At the heart of the Earthsea Trilogy is a deep concern with the power of words. The magic practiced by the wizards of Earthsea is predicated on knowing and using the correct words and meanings to create effective spells. This reflects Ursula K. Le Guin’s wider concerns about the craft of writing and the ways in which language is used. When Ged, in childhood, uses the True Speech to call the goats, he gets into trouble in part because he doesn’t understand what he is doing when he says the words, using them indiscriminately. Likewise, when he saves his village through the use of magic, although he is successful it is at great personal cost because he does not fully understand how to use his own power, as he does not yet have all the right words available to him. However, he wins through in part because his motives are pure, in that he seeks to protect his village and his people rather than to gain personal advancement.
This theme points in turn to another significant issue concerning the use of magic. Throughout the trilogy, great emphasis is laid on the fact that “good” magic is not employed for personal gain or self-aggrandizement. While Earthsea’s wizards are generally supported by the communities in which they live, the understanding is that the relationship is mutual. The wizard’s role is to help the community in whatever ways seem appropriate rather than to accrue personal wealth. Wizards are often paid in kind or else work for nothing. When Ged performs the transformation that releases the black shadow into the world, his act is driven by pride and a desire to prove himself better than others rather than to benefit the world. Ged’s subsequent life as a wizard is marked by his need to make redress and destroy the shadow that has come into the world. He has learned compassion, moderation, and humility, key tenets in Taoism, a belief system that Le Guin draws on heavily in constructing her world.
Taoist beliefs are also expressed in the philosophy of balance that shapes Earthsea. The wizard’s role is to maintain that balance, and Le Guin continually emphasizes the...
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