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Tuesday, 24 April 2012

U is for Ursula Le Guin

Earthsea is a fictional realm originally created by Ursula K. Le Guin for her short story ' The Word of Unbinding', published in 1964. Earthsea became the setting for a further six books, beginning with A Wizard of Earthsea,  first published in 1968. All are set in the world of Earthsea, as are (to date) seven short stories by Le Guin, two of which are not collected in any of these books.

Magic is a central part of life in most of Earthsea, with the exception of the Kargish lands, where it is banned. There are weather workers on ships, fixers who repair boats and buildings, entertainers, and court sorcerers. Magic is an inborn talent which can be developed with training. The most gifted are sent to the school on Roke, where, if their skill and their discipline prove sufficient, they can become staff-carrying wizards. 
A strong theme of the stories is the connection between power and responsibility. There is often a Taoist message: "good" wizardry tries to be in harmony with the world, while "bad" wizardry, such as necromancy, can lead to an upsetting of the "balance" and threaten catastrophe. While the dragons are more powerful, they act instinctively to preserve the balance. Only humans pose a threat to it. In The Farthest Shore, Cob seeks immortality regardless of the consequences and opens a breach between life and death which endangers the living.
Magic on Earthsea is primarily verbal. Everything has a true name in the Old Speech, the language of the dragons. One who knows the true name of an object has power over it. Each person also has a true name, and which is revealed only to those who are trusted implicitly. A "use" name, which has no magical property, suffices for everyday purposes. For example, the wizard whose true name is Ged is known by the use name Sparrowhawk.
One vital aspect of magic is that it is impossible for humans to lie in the old language, so that magic works by forcing the universe to conform to the words spoken by the magician. For example, to say "I am an eagle" in the old language means that the speaker becomes an eagle, so that the statement is no longer false. Only the powerful are able to say such lines in the Old Speech and force these transformations.The cultures of Earthsea do not directly resemble those of our world, except insofar as there are general resemblances to any literate non-industrial civilization. Technologically, Earthsea appears to be comparable to an early iron age society, with bronze used in places where iron is scarce. Ged's father is a bronze-smith. Weapons also include the use of wood and other hard but easily crafted metals.
Individual cultural elements in Earthsea can be compared with Earth cultures, without complete identification. Like the peoples of the Pacific islands or the Mediterranean basin, they have a way of life based on contact with the sea. However, on many of the larger islands like Havnor, Semel, and Way, people can live a totally inland life. The areas of earth most closely resembling the world of Earthsea are the Indonesian and Phillippine archipelagos, although Earthsea is nowhere near a large continent. The largest island, Havnor, at approximately 380 miles across is about the size of Great Britain. 


Theresa Milstein said...

I didn't know about Ursula's books until now. Thanks for the post.

Carole Anne Carr said...

Hope you enjoy them, they are very popular, Theresa.

Susan Kane said...

Great author. We have enjoyed the Earthsea books.

Heather Murphy said...

You are opening my eyes to all kinds of new literature. I must get reading!

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