Let Us Speak of Magic: Part the Sixth

In which the author speaks of pride, shadows, and fear in A Wizard of Earthsea, as we seek to understand the magic of True Names in fantasy literature.

Sea at Night 1861 by Ivan Aivazovsky
Sea at Night by Ivan Aivazovsky, 1861 (On such a night, did a young man rend the fabric of the world?)

Let Us Speak of Magic: Part the Sixth

Dear Reader,

Today we move into the second part of our discussion of the Magic of True Names in Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, itself a part of our ongoing conversation about magic in Fantasy Literature.

Thus far we have spoken much of the joys of Ged’s journey, from his boyhood on to his time on Roke Island where he learned the art of magic. We have learned that true names have to do with the essential being of a thing or person, touched on the limits of magery, and glimpsed something of what the Wizards of Roke call Equilibrium.

But we have not spoken of what took Ged to Roke Island, leaving the side of the mage Ogion, who first named him and began to teach him wisdom.

Nor did we speak of Ged’s pride, folly, and fear. But we must do so if we are to understand the deepest meaning of True Names in Earthsea.

The Dark Reaches Out

Ged wondered…what was the good of having power if you were too wise to use it.

Le Guin weaves the threads of pride and shadow together from Ged's time with Ogion through his early days as a student on the Isle of Roke at Wizard School. In each place, Ged is tempted to pride and specifically taunted to raise a spirit from the dead (a very concerning coincidence).

In the first instance, his pride is provoked by an unnamed young girl:

“What do you call that kind of charm, that made the falcon come?”
“A spell of Summoning.”
“Can you call the spirits of the dead to come to you, too?”
He thought she was mocking him with this question, because the falcon had not fully obeyed his summons. He would not let her mock him. “I might if I chose,” he said in a calm voice.

This taunting drives Ged to seek out Ogion’s spellbooks in secret. From his reading alone he manifests a deep, cold darkness and a whispering shadow. Thankfully, Ogion arrives to drive the thing off without any lasting consequence. He also issues this stern (and very important warning):

“You will never work that spell but in peril of your power and your life.”

(Your power. Your life. Only in peril. That sounds dire enough.) But that moment leads to Ged choosing to leave Ogion’s side and go to Roke Island, where he will find a quicker road to knowledge and power.

In the second instance where pride and shadow are woven together, Ged is taunted by a rival on Roke to prove his power. Ged takes up the challenge:

“What would you like me to do, Jasper?”
The older lad shrugged, “Summon up a spirit from the dead, for all I care!”
“I will.”
“You will not.” Jasper looked straight at him, rage suddenly flaming out over his disdain. “You will not. You cannot. You brag and brag—”
“By my name, I will do it!”

(That last bit sounds a little troubling, don’t you agree?)

The Rending of the World

With the challenge set, the boys head with their witnesses to Roke Knoll, a place of great power. There Ged’s inner thoughts rise to hubristic heights that would make Anakin Skywalker blush – even in the moment right before Obi-Wan severed his legs:

He no longer cared about Jasper. Now that they stood on Roke Knoll, hate and rage were gone, replaced by utter certainty. He need envy no one. He knew that his power, this night, on this dark enchanted ground, was greater than it had ever been, filling him till he trembled with the sense of strength barely kept in check. He knew now that Jasper was far beneath him, had been sent perhaps only to bring him here tonight, no rival but a mere servant of Ged’s destiny. Under his feet he felt the hillroots going down and down into the dark, and over his head he saw the dry, far fires of the stars. Between, all things were his to order, to command. He stood at the center of the world.

Mere servant of your Destiny. All things yours to order, to command. Center of the world. These are not the thoughts to be having when contemplating a deed of power – which you vowed to complete by your own name. And so Ged works the spell that Ogion warned him against.

Horror ensues:

Then the sallow oval between Ged’s arms grew bright. It widened and spread, a rent in the darkness of the earth and night, a ripping open of the fabric of the world.

That’s real, real bad.

Through it blazed a terrible brightness. And through that bright misshapen breach clambered something like a clot of black shadow, quick and hideous, and it leaped straight out at Ged’s face.

The shadow-beast, which Ged is powerless to resist, tears into him, but is driven away when Archmage Nemmerle arrives. Yet so great is the trial that the Archmage dies afterward – and the shadow remains in the world.

The Nameless Fear

After Ged recovers from the harrowing encounter he gets a stern rebuke from the new Archmage Geshner:

“You have great power inborn in you, and you used that power wrongly, to work a spell over which you had no control, not knowing how that spell affects the balance of light and dark, life and death, good and evil. And you were moved to do this by pride and by hate. Is it any wonder the result was ruin? You summoned a spirit from the dead, but with it came one of the Powers of unlife. Uncalled it came from a place where there are no names. Evil, it wills to work evil through you. The power you had to call it gives it power over you: you are connected. It is the shadow of your arrogance, the shadow of your ignorance, the shadow you cast. Has a shadow a name?”

In our previous letter on this matter, we spoke of Equilibrium, the Balance and the Pattern. Here that concept comes starkly into view. Ged, lacking wisdom, misused his power and so upset the Balance. But worse than that: his motivations (pride and hate) corrupted his own magic toward ruin, bringing forth a Power of unlife (that’s right, capital P power, no lowercase dangers here).

This then is the riddle of the shadow: It is a creature from a realm with no names. And being without a name, Ged can work no great magic upon it. (Yet it is also the shadow of his arrogance and ignorance – the shadow Ged casts.)

And so, chastened by the cost of his hateful pride and wracked by fear, Ged completes his training. After which he is faced with a decision: Remain on Roke Island and be safe behind the wards of the school or go forth into the world, knowing that the nameless shadow will come for him.

The Flight of the Sparrowhawk

Ged goes forth into the world doing great deeds without pride, until word of the possibility of hope against the shadow brings him on a journey to a strange isle.

Along the way, he is nearly overcome by the shadow, which ambushes him and reveals a terrible power:

Before Ged could speak spell or summon power, the gebbeth spoke, saying in its hoarse voice, “Ged!” Then the young man could work no transformation, but was locked in his true being, and must face the gebbeth thus defenseless.

The shadow knows his true name.

Desperate, Ged wields his staff against the creature, but when force fails, he can do nothing but run. It is likely he would have perished on the island, if he had not reached his intended destination before passing out. When he awakes, he finds himself in a tower where he meets a familiar face – the unnamed young girl from his youth, who first tempted him to summon up a spirit of the dead. She has become a young woman, and her use-name is Serret.

She once again tempts him, this time with the power (an Old Power) that dwells trapped at the base of the tower. A dark power that offers him victory over the shadow:

“Only shadow can fight shadow. Only darkness can defeat the dark. Listen, Sparrowhawk! what do you need, then, to defeat that shadow, which waits for you outside these walls?”

But Ged is not persuaded:

“It is light that defeats the dark,” he said stammering,—“light.”

Having rejected the offer of the dark power of the tower, Ged is forced to flee. And in so doing takes on the form of a hawk and flies – back to Ogion.

Here we learn one more piece of magic/true name lore, before we move into the final act of the novel. It turns out that those who remain too long in animal form (as Ged does in his flight) risk losing themselves forever in the beast:

As a boy, Ogion like all boys had thought it would be a very pleasant game to take by art-magic whatever shape one liked, man or beast, tree or cloud, and so to play at a thousand beings. But as a wizard he had learned the price of the game, which is the peril of losing one’s self, playing away the truth.

And so, having begun this letter with Ogion saving Ged, we end it with the same. We also learn that Ogion himself learned the price of lacking wisdom in wielding power as a younger mage. Perhaps Ged's former master can help him with his greater difficulties as well?

Yet, for now, we will let the matter lie. Dear Reader. In our study of the lore of True Names we have spoken much of pride and nameless shadows and fear, but the higher mysteries yet remain. And they are not so quickly summed up here – one final letter remains.

Until next week.

Best regards,


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