Let Us Speak of Magic: Part the Seventh

In which the author unfolds the higher mysteries of A Wizard of Earthsea so as to more fully understand the magic of True Names in fantasy literature.

Storm by Ivan Aivazovsky, 1861
Storm by Ivan Aivazovsky, 1861 (Have these travelers come to the shore of Death's Kingdom?)

Let Us Speak of Magic: Part the Seventh

Dear Reader,

Here at last we carry our investigation of True Names in A Wizard of Earthsea to its higher mysteries. Thus far we have walked with Ged learning much of magic and the perils that it holds for those who wield their power unwisely.

Last week, we witnessed as Ged tore the very fabric of the world in his hateful pride to summon up a spirit of the dead – only to have a shadow-beast come through instead that sought to possess him. Since then, he has hidden or fled, haunted even in his dreams, desperate to find some way to resist the creature who knows his true name.

And so, after much fearful flight (and deeds of power) Ged has come nearly full circle – back to his first master, Ogion.

Now we enter in to the climax of our hero’s journey and bring all the threads thus far gathered together. We begin with Ged’s fearful complaint (given substance by the lore he received from the Archmage Geshner) and Ogion’s answer:

“The evil thing, the shadow that hunts me, has no name.”
All things have a name,” said Ogion.

So one of the great wizards must be wrong. I wonder who it will turn out to be?

The Hunted Turns

But what to do? Ged doesn't have the creature’s name and it has his, what hope does he have against its power? He cannot fight, but can he flee? Is there anywhere to go?

Hear now the wisdom of Ogion:

“There is no safe place,” Ogion said gently. “Do not transform yourself again, Ged. The shadow seeks to destroy your true being. It nearly did so, driving you into hawk’s being. No, where you should go, I do not know. Yet I have an idea of what you should do. It is a hard thing to say to you.”
Ged’s silence demanded truth, and Ogion said at last, “You must turn around.”
“Turn around?”
“If you go ahead, if you keep running, wherever you run you will meet danger and evil, for it drives you, it chooses the way you go. You must choose.”

Choose to seek the shadow? This seems rather foolish considering the previous encounters that Ged has had with the Gebbeth. What is Ogion’s reasoning? Well, he recalls the Naming of Ged, the bestowing of the sign of his truest self:

“At the spring of the River Ar I named you,” the mage said, “a stream that falls from the mountain to the sea. A man would know the end he goes to, but he cannot know it if he does not turn, and return to his beginning, and hold that beginning in his being. If he would not be a stick whirled and whelmed in the stream, he must be the stream itself, all of it, from its spring to its sinking in the sea. You returned to Gont, you returned to me, Ged. Now turn clear round, and seek the very source, and that which lies before the source. There lies your hope of strength.”
“There, Master?” Ged said with terror in his voice—“Where?”
Ogion did not answer.

(Yes, Ogion has that Socratic method thing working for him.) Convinced by his former master that he must face the evil that he has unleashed, Ged turns and seeks out his enemy, taking to the sea to meet it on open water.

On the sea he wished to meet it, if meet it he must. He was not sure why this was, yet he had a terror of meeting the thing again on dry land. Out of the sea there rise storms and monsters, but no evil powers: evil is of earth. And there is no sea, no running of river or spring, in the dark land where once Ged had gone. Death is the dry place.

(An interesting bit of lore there about the difference between land and sea.)

The Third Meeting

There on the choppy waters he sailed, on past the glimpse of land, till at last – sensing its nearness – he called to his enemy:

And all at once he shouted out aloud, “I am here, I Ged the Sparrowhawk, and I summon my shadow!”

And it came, in something of the likeness of a man, a lowering darkness flying through the air but casting no shadow itself. Horror and fear of its touch laid hold of Ged, but he summoned up a magewind and charged at the creature.

Then, to his surprise, the shadow turned and fled.

It was a perilous chase and the creature led him into traps and mischances, being airborne and tireless, whereas Ged was mortal and in a boat, but when it failed to take advantage of Ged’s struggles, the young wizard made a realization:

It had tricked him and fled away at once, not daring now to face him. In this he saw that Ogion had been right: the shadow could not draw on his power, so long as he was turned against it.

Yet, eventually they did come to grips for the third time. It appeared in the boat behind him – and he “lunged to seize and hold the thing which wavered and trembled there within arm’s reach. No wizardry would serve him now, but only his own flesh, his life itself, against the unliving. He spoke no word, but attacked.”

Only to have it disappear. But never again could it escape him fully, for now a bond had been formed. He could follow it anywhere:

[H]e had of his own will turned to the shadow, seeking to hold it with living hands. He had not held it, but he had forged between them a bond, a link that had no breaking-point. There was no need to hunt the thing down, to track it, nor would its flight avail it. Neither could escape. When they had come to the time and place for their last meeting, they would meet.

Ged had spoken his own name, declaring that he was summoning “my shadow.” He had set his life against its unlife – their essential and opposite natures in conflict. The consequence was that a greater link was forged between them.

The Conversation on Iffish

Ged has one last stop before his final confrontation with the shadow. His sailings bring him to the Isle of Iffish, where he meets an old friend from Roke (Vetch) and his family. While staying at their home, there is an important conversation about power and words that provide some final pieces of the puzzle. It begins with a question from Vetch's sister Yarrow, concerning the conjuring of light:

“But I still don’t understand, Sparrowhawk. I have seen my brother, and even his prentice, make light in a dark place only by saying one word: and the light shines, it is bright, not a word but a light you can see your way by!”
“Aye,” Ged answered. “Light is a power. A great power, by which we exist, but which exists beyond our needs, in itself. Sunlight and starlight are time, and time is light. In the sunlight, in the days and years, life is. In a dark place life may call upon the light, naming it. But usually when you see a wizard name or call upon some thing, some object to appear, that is not the same, he calls upon no power greater than himself, and what appears is an illusion only. To summon a thing that is not there at all, to call it by speaking its true name, that is a great mastery, not lightly used.”

Indeed, to summon something by its true name would risk disturbing Equilibrium (ah, there's that term yet again, returning at the close of our conversation). Calling something and having it really appear, that requires its true name. (Fascinating. The shadow seems real enough, really there, and Ged called it…)

So are there other great powers besides light, or is that secret lore? Ged answers:

“It is no secret. All power is one in source and end, I think. Years and distances, stars and candles, water and wind and wizardry, the craft in a man’s hand and the wisdom in a tree’s root: they all arise together. My name, and yours, and the true name of the sun, or a spring of water, or an unborn child, all are syllables of the great word that is very slowly spoken by the shining of the stars. There is no other power. No other name.”

To which the younger brother Murre asks, “What of death?”

And Ged answers:

“For a word to be spoken,” Ged answered slowly, “there must be silence. Before, and after.”

Let’s examine what is said here: There is no other power, no other name than this great word.

So every word, every name, everything that is, can be understood as syllables of that first great word that is still speaking, very slowly. But all of those things have a “silence” before and after, they have a time before they are and a time after they are no more – even the stars. Thus death is the silence after every life.

And, in a more cosmic sense, Ged is saying that the great word creates and sustains a unity of existence, but it is bracketed on either end by silence. The silence before the great word was spoken and the (implied) silence that is to come, after all of existence ends.

Thus we know that there is light and dark. There is life and unlife. There is the great word and the great silence. It sounds like Ged might be getting somewhere with these thoughts, but at this point he grows distressed, saying that he has no right to speak of such things:

“The word that was mine to say I said wrong. It is better that I keep still; I will not speak again. Maybe there is no true power but the dark.”

As Geshner said, Ged upset the Balance. And in his guilt, Ged believes that he has upset Equilibrium with the misspoken word of his life.

So, perhaps the real problem now comes into view. Perhaps the question is not whether light can defeat darkness, or whether life can defeat death. Perhaps it would be more accurate to ask, How shall Equilibrium be restored?

To the Shore of Death’s Kingdom

Ged sets out upon the sea with his friend Vetch, tracking the shadow by his bond. There, out on the wide waters, he has sense of where the final confrontation shall unfold, a vision:

“Not on the sea. Not on the sea but on dry land: what land? Before the springs of the open sea, beyond the sources, behind the gates of daylight—”

On and on they sail, out beyond the known lands, out into the waters of Open Sea where even the fish "do not know their own names and pay no heed to magic.” Here, so far from land, Vetch’s magic grows weak, but not Ged’s:

Still they ran with that ceaseless, light, terrible swiftness over the sea, and Vetch wondered at Ged’s power that could hold so strong a magewind hour after hour, here on the Open Sea where Vetch felt his own power all weakened and astray.

They traveled thus for days until they came to a strange country, a place that Vetch at first thought must be an illusion. A place of terrible silence, the very “coasts of death's kingdom”:

Ged drew the oars up rattling in their locks, and that noise was terrible, for there was no other sound. All sounds of water, wind, wood, sail, were gone, lost in a huge profound silence that might have been unbroken forever.

There at last the shadow and Ged come to meet one another, the shadow in its darkness and Ged bearing his light like a star, and:

In silence, man and shadow met face to face, and stopped. Aloud and clearly, breaking that old silence, Ged spoke the shadow’s name and in the same moment the shadow spoke without lips or tongue, saying the same word: “Ged.” And the two voices were one voice. Ged reached out his hands, dropping his staff, and took hold of his shadow, of the black self that reached out to him. Light and darkness met, and joined, and were one.

Light had not overcome darkness, nor had darkness overcome light – Balance had been restored, for the shadow had always been Ged’s own, and at last he spoke his word rightly.

The Word and the Silence

And [Vetch] began to see the truth, that Ged had neither lost nor won but, naming the shadow of his death with his own name, had made himself whole: a man: who, knowing his whole true self, cannot be used or possessed by any power other than himself, and whose life therefore is lived for life’s sake and never in the service of ruin, or pain, or hatred, or the dark.

It was never about defeating the darkness but knowing his whole, true self – which included facing his own death. Ged had done as Ogion encouraged him, he had gone back to the very source: he had sought out and discovered his truest being, the being whose true name is Ged.

And as understanding comes to Vetch, he moves into song, beginning with the epigraph (that I have not quoted until now) that stands before the first words of the novel from The Creation of Éa:

Only in silence the word, only in dark the light, only in dying life: bright the hawk’s flight on the empty sky.

The story had always been about true names because it had always been about the great word that all other things are the syllables of, for all things have names, even the shadow of a man’s death…

Here we will let the matter lie for now, Dear Reader. We have spoken much of True Names and uncovered many of their mysteries. Before continuing on to Authority in Incantation or Pact in our ongoing conversation on magic in fantasy literature, we will be taking a break (at least one to two weeks) to speak of other matters.

Best regards,


Want more words, Traveller? Come visit my website at bryanerye.com, or take the direct route to the blog.

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Well met, Traveller into Perilous Realms. I am your guide Bryan Rye, Game Master and Author. Stay awhile and let us speak of many things.

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