The most beguiling promise of fantasy fiction is that of self-knowledge. At some point the protagonist discovers, with the force of a calling from God, that he is no mere mortal, but a wizard, a dragonslayer, a king. It is an irresistible idea for adolescents particularly, who are in the midst of discovering themselves and trying on different identities. How much easier everything would be if the choice were essentially made for you! And how amazing it would be to find that you were, as you might have secretly hoped, special, that you could speak to animals or move objects with your mind. It puts the “fantasy” in fantasy, and is one reason this genre is often associated with young adult fiction.
The Earthsea cycle by Ursula Le Guin, who died in January at the age of 88, excels at these tropes. A boy discovers that he possesses great magical power. A girl in a forgotten corner of the world learns that she has a critical part to play in that world’s fate. Another boy, after an arduous trial, realizes that all his effort has been a prelude to him meeting a historic destiny. These are familiar fantasy plotlines, clichés even. Although rooted in our oldest legends, they hold less appeal to adults in the twenty-first century than Le Guin’s more critically celebrated works—her visionary novels exploring the mutability of gender and the glittering nightmare of market capitalism. (These, unlike the Earthsea books, were marketed to mature readers.) As Le Guin has written, “Enchantment alters with age, and with the age.”
In our age, movies and television have taken over the enchantment business. From Star Wars to Game of Thrones, the themes are familiar from our news feeds—terrorism, class war, the anthropocene—and the audience’s sense of wonder is evoked with computer-generated giants and battle scenes. The Harry Potter series is a model of the new type. It not only reflects the Hollywood mainstreaming of fantasy fiction, but also combines the basic fantasy set-up (normal boy is spirited away to a parallel world of magic and adventure) with the leaden, self-serious spectacle of the modern fantasy epic (army of good guys fights evil racist despot and his minions).
To return to Earthsea today is to encounter a different kind of fantasy work, where knowing oneself is a painstaking, ceaseless endeavor. It is an end in itself, not a means for characters to engage in bigger, supposedly more consequential issues. It is what the story is about, and the wonders Earthsea offers are scaled accordingly, to the sublime horizons of a life.
The first three books in the cycle—A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), The Tombs of Atuan (1970), and The Farthest Shore (1972)—came in quick succession. Each represents a different approach to the coming-of-age story, and together they form a trilogy unto themselves. The fourth book, Tehanu, was published some 18 years later, in 1990, and features two of the cycle’s main characters, Ged and Tenar, in their senescence. The original subtitle for Tehanu was “The Last Book of Earthsea,” but Le Guin couldn’t resist returning once more, publishing a fifth and final book, The Other Wind, in 2000, which resolves some of the lingering mysteries of Earthsea’s mythology. Scattered between the novels are short stories that fill out Le Guin’s archipelagic world like small, previously unmapped islands.
That world—multiracial, decentralized, more water than land—has been praised for uprooting fantasy from its traditional European soil. There is no mythic England as represented by the Shire, or the kingdom of Westeros. Ged, the eponymous wizard of the first Earthsea book, has dark skin of “copper-brown.” He first proves his mettle when the Kargs—“a savage people, white-skinned, yellow-haired, and fierce”—come to maraud his village on the island of Gont. He weaves a spell to conceal the village in fog, and the Kargs, blinded, are forced to retreat as the villagers press a counterattack with makeshift spears. Ged is eventually shipped off to the island of Roke, famous for its school of magic. This is not the idyllic British boarding school of Harry Potter, but a monkish retreat where the laconic instructors speak in Taoist-inflected riddles about the balance of the universe. “Infinite are the arguments of mages,” Le Guin writes, in what could be Roke’s school motto.
Every great fantasy novel hinges on a metaphysical quirk that separates its world from the real one, a thought experiment that spawns a whole galaxy of related questions and concerns. In Earthsea it is the idea of “True Speech” or “Old Speech,” which holds that everything in the universe has a true name. If a wizard knows the true name of an object or an animal or a person, he has control over them. It is a sly writerly conceit, equating a mastery of words with a mastery of the world, but it also grounds the plot in the pursuit of knowledge.
At Roke, Ged is a quick study, but he is also quick to pride and quick to anger. To prove his superiority over a rival student, he summons a spirit from the dead. It turns out to be a near-fatal act of hubris, unleashing some malevolent force—“like a dot of black shadow, quick and hideous”—that then pursues and torments him. In order to defeat it, Ged must discover the shadow’s name, and in that quest he begins to see something of its darkness in himself. Or to put it in the Taoist terms Le Guin prefers, he comes to realize that there is no life without death, no goodness without evil, no I without the other.
The main character of The Tombs of Atuan is Tenar, a Karg who is taken from her family at the age of five to become a priestess at the tombs of ancient deities known as the Nameless Ones. She is believed to be the reincarnation of the previous priestess, who was a reincarnation of the one before her, and so on into the mists of time. They have all been stripped of their names and are considered a single being, Arha, meaning the “eaten one.” Only a woman can fulfill this sacred role, but the woman in question is a mere vessel, purged of her individuality, and so sacrifices her life to a sterile kind of endless procreation. This all changes when Arha-Tenar encounters a wizard in the tombs, who is on a mission to recover a relic that, when repaired and made whole, will help bring peace to Earthsea. Ged gives the girl-priestess her first glimpse of the world beyond the tombs. He evokes the person she once was, the person she might still be. He gives her back her true name.
But this is not a simple tale of liberating a woman from her prescribed role. “What she had begun to learn was the weight of liberty,” Le Guin writes as Tenar’s world widens and her spirit buckles under the weight. “It is not a gift given, but a choice made, and the choice may be a hard one.” The Earthsea cycle is shot through with such ambivalence, as if every breakthrough, every step toward some new understanding, only opens up more questions, more doubts.
Ged succumbs to these doubts in The Farthest Shore, in which he, now the archmage of Roke, and a young prince named Arren must heal a breach in the universe created by a rogue wizard seeking immortality. It is a testament to Le Guin’s ruminative, austere style that, even though her fantasy is filled with suspense and spells and other flashy hallmarks of the genre, much of this book involves two people talking on a boat as they journey across the world. Arren shares his dreams and anxieties, and in return Ged shares what wisdom he has learned. “Each deed you do, each act, binds you to itself and to its consequences, and makes you act again,” Ged tells Arren. “Then very seldom do you come upon a space, a time like this, between act and act, when you may stop and simply be. Or wonder who, after all, you are.”
To apprehend the fullness of a moment is to gain a heightened, almost heartbreaking awareness of ourselves, which Ged expresses by invoking—this is a fantasy novel after all—the flight of dragons: “And though I came to forget or regret all I have ever done, yet would I remember that once I saw the dragons aloft on the wind at sunset above the western isles; and I would be content.”
At the core of these novels is an original unhappiness with the world, some deep sense of being at odds with it. What better way to overcome that gap than to be a wizard? It is the ultimate fantasy, for the ability to summon a hawk or change the weather or produce light in darkness is essentially a metaphor for bringing the world to heel. But what would a wizard be without these abilities?
In Tehanu, Ged reunites with Tenar on Gont, after his powers were utterly spent during his quest with Arren. He is no longer archmage of Roke, just a normal human. He must learn who he is once more, in the evening of his life, and he is bitter and confused. In the years since she left Atuan, Tenar has not gone on many adventures like Ged, but she has led a full life; when she meets Ged again she is a widow with two grown children and an adopted girl. It is now her turn to teach Ged something about the world—a different kind of wholeness or balance than what the philosopher-wizards speak of at Roke.
Le Guin is a loving creator, tracing her characters’ every faltering step toward self-knowledge with a compassion bordering on indulgence. It is an approach that may be out of step with the times; to treat life as a mission to discover oneself can read like solipsism, especially when we know that so much of identity is shaped by factors beyond our control, by race, gender, class. Perhaps only a white American in the postwar period could have written the Earthsea books, could speak of an autonomous self within its own narrative, waiting to blaze forth; writers and filmmakers are more conscious now of systemic forces and the undertow of history. But there are still choices to be made, and Tenar’s choice—to try to be at home within herself, since it is the only way of being at home in the world—is as relevant as ever. Even if it is a hard choice.