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 when the naïve young Ged first exercises his magical power as an act of proud competition on the island of Roke. He violates orders and therefore violates harmony. He unleashes the shadow of disorder into Earthsea. Ged must come face to face with the shadow that lies within himself, the pride-humility, love-hatred dialectics in his own nature.
As he moves from naïveté to growing awareness of his magical gifts, Ged begins to comprehend the challenge to those gifts. As is so often the pattern in fantasy, he is abetted by the appearance of a special helper, in this case the Mage Ogion, who tutors Ged in the nature of the powers that constitute the balance. At his earliest stage, Ged hungers for power. Gradually, he comes to understand The Powers for their sake and for that of others. His unleashing of the shadow shapes the transition in this realization.
During his advanced training at Roke, Ged quickly outstrips even his masters in knowledge of magical power. One challenge remains: mastery of The Powers to restore harmony. As he restores harmony in the lives of others whom he has threatened by unleashing the shadow, he discovers that by serving others he restores himself. This is the discovery in The Tombs of Atuan.
In her illustration of discovery of a true self, Le Guin orchestrates another interesting variation on a traditional fantasy pattern. In the Western literary tradition, the task of the classical hero is twofold: to defeat some threat to the people and to lead the people into a perception of restorative order. To achieve these ends, the classical hero is divinely gifted, sometimes considered, in fact, part human and part god. With these gifts, the classical hero acts for the people, frequently in a superhuman way.
The fantasy hero lies in this tradition, but with a difference. The fantasy hero has no pretensions to superhuman status; the heros origins often are common, even lowly. Fantasy heroes often take on their quests with fear and quite often with a desperate loneliness. The heart of modern fantasy is the premise of a very ordinary character being tested beyond expectation or human hope for success. This hero, although often provided with supernatural helpers, ultimately must rely on little more than human intelligence and determination. The quest to aid others ultimately is a test of the heros own nature and sufficiency.
The Farthest Shore brings the Archmage Ged to the final step in his quest for harmony. That step is not completed through knowledge, concern for others, or an apprehension of universal order in balance; it is completed in action that leads to internal restoration of balance. The final quest leads to Ged’s confrontation with the shadow, which ultimately is his final reconciliation with his own nature and the subduing of his errors of pride. Geds friend Esstarriol observes that Ged made himself whole. Knowing his true self, Ged cannot be used or possessed by any power other than himself, “never in the service of ruin, or pain, or hatred, or the dark.”
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