Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Adventure classics -- Harmony in a watery world

A Wizard of Earthsea

by Ursula Le Guin
In the section on Taoism in his classic of comparative religion, The World’s Religions, Huston Smith discusses the philosophy of Lao-tzu, but admits to a sharp contract between philosophy and “the Taoism that surrounded me as a boy in China: its submergence in augury, necromancy, and superstition” -- the sophisticated overlaying the shamanistic.

As the daughter of pioneering anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber, Ursula Le Guin is no novice to the many forms religion can take. She eclectically included both sophisticated and primal versions of a fantasy world’s form of Taoism in the first book of her Earthsea series, 1968’s A Wizard of Earthsea.

Le Guin’s fiction always has room for strange worlds -- planets of perpetual winter or those where a “year” lingers for a lifespan. So why not conjure a world consisting almost entirely of water?

For a watery world, Earthsea is surprisingly cozy, comprised of a central archipelago and scattered outlying islands -- the Outer Reaches -- all located in the planet’s northern hemisphere. There are no known continents, although at one point young Ged, the story’s protagonist, discusses that possibility.

During a voyage, Le Guin writes: “Ged broke his silence, saying, ‘Do you hold with those who think the world is all landless sea beyond the Outer Reaches, or with those
who imagine other Archipelagoes or vast undiscovered lands on the other face of the world?’”

His friend and fellow wizard Vetch replies, deadpan, “I hold with those who think the world has but one face, and he who sails too far will fall off the edge of it.”

Earthsea is a world permeated not only by water but by magic. Many even of its untrained inhabitants have innate magical abilities such as those of the countrified weatherworkers. This is Earthsea’s relatively benign primal form of its of Taoism.

But as Ged learns at the central school for magic -- a place very unlike Harry Potter’s Hogwarts -- “the true wizard uses such spells only at need, since to summon up such earthly forces is to change the earth of which they are a part.” While good wizards strive to maintain harmony with the earthly forces, evil ones can bring on catastrophes by unbalancing the forces.

In particular, raising spirits of the dead is something even the greatest hesitate to do. Until Ged, goaded by a jealous fellow student, calls up the spirit from Earthsea’s earliest mythology and tears open the fabric of the universe.

Pursued by a being who slips through the tear, Ged at first flees across land and sea from his destiny. Resigned at last to the impossibility of escape, and with some double-edged advice from a dragon, he turns on his pursuer. But can he survive his confrontation? Or dare to name the force he has brought into the world?

Le Guin first wrote the Earthsea books as a trilogy, with Wizard followed in 1971 by The Tombs of Atuan and in 1972 by The Farthest Shore. Then, in 1990, she issued a fourth book, Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea. And despite the subtitle, a fifth, The Other Wind, followed in 2001.

I’m tempted to say she may not be finished with the cycle yet. See her site, , for additional information and her own audio reading from the original Earthsea book.

(Next Wednesday -- Adventure classics’ month of sea stories concludes with one of the greatest, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.)

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