Ursula Le Guin’s, ‘Earthsea’ series consists of six fantasy stories. In the novel, ‘The Earthsea Quartet’ Le Guin explores human anthropology, including aspects of science, cosmology and religion. The novels entertain but also teach. It could be argued that ‘The Earthsea Quartet’ is a parable of human civilization.
The first book in the series is called, ‘A Wizard Of Earthsea.’ In it we meet Ged who is a mere boy living on an island in a village of fishermen and farmers. When the village comes under attack from invaders Ged discovers that he has magical powers and saves the village.
Later when Ged is studying to be a wizard his pride takes control of his thoughts and he casts a spell that splits,”…a rent in the darkness of the earth and night, a ripping open of the fabric of the world.” – Page 63 He releases an unknown monster into the world. It is a force that nobody can stop. The first story is mainly about Ged trying to undo the damage that he causes when he releases the monster into the world. When Ged casts this spell he basically splits himself into two, his evil side and his good side. His evil side is released into the world. Ged is scared of it so he runs to get away but in the end he realises that he is running from himself. He must face his dark side and cleanse himself of evil.
In life, if the natural balance of the world is damaged the consequences are sure to be destructive.
There are many clear examples of destruction in our contemporary world. Urban expansion has taken the natural habitats of animals and damaged the natural balance of the world. This has led to the extinction of many species of animals and plants. Global warming is another unintended consequence of human population growth and unsustainable resource use. This expansion is continuing throughout the world.
The Second Law of Thermodynamics is a law of physics that states that everything that is living must die or break down over time. An implication of the law is that you can’t go back in time. In the story when Ged is young, he uses a spell to summon a spirit from the dead. He does this because of his pride and jealousy. By bringing back a spirit from the dead he reverses a law of nature.
In WWII American scientists took a big risk when they tested the first atom bomb in a desert. One of the scientists on the team warned that a chain reaction could be triggered igniting the atmosphere. The allies wanted to win WWII. They needed to create an atom bomb before Germany did. So they took the risk and set off the bomb. Luckily the atmosphere didn’t ignite so we are still here today.
In the second book entitled, “The Tombs Of Atuan,” one of the main characters is the head priestess of an ancient religion. Aspects of this fictional religion are based on actual religions.
After the Priestess of The Tomb of the Nameless Ones dies she is reincarnated as a baby girl. This reincarnation occurs repeatedly over thousands of years. These fictional events could relate to the Tibetan belief that the Dalai Lama dies and is reincarnated. These events could also relate to a foundation belief of Christianity; Jesus was crucified then 2 days later was resurrected from the dead.
In one of the chapters in the book there is conflict between the Priestess of the Nameless Ones, “Arha” and “Kossil,” the priestess of the God King. Kossil and Arha curse each other with the power of their gods. This idea has actual precedents in religious history. For example, in current world events some Islamic extremists have launched a jihad against the west. One consequence of this was the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York. Another example of conflict between different religions is the Holy Crusades that the Christians launched against the Muslims in medieval Palestine.
In the story, wizards are similar to priests and monks in the real world. The wizards in the story serve the communities in the towns that they travel to. They also meditate like monks and beg for food. In one scene of the book Ged says to Arha, (now known by her birth name, Tennar),”I will go where I am sent. I follow my calling.” Wizards in the story and priests in the real world both had the time and training to explore how things worked. There was and is, a continuum between religion and science.
The second book in the series is about the liberation of Arha from her service to the Nameless Ones; a belief that has entrapped her mind. Arha realizes that the Nameless Ones are evil and she helps Ged escape from the tombs. She is liberated by her love for Ged. A key to understanding the second book in the series is in the universal theme, “love triumphs over evil.”
The author makes the fictional religion in the story seem real with references to real life religions.
The story involves the clash between two religions; the religions of Atuan and the ways of the Wizards. The conflict leads to the collapse of the tombs of the Nameless Ones in Atuan. Ged liberates the priestess Arha. This occurs because of the love that Arha (or Tenar) has for Ged.
The theme – ‘maintaining balance in the world,” underpins all 4 of the stories in the book. In the third book,” The Farthest Shore” Ursula Le Guin describes worldwide catastrophe. The world is in crisis.
If the Sun disappeared, there would be nothing for the Earth to orbit around.
If there were no gravity, the earth would go out of orbit and life on the planet would die.
Ged, who is now the Archmage of Roke, embarks on a journey with Arren, Prince of Enlad, to find out what is causing the terrible crisis in the world. The crisis is causing wizards to lose their powers, crops to fail, an economic depression and the spirits of the people of Enlad to drop.
Ged says, “A pestilence is a motion of the great balance, of the Equilibrium itself; this is different. There is a stink of evil in it.” p.333.
In the story someone is using their knowledge to satisfy his or her own greed; greed for material wealth, for power over people, wizards, religious, royalty, nature and ultimately over death itself.
Examples of something similar can be found in the modern word.
Third world populations are so hungry for resources that they’re destroying old growth forests faster than the forests can re-grow. In addition many individuals in first world countries are so greedy for resources that the balance of nature is being disrupted.
The book is a parable teaching us lessons about what human activity has done and is doing to the world. In the story, the King of Shadows hungers for immortality. Ged calls the King of Shadows, “The Anti-King.” Arren asks, “Kings have servants, soldiers, messengers and lieutenants, where are these people?” Ged replies, ”These people are in our minds, there is a traitor soul inside of us.” The message Ursula Le Guin gives us is that we all have the potential for evil inside of us and must learn to block it, to not go in the direction of evil.
Ged and Arren arrive in the land of the dead after following the King of Shadows. The land of the dead is a wasteland. There is no life in plants or animals. There is no emotion.
We can make connections between this part of the story and the aftermath of a nuclear war; a dead wasteland filled with lethal amounts of radiation, with no life.
At the end of the third book Ged successfully restores the natural balance of the world. He does this by closing the door to immortality. This takes great effort and all the power he has. He has no magic left.
As in the story, human activity has disrupted the natural order of things on planet Earth. But unlike the story we still have not found a way to stop global warming.
Gender equality is the central issue in the fourth book.
The natural balance has been restored and there is peace throughout the world. Ged’s old master, Ogion sends for Tenar, (the priestess from the labyrinth in Book 2). Ogion is dying. He calls Tenar to be by his side. He needs to give someone his mantle of power and chooses her. He does this because he trusts her and because she is like a daughter to him. He tells her his true name, ‘Aihal’.
After Aihal dies two wizards come to take his mantle of power. The wizards both say the mantle is rightfully theirs. Tenar tells them that Aihal gave her the mantle but the wizards don’t listen. They treat her with contempt. To them she is but a mere woman. The wizard of Re Albi says, “Take care, woman, how you speak to men with power.”
Gender equality is an ongoing issue in the modern world. Some men still think that they have more rights and power than women.
In Book 1 Ged is scarred for life when the monster he releases attacks him. In Book 4, Tenar adopts a little girl Therru, after she is nearly incinerated in a camp- fire into which her father had thrown her. Like Ged she is scarred for life.
Ged travels back to Gont on the back of the dragon Kalessin. Ged’s powers had been drained when he closed the portal to immortality. Ged says that he cannot be healed but Tenar argues that with time, he can be healed. Tenar wonders if she made the right decision by saving Therru’s life. Tenar doubts her ability to teach Therru magic. When she asks others with magical powers to teach Therru they refuse because they are afraid of her true power.
As the fourth book continues, Therru begins to recover from her mental scars. She begins to understand life, to have fun, and to run around like other children. She recognises that she is like Ged; they are both scarred. Ged was a wizard and Therru has the potential to become one. Therru dreams of flying to Havnor, this infers a connection between Therru and the dragons.
Tenar discusses Therru’s past and future with Lark (the woman who pulled Therru from the fire). She asks, “Why are men so afraid of women?”
When Therru was a child, her father hated her and tried to kill her. Therru’s father oppressed her mother. Therru’s father hated her because he knew that she had power, and that ultimately she would be more powerful than him.
Patriarchy is about men thinking they have more power than women. Women are still discriminated against in modern western economies. They are often paid less for the same job.
Before he dies, Ogion tells Tenar to teach Therru wizardry. As he is dying he says, “The Dragon,” and after a pause, “All changed – Changed, Tenar.” He means that Therru is related to dragons. Ordinary people don’t know the old language but Therru is able to speak it naturally. Therru is destined to become the most powerful mage in the world.
Gender equality was becoming a reality. The fourth book ends after Therru calls on Kalessin the dragon to save Ged and Tenar. The ending shows the power of Therru. She is destined to become the new Archmage.
By Matthew C