[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. Ursula Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea, 199.
When Ursula Le Guin died last month, I felt a moment's regret not having sent her my two previous posts [here on the Dispossessed and here on The Left Hand of the Darkness.] But I had not done so because I was self-conscious of the fact that I had not fully taken the measure of her greatness yet -- more works could appear -- and, more truthfully, I wanted to give myself time to develop my reading of her. I encountered her works relatively recently -- I had been casting around for suggestions for a course on utopian fiction I taught a few years ago -- , and I read her novels relatively slowly wishing to savior each, and grappling with the full implications, before I move on to the next.
It is fair to say that a running theme through Le Guin's works is the sharp distinction between power and good practical judgment. Perhaps, this is really the underlying theme of all excellent science fiction. We tend to forget how astounding the technological change of the last century and a half has been. Thanks to fantastic scientific and technological advances, we can now manipulate and redirect hidden and previously un-imagined natural powers for often previously unimaginable ends. The idea that signals can be sent across vast distances to produce controlled sounds and images may well have occurred to past generations, but the particular occult powers -- electromagnetic waves -- that are used for this were really not guessed at for most of human history. Le Guin's output is exemplary of the post Nuclear consciousness of the expanded range and scope of destruction now in the hands of humanity.
I own the Earthsea novels in a children's imprint (Puffin). And it's true that in these novels her writing avoids lengthy, complex sentences, and that the vocabulary is in some sense simplified. This also gives these works an elegant almost biblical sparseness and clarity, eminently quotable. While wizards, enchantresses, witches, and dragons provide the local color, the story plays out on an extended archipelago [we are meant to see our continents in a new light] with the backdrop of an environmental catastrophe and potential man-induced civilizational collapse:
A mage can control only what is near him, what he can name exactly and wholly....If it were not so, the wickedness of the powerful or the folly of the wise would long ago have sought to change what cannot be changed, and Equilibrium would fail. The unbalanced sea would overwhelm the islands where we perilously dwell, and in the old silence all voices and all names would be lost. (60)
This quote offers a window in the larger metaphysical assumptions of Earthsea. Most of our words only track and describe -- like the utterances of the prisoners in Plato's cave -- sensible qualities. But the hidden essences of things, their beings, are knowable and they are identical with their true names. For, "magic consists in this, the true naming of a thing." So, the know and to make a thing is the same activity such that to produce and control a thing is to name it 'exactly and wholly.' In Earthsea each true thing becomes a locally closed, coupled system with the agent naming it exactly and wholly. Each such system of known things is in fragile equilibrium, and the whole of the universe is also such a closed system in equilibrium. The sense of fragility is, in turn, nicely captured by the phrase 'the folly of the wise.' (I return to this below.)
The previous paragraph pretends as if individual things have full reality. But that's not quite so. there is a strain of Spinozism in Earthsea. For to be named is to be, and this just is power.* This is nicely captured by a comment near the end of the novel, "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." (182)
But the limited, albeit real, being of things naturally give rise -- in virtue of their limitations -- to 'entities' without genuine being. (Their being is unnamed and does "belong in the world" (97).This is the (ahh) shadow existence of, say, holes and shadows (etc.). The great artistic trick of the first volume of Earthsea, is to imagine the destabilizing effects of the use of great power in the service of pride and "wish for glory" (36) as a decoupling of beings from their shadowing-non-beings. (There are shades of Mani and Tao.)
This post so far makes it sound as if Earthsea is about metaphysics. That's somewhat misleading if only because this is a society in which religion is (almost?) completely absent. The true main theme, inductive risk (see here), is made explicit fairly early in the training of the wizard-hero, Ged:
You must not change one thing, one pebble, one gain of sand, until you know what good and evil will follow on the act. The world is in balance, in Equilibrium. A wizard's power of Changingand of Summoning can shake the balance of the world. It is dangerous, that power. It is most perilous.
Given that the consequences of any given act are, in principle, infinite, it follows one really ought not use wizardry. And much of the wise wizards are revealed to be extremely restrained with their power. While they reproduce their knowledge in their disciples, they also withhold the most dangerous information until relatively late in the training. Even so, ambition for glory and pride are not eliminable from human nature, and so new adventures are to be expected at all times, if we can survive.
The action of the novel is the attempt to restore the necessary balance between true things and their shadows--one imagines that George Lucas drank from the same well. And while much of our hero's quest is solo, the final voyage can only succeed in the company of his friend and his friend's gift, "the proof of unshakeable trust" (82-3) When religion and its steadfast gods are absent, we require some other anchor, and this is steadfast friendship.
Strikingly, while friendship is symbolized by the disclosing of names, and so power, it is not a real being and so escapes the equilibriating beingshadow duality of everything else. This is so because friendship is ultimately founded on nothing solid, but (rather) faith, which we are told is expressive of our need to have story-telling witnesses to our deeds.
*A true oath which names true beings is, thus, unbreakable.