in a side adventure during the Quest of the Shadow, comes to try to retrieve the second half and bring peace to the lands of Earthsea. So at the climactic point where Tenar willingly surrenders  her half of the ring to Ged and helps him to rejoin the Rune, there are many levels of symbolism coming into play. Ged’s words have many applications; it is whole now as if it had never been broken!’

On an obvious, surface level this refers to the physical mending of the ring itself; in terms of the wider society, it is peace that has been restored to wholeness~ but in terms of the personal maturation of Tenar, it is her identity that has been mended, restored, healed. Although Le Guin does not describe or hint at any physical relationship between Tenar and Ged, it is presumably the sense in which Tenar’s healing is dependent upon her response to Ged that leads the author to assert that the novel is “about sexuality. It is essential that Tenar trust Ged, that she respond warmly and positively to him, if they are to escape from the Tombs and really give Tenar the  chance of a new life and the ring a chance to function properly as a force for peace and Equilibrium. She cannot imagine any other possibilities for herself; all hinges on her being moved by her personal response to Ged, as Sleeping Beauty is moved by the Prince’s kiss. In the person of Ged, Tenar confronts everything that is outside herself, bigger than herself, more important than herself. It does not seem appropriate to speak of her as “falling in love’ with Ged. Nevertheless there is deep significance in their relationship in terms of her personal growth to maturity.  A turning point comes shortly before they escape from Atuan in Ged’s boat Lookfar.  Tenar is assailed by misgivings and fear and, in a temporary revulsion against Ged, prepares to kill him as he meditates. This negative reaction to her new freedom is psychologically accurate according to the studies of Erich Neumann:

            In reality we are dealing with the existential fact that the ego and individual that emerge from a phase of containment,  whether in a gradual and imperceptible process of development or in sudden “birth,” experience the situation as rejection. Consequently we find a subjective experience of distress, suffering and helplessness in every crucial transition to a new sphere of existence.

Tenar is momentarily aware only that she has lost the security of the familiar world of her childhood, and she turns on the person whom she sees as the instrument of that loss. Her next step is to learn the double nature of freedom and maturity ‑ the burden of responsibility for the self.

A dark hand had let go its lifelong hold upon her heart. But she did not feel joy…. She put her head down in her arms and cried…. She cried for the waste of her years in bondage to a useless evil. She wept in pain, because she was free.

What she had begun to learn was the weight of liberty. 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.

‘A choice made”; a choice in which morality and identity cross; a choice in which Tenar, by committing herself to another person, and through him to the supra‑personal cause that he serves, forges another link in the chain of her developing self, takes another step along the road to maturity.

In The Farthest Shore, Arren’s story is not at first obviously about imbalance in himself; at the beginning of the book he is a pleasant and attractive adolescent, warm and impulsive ‑he is moved to swear fealty to Ged during their first conversation ‑open and sociable:

Arren was an active boy, delighting in games, taking pride and pleasure in the skills of body and mind, apt at his duties of ceremony and governing, which were neither light nor simple.                                                                                        

Yet he had never given himself entirely to anything.

The story of Arren’s growth is to be the story of dormant potential released and developed. At the end the boy becomes, as Ged in his wisdom foresees, the King. This is significant on two levels. In order to restore lasting peace on the outer or social level, there must be a king to fill the throne that has been empty for eight hundred years. Identity and duty cross; in order to fill the throne adequately, Arren must grow up ‑ must give himself. On the inner, or psychic level, the business of becoming a king in a fairy‑tale or fantasy stands for becoming adult, integrated, for fulfilling ones potential. Bettelheim says: “There are so many kings and queens in fairy tales because their rank signifies absolute power, such as the parent seems to hold over his child!’

Arren is at first content to think of himself as a servant or assistant to Ged in his quest to restore the disturbed Equilibrium that threatens the existence of Earthsea. He has, naturally, no awareness of the deeper implications of the quest for himself in terms of personal growth; and he remains delightfully unaware of his public destiny until the closing scenes of the story, when Ged kneels to him before the people. The reader is given an early clue when a student at the school for Wizards on Roke quotes the prophecy of Maharion, the last King;

‘He shall inherit my throne who has crossed the dark land living and come to the far shores of the day.”

Le Guin packs into the story of the crossing of the land of the dead, both the meanings of her tale. To cross the dark land living is to come to terms with the knowledge of one’s own mortality. To inherit the throne is to achieve maturity as well as to become king in the literal, political sense. Balance is restored to Earthsea by the same series of acts that establish for Arren his understanding of the balance between life and death and his own role in the unending cyclical pattern of growth and decay.   This series of events, the story of the novel, serves to carry forward both tales at once. On one level, Le Guin traces Ged’s quest to re-establish the balance that the evil mage Cob has destroyed. This theme in itself is a complex one and reveals how far from simplistic is Le Guin’s understanding of psychology. For within this strand of the story, Ged himself is seen to be still learning, still failing, still striving towards the elusive maturity and growth that Arren assumes so great a man must have achieved long ago. In fact, the imbalance in the Equilibrium must be said to be Ged’s responsibility. It was he who, in a fit of resurgence of the arrogant pride that in his youth released the Shadow, punished Cob for summoning the resultant terror of death is what leads him to open the gap between the lands of the living and the dead in his desperate search for immortality. So it is Ged’s personal quest to restore the imbalance Cob has created.

For Arren, as for Tenar, growth is stimulated and developed through a deep personal response to Ged. Indeed, all three young protagonists could be said to grow through love for Ged. Ged learns, in subsuming his negative shadow into himself, the vital importance of self‑acceptance, of self‑love. Tenar is initially attracted more to Ged himself than to the idea of freedom from her enclosed life in the dark. Arren passionately devotes himself to Ged; and the story of the evolving love he feels for the mage, of its maturing, is the story of his own developing awareness.

There are several stages in this love story. Arren, like Tenar, goes through a period of disillusionment, during which he rejects Ged and feels let down or cheated by him. He has to face up to the human limitations of his hero and learn to accept him as he is. This rejection episode is much more strongly developed than is the corresponding one in Tenar’s story. Arren’s misery and sense of loss are very deep. In both episodes Ged is lying helpless, at risk because of his companion’s hostile attitude. Whereas Tenar almost stabs Ged while he is in meditation, Arren leaves him unattended and feverishly ill from a wound sustained in the course of the quest. This is an example of Le Guin’s use of the folktale technique of externalising aspects of one personality in various characters. She blends this with the realistic novelist’s method of representing distinctive individual characters, but at times the externalising is obvious. Ged’s helplessness while the two young people go through their periods of darkness and despair strongly suggests that Ged here stands for the positive and growth‑seeking principle within them which is paralysed by fear of the unexpected turn of events that has laid on them the awful duty of taking responsibility for themselves.

There are three key moments in Arren’s relationship with Ged that express clearly his growth and development. The first is when he first swears allegiance to Ged on Roke:

But now the depths of him were wakened, not by a game or a dream, but by honour, danger, wisdom, by a scarred face and a quiet voice and a dark hand holding, careless of its power, the staff of yew that bore near the grip, in silver set in black wood, the Lost Rune of the Kings.

This is genuine emotional response, but along with the fervour of adolescence it displays the idealisation, the loading onto the individual person of all kinds of symbols of impersonal concepts like honour and wisdom, that typify hero‑worship. Ged is a great man; but at this stage he seems to Arren to be greatness embodied, to be perfection. To follow him will be enough. Arren has to unlearn this and the process is painful:

He looked at his companion. Sparrowhawk breathed uneasily, as when pain moves under the surface of sleep not quite breaking it. His face was lined and old in the cold shadowless light. Arren looking at him saw a man with no power left in him, no wizardry, no strength, not even youth, nothing. He had not saved Sopli, nor turned away the spear from himself. He had brought them into peril, and had not saved them. Now Sopli was dead, and he dying, and Arren would die. Through this man’s fault; and in vain, for nothing.  So Arren looked at him with the clear eyes of despair, and saw nothing.

 But there comes a third time when Arren looks at his friend, and this time he sees a good deal:

He stopped, but in his eyes as he looked at Arren and at the sunlit hills there was a great, wordless, grieving love. And Arren saw that, and seeing it saw him, saw him for the first time whole, as he was.

I cannot say what I mean,” Ged said unhappily.

 But Arren thought of that first hour in the Fountain Court, of the man who had knelt by the running water of the fountain; and joy, as clear as that remembered water, welled up in him. He looked at his companion and said, I have given my love to what is worthy of love. Is that not the kingdom, and the unperishing spring?’

Arren’s new understanding of his friend, like his eventual accession to the throne, is seen as a restoration; he recalls the first moment of his love for Ged, and feels again what he felt then. But now he is more self‑aware, and his love is more balanced. He feels for Ged as he really is, not for the idealised Ged he first saw. And the whole of this moment of insight is charged with Arren’s new awareness, learned from Ged, of the inevitability of death, of its part in the Equilibrium as the opposite pole to life. Learning that the two can only exist in and through each other, he learns to transcend them, moving beyond despair at the thought of mortality to an informed and conscious alignment of himself with optimism and growth. He has learned to give himself to something, and in so doing has achieved self-knowledge and self-control.

The path to maturity is not represented by Le Guin as easy, but the ultimately triumphant note of the trilogy sets it forth as inspiring and attractive, and for her readers it may provide hope during a turbulent period of life;

“. . . Ged had neither lost nor won but, naming the shadow of his death with his own name had made himself whole. . !’

Footnote – 2016.  Since this was written, the Earthsea Trilogy has grown, and its later stories might more aptly described as ‘Being grown-up in Earthsea.’  Remember to read those as well as the first three novels. LOOK HERE

Works consulted for this article

(A) Books by Ursula Le Guin

A Wizard of Earthsea. London: Gollancz, 1971.

The Tombs of Atuan. London: Gollancz, 1972.

The Farthest Shore. London: Gollancz, 1973.

The Language of the Night; Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1980,

(B) Other works

Fred Inglis, The Promise of Happiness: Meaning and Value in Children’s Fiction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).

Joseph Needham, Science and Civilisation in China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1954‑1973.

Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment (London: Thames and Hudson, 1976).

Erich Neumann, The Great Mother; an Analysis of the Archetype ~London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1955).