It is only a slight exaggeration to say that rereading Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogies saved my household, or at least kept me out of the hospital. Last year and earlier this year our family, like so many other families, felt fragile: we struggled against mental health problems that kept some of us in bed. I kept trying more and more life hacks, tactics, rewards and incentives and schedules and projects, in the hopes that we could all get motivated, perk up and turn things around. The harder I tried, the harder things got. I wanted to do something, anything, almost. But what?
Enter—among other sources of help—Le Guin’s Earthsea, whose characters have to learn patience, and must learn to let go of large goals, doing only what other people’s natures, and needs, and interdependence, require. Enter the characters who have to learn to do nothing, or to listen before they speak. Enter what John Plotz, a professor of English at Brandeis University, calls Le Guin’s “skepticism about the virtues of action” (p. 34), the way that she recommends patience instead. It’s a recommendation that Plotz’s concise, thoughtful monograph on Le Guin, intended for non-academic readers, pursues.
People like Plotz and like me (we’re both from DC, we’re almost the same age, we even attended the same private schools) grew up being told to do something, anything, either to get material rewards, or to develop our innate potential, or to help others. “I was brought up,” Plotz writes, ”always to be doing” (p. 98). It’s the gospel of Max Weber’s Protestant ethic, striving for secular salvation, and of H. W. Longfellow’s once-popular quatrains: “Act in the living present … Let us, then, be up and doing!” The more we did, the more recognition we got, the more power we might have to do something else, the more difference we could make: and of course we should want to make a difference, which might mean gathering power first.
For Le Guin that’s backwards, and dangerous, and wrong. Sometimes—if your house is on fire, or if dragons attack the poor isle of Pendor—someone needs to act. Sometimes—as in the story that shapes the final Earthsea book, The Other Wind (2001)—someone needs to listen to the dragons and learn what they need before taking action. And sometimes—often—we need a “distrust of action” (p. 95), an “appreciation for inaction” [p. 60]), lest we act rashly and make things worse. Sometimes we must—as Longfellow also cautioned—“learn to labor and to wait.” And sometimes the best thing to do with power is to give it up, like Ged at the end of The Farthest Shore (1972): he is “done with doing” (p. 250).
Such voluntary withdrawal would read, in another author, as a sign of depression, or as a penance for prior arrogance. So it can be in Le Guin: see “On the High Marsh” in Tales from Earthsea (2001). For her, though, it is always also something more. The silence that precedes the word, the “empty sky” in which the hawk takes flight—the topics of the verse that opens the whole Earthsea cycle—are the spaces that wise human beings require. They are the way to step back, show respect, leave well enough alone.
It is Le Guin’s distinction to have made these counsels of wise passiveness—derived, in part, from the Tao Te Ching, which she has translated—not just into prose worth reading, but into adventure stories in fantasy worlds, with enough going on to fascinate children, as well as to change—and heal—the minds of adults. Rereading the first Earthsea trilogy (A Wizard of Earthsea , The Tombs of Atuan , and The Farthest Shore) brought home for me how much I might learn, how much my loved ones might gain, if I were to take deep breaths, look around, and just wait for them to show, or decide, what to want. Rereading also brought home how far from most fantasy writers Le Guin’s Earthsea remains: not just in its caution against seeking power (which it shares with, among others, The Lord of the Rings ) but in its clear, patient prose, its cautions against worldly power, its love for calm, open space, sky and sea, untilled land.
Leaving blank spaces for readers to see how well, and how often, we fill things in, Le Guin’s prose is (Plotz writes) “the antithesis of the well-rendered verisimilitude of a high-end video game” (p. 48). Those games show us everything, asking us to experience their worlds as temporarily real, as what Tolkien called subcreation. Le Guin instead invites us in and holds us back, reminds us that we are reading (or hearing) a story, making us co-creators, collaborators, listeners, as if to an oral tale. Le Guin’s parents were notable anthropologists; her background in anthropology, and her suspicion of writing as such, both matter in Earthsea, as Plotz notes. He might have made more of orality and literacy, of the suspicion of writing expressed by the Kargs of eastern Earthsea, and of the dangers—the false immortality—promised when speakers of the novels’ common tongue, Hardic, write things down. Readers of Sofia Samatar’s magisterial A Stranger in Olondria (2013) might be especially quick to find these lessons, and these cautions, in Le Guin’s earlier work.
As you might expect from an English professor trained (as I was) on canonical texts, Plotz finds parallels not so much between Le Guin and her successors as between Le Guin and authors long dead. Her clear, spare prose reminds Plotz (with reason, and I agree!) of Willa Cather’s. Le Guin’s plots and ethics—especially in A Wizard of Earthsea, The Other Wind, "The Bones of the Earth” (also found, as are all the other short stories mentioned in this review, in Tales from Earthsea), and “On the High Marsh"—remind me as well of John Milton’s Paradise Regained (1671), in which Satan tempts Jesus again and again to rash choices, to power and knowledge and forceful action, and Jesus says no, and stands, and listens, and waits.
Right-choosing, for Milton as for Ursula K. Le Guin, means seeing through lies, and refusing the promise of power over others, who should be free to make choices, too. And while they wait, and observe, and listen, Le Guin’s heroes discover (in Plotz’s words) that “what had seemed to be a natural law was only a manmade one” (p. 16). The priestess Tenar learns in The Tombs of Atuan that her priestly role is not all she has: she can leave it behind, and run off with the first novel’s protagonist, Ged. Similarly, “Dragonfly” shows the mages of Roke that wizardly celibacy, and the exclusion of women from Roke, are choices, too. Rules about cattle ("On the High Marsh"), rules about slaves ("The Finder"), rules about where people are able to live (the raft people chapter from The Farthest Shore): all turn out to be subject to change.
Le Guin, Plotz says, “trains a spotlight on all the things that we make up, and then treat as if they were real as rocks” (p. 34). She does so at the level of the sentence in the first Earthsea trilogy, letting us fill in the details of her strongly outlined world, where “magic consists in the true naming of a thing” (p. 54) and only the Namer Kurremkarmerruk knows all the names. Then, in the second Earthsea trilogy, she takes apart our expectations again: so many of the things we took for granted about Earthsea turn out to be temporary, or alterable, or never were as they seemed. Some people can turn into dragons; some dragons had been people all along. And the roles of women—surprisingly (by contemporary standards) subordinate or oppressed throughout the first trilogy (which barely even passes the Bechdel test!)—expand throughout the second trilogy until the Hardic-speaking world, at the least, can see them as equal to men.
That is not to say that by the end of the second trilogy Le Guin’s characters have everything figured out. Indeed, they never can have everything figured out, or written down, or known. The search for permanence and certainty, for a “bodiless, immortal self” (The Other Wind, p. 242) unites Le Guin’s villains, Cob and Thorion, who want to bring even death under human rule. The search for a fitting story, one that neither exalts nor destroys, unites her heroes—Ged, Tenar, Tehanu, Irian, Alder—who for their part feel compelled to travel, to heal wounds they made, to learn what they must do before they go home.
The Earthsea trilogies, Plotz shows, both enchant and disenchant. They ask us to stand still and listen, to doubt ourselves, to pierce heretofore durable masks. But they also ask how it feels to believe. Indeed, they encourage us to half-believe: to see how much about our lives, and about the lives of the characters, could change. “Things change,” Le Guin wrote in the foreword to Tales from Earthsea, "authors and wizards are not always to be trusted,” and “nobody can explain a dragon” (p. xvi). Life lived rightly—as Ged chose to live it after the initial mistake that creates the plot for A Wizard of Earthsea—means listening for dragons and knowing that not everything gets explained.
Which is to say that Le Guin’s Earthsea uses a magic system that requires neither faith, nor uncritical belief, nor the subordination of one human being to another. Magic users instead—if they want to learn to be wizards—subordinate themselves to the Immanent Grove, and the True Names of things, and (in Le Guin’s Taoist terms) to the Way. “Magic is not understood principally as a tool of domination” in these books, explains Plotz, “even though it may be used to dominate” (p. 41). Magic is not a form of control, but a way to take part in Making, to participate in what is and what can be.
And that truth means the magic of the Earthsea books is neither faith, nor religion. It cannot pass out of the world as it does in the elegiac conclusion to Tolkien’s trilogy. Magic has stronger roots than that. Near the end of The Other Wind, one wizard asks another if the final departure of dragons from humankind means that magic itself will dissipate. Another wizard answers that it will not: “We learned the Making. We made it ours. It can’t be taken from us. To lose it we must forget it, throw it away” (The Other Wind, p. 248).
Magic, and Making, here mean not belief or faith or ritual but creation through language, which comes in different ways to different personalities and different lands. The Hardic-speaking people of the Inner Isles read, and write, and use magic. Their erstwhile rivals the Karg have oral tradition, neither mages nor magic nor script. No reader would choose to live in the tyrannical Kargish lands over Havnor Great Port, or musical Taon, or pastoral Gont; and yet the Kargs retain some knowledge of nature, some humility before natural impermanence, that the people who learned to use writing and magic forgot. We can—The Other Wind says—bring both forms of knowledge together: we can learn to listen to nature, and to people, even to people unlike us, because we “chose to choose what to do” (p. 56). (Again, Le Guin echoes not Cather but Milton.)
Plotz may try too hard to set Le Guin’s ethics apart from Tolkien’s, although he is certainly right to distinguish the prose in Earthsea from the no-detail-left-unturned, purposefully-slow-moving Lord of the Rings. He emphasizes “Le Guin’s resistance to the virtues of action and to pride in accomplishment” (p. 54), along with her way of expanding frames, revising old pictures, opening up the doors and windows in what we once thought were walls. And he defends—if it still needs defending—the genre in which the Earthsea trilogies move, the genre now called fantasy, and the subgenre of fantasy written both for and about the young. (Was Le Guin really the first to come up with “schools for wizards” [p. 15]? Plotz thinks so, though TV Tropes thinks otherwise, with pre-Earthsea examples from Eleanor Estes and T. H. White).
Samuel Johnson quipped that while Paradise Lost (1667, another book about right-choosing) was certainly great, nobody ever wished it were longer. I wish The Other Wind, and Tales from Earthsea, could have been longer, and I wish that for Plotz’s short book too—if only for the niches and cul-de-sacs he might have explored given greater length. Plotz thinks Le Guin loves goats, symbols of “the earth’s earthiness” (p. 50); I wonder whether he’s discounting the ferret-like otak (A Wizard of Earthsea), the healing power of placid cattle ("On the High Marsh"), and the life-saving, sleep-guarding domestic cat (The Other Wind). He discusses his own education as a scholar of Victorian realism, and the demands of real-life education in schools: I wonder what he makes of the curriculum, and the school governance, on Roke, which also changes in The Other Wind?
I could go on: the books invite us to go on, because they point so calmly and so insistently at what we do not know. Irian in “Dragonfly” learns that the name she knows for herself may hide another: “I don’t know it, sir … Maybe I can learn it here” (p. 279). Things already named may have other purposes, and other names, not yet known. That’s part of Le Guin’s point, and Plotz’s too. And his other points remain. The first Earthsea trilogy stands at or near the origin of much modern fantasy, after Tolkien and before the deluge, even though that trilogy stands against the heroic, individualistic ethos that later fantasy for young people can encourage. And the second, less influential, trilogy does well to revise the first. From the first map to the final return to Gont, from the founding of Roke to its remaking as a place open to all genders and to the Old Powers it once denied, Earthsea asks us to listen, never to mistake the literal map (all the books start with maps) for the territory, never to believe that what we know is all there is. More stories may come to us later: there’s no hurry. We can wait. And that waiting is part of Le Guin’s story too.