Themes and Characters

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 793

Young Prince Arren takes his first steps out of childhood when he begins to love the wizard Ged. At that point he gives himself to adult concerns: love, honor, wisdom, and danger. He also gives himself to a quest—to accompany Ged in redeeming a decaying world. From that moment, Arren begins to grow into the prince who can fulfill the prophecy that he will be the first king in eight hundred years to rule all of Earthsea in peace. The prophecy states that the next such king must "cross the dark land living and come to the far shores of the day." This means he must pass through the dry land of the dead, crossing the wall of stone that leads into it, and then the mountains of pain that lead out. Traditionally, only a mage can get to this place and return, because traveling there is a matter of spiritual as well as physical movement. In fact, it is never perfectly clear whether this "place" has an actual physical existence. Though crossing this landscape suggests many meanings, one of the most important for Arren is the need to face and overcome the despair of realizing that he will die.

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In his journey through this dark land Arren learns the powers and limitations of magic, about when to act and when to contemplate, and about his own strengths and weaknesses. One of the most important lessons concerns the nature of evil. In various ways Ged teaches him that evil is a web that people weave by their choices and actions.

The world view that pervades Le Guin's work—a blend of Jungian psychology and Taoism—is evident in her earliest published fiction. In her essays, most notably 'The Child and the Shadow," Le Guin discusses the influence of Carl Jung's psychological theories on her own thought. Literary critics have detailed her use of Taoism, especially the Tao Te Ching, which contains the teachings attributed to Lao Tzu, an ancient Chinese philosopher. She discusses this aspect of her philosophy in her essay "Dreams Must Explain Themselves." Although these ideas often underlie her stories, they are rarely obtrusive. Readers can enjoy Le Guin's works purely as fantastic entertainment. The intellectual underpinning, however, enables her works to achieve a psychological and philosophical depth not often encountered in the genre.

In the Taoist world of Earthsea, evil is not part of creation. The world is in a balance between making and unmaking, between being and nonbeing. Evil flows only from human actions that subvert this balance. Humanity's function is to preserve the balance by creating the order and beauty within which people can live reasonably happy lives and fulfill their natural destinies. When any individual attempts to serve himself or herself by serving nonbeing, then evil results.

This view of evil becomes especially important when Arren, in his dreams, begins to succumb to the magician Cob's promise of immortality. Tempted by Cob's offer, Arren despairs over his own coming death. But deep down he realizes that the promise is empty. To gain immortality he would have to surrender himself. Arren would have to give up his secret name, the name of his essential identity, in order to claim immortality. He would cease to be an individual.

Ged teaches that it is natural for people to desire immortality. Humanity is on the side of being and opposed to nonbeing, so why should people gladly embrace death? In fact, only those who have succumbed to Cob's offer willfully seek to die. Ged teaches that human happiness and meaning arise from serving being. He teaches, furthermore, that death contributes to the meaning of life, for life's shortness binds humanity together in the effort to create order and beauty.

Ged, Arren, and Cob are the main characters. At the height of his powers, Ged functions as a wise teacher and as a powerful magician. Arren's encounter with Cob will be the crucial test by which he may become king over Earthsea. Free of the ultimate fear of death and of an uncontrolled desire for immortality, Arren will be able to rule without becoming corrupted by his power. He will not be tempted to use his great authority to serve himself.

Arren, as a young man learning to be a king, is like most young heroes in fantasy adventure. He differs mainly in his thoughtfulness. Loving Ged is enough to make him heroic, but he must also learn the consequences of evil acts and defeat his fear of death. Both are necessary to complete his self-understanding.

As the force of evil, Cob is fully represented in the idea of a wizard who is overwhelmed by the fear of death. The implications of his choice wholly define his personality and his actions.

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