Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 861

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...

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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 difference between magic that creates illusion and magic that effects permanent transformation. The consequences of every change that is made as a result of a magical transformation must be considered before the spell is cast. Changes cannot always be undone, and they often bring with them unwanted side effects. While the shadow exists in Earthsea, the world is unbalanced, and it is necessary for Ged to resolve this situation. Ged’s quests, first to the Tombs of Atuan to retrieve the piece of the Ring of Erreth-Akbe and later, with Arren, to restore magic to Earthsea, are both driven by the need to keep the world in balance.

Le Guin’s own interest in anthropology (her father was the anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber, best known for his work with Ishi, the “last” Yahi Indian) is demonstrated in the diversity of societies she creates within her work, and in her detailed portrayal of everyday life. One of the most striking aspects of the Earthsea Trilogy is that the majority of the characters are persons of color. Ged is reddish-brown in coloring, and Vetch is black. Only the barbaric peoples of the Kargish islands are white-skinned. Le Guin was one of the first fantasy writers to address issues of ethnicity in this fashion.

Similarly, Le Guin’s interests in Taoism and ethnography are expressed in her explorations of different cultures and belief systems: The Farthest Shore can, for example, be read as a critique of the effects of Christianity introduced into a world with a very different understanding of the relationship between life and death. Similarly, in The Tombs of Atuan, the struggle between Arha and Kossil can be read on a personal level and on a spiritual level, as a polytheistic and a monotheistic religious system vie for a spiritual supremacy that cannot and, indeed, should not be achieved.

Le Guin has been criticized for her portrayal of women in the Earthsea Trilogy. The Wizards’ School on Roke is an entirely male preserve, and while women are shown to perform magic, their lack of formal training implies that their magic is of lesser importance, often weaker, and often inimical to maintaining the balance. Women occupy limited roles as homemakers or as duplicitous creatures who seek to undermine men and gain power. Even Arha, as priestess, finds her role circumscribed by a male-dominated religion against which she is seemingly powerless. Le Guin has acknowledged this criticism and has sought to redress the balance in her later novels set in Earthsea, Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea (1990) and The Other Wind (2001), which give more agency to women, in particular, following Tenar in her subsequent life and relationship with Ged. Le Guin’s book of short stories set in Earthsea, Tales from Earthsea (2001), delves into the history of magic and of Roke, and it explains how women came to be relegated to the place they occupy in Archipelagan society at the time portrayed in the trilogy.

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