(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

The basic framework of Earthsea is the pattern of the initiation story. In such stories, a naïve and innocent young person acquires knowledge and experience. The pattern is familiar in high fantasy, a subgenre explicitly about magical powers and their harms and benefits. In this case, the young protagonist discovers knowledge about such magical powers and inevitably confronts some conflict about the mastery of the powers. Tempted to turn them to mere personal gain, the protagonist is caught between that desire and the urgent needs of others. A second constituent element of fantasy literature, the quest, operates powerfully in the trilogy and provides the high adventure of the plot. In addition, as in many works of fantasy, the quest parallels the protagonists discovery of a hidden self.

Within this traditional framework, Ursula K. Le Guin exercises her own kind of literary magic. She is influenced by the teachings of the Tao-te Ching ( Classic of the Way and Its Virtue), supposedly created by the sixth century b.c.e. Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu. Le Guin has orchestrated classical elements of Taoism, and its later developments with Buddhism beginning in the third century c.e., into her novels. Fundamental Taoist points influencing the development of the plots include the belief that life consists of a balance and that every human action affects that balance, the belief that through “weakness or service to others lies ones strength,” and the belief that bureaucratic or political power threatens the balance.

The idea of balance is key, particularly as fundamental Taoism affected the religion of Buddhism and acquired wide popular appeal. Balance harmonizes conflicting tensions. Every darkness contains a bit of light, every sorrow a bit of joy, and so forth. One must live life so as to provide an equilibrium between the tensions.

In Earthsea, that balance is terribly distorted...

(The entire section is 818 words.)