Evil and the Tao of Earthsea
Note: Ursula LeGuin died this year. She was my favorite fantasy writer, if only because she wrote Wizard of Earthsea. I think I’ve written more articles about H.P. Lovecraft, Terry Pratchett, and William Gibson than about her, but that’s partly because when you treasure something, you’re afraid to get it wrong. The only people who are qualified to talk about masterworks are masters, and I’m not one. With that in mind, here’s me talking about Earthsea, balance, and evil. Hope it’s illuminating.
There’s a wonderful passage in Wizard of Earthsea that describes Ged’s first meeting with the Archmage of Roke:
“As their eyes met, a bird sang aloud in the branches of the tree. In that moment, Ged understood the singing of the bird, and the language of the water falling in the basin of the fountain, and the shape of the clouds, and the beginning and the end of the wind that stirred the leaves: it seemed to him that he himself was a word spoken by the sunlight.”
There’s been a decent amount of scholarship examining the influence of Taoism on Earthsea, but before I knew about all of that, the passage above sparked an interesting thought: “If magic is made of words, and everything is a word, then wouldn’t everything be magic?”
In a conversation with his friend’s younger sister, Ged explains the concept of summoning light, which leads to a conversation about magic and the Equilibrium, the balance of the world. The sister is curious about what kind of powers make up magic and asks this:
“Tell me just this, if it is not a secret: what other great powers are there beside the light?”
“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.”
What Ged is describing here is more than just the nature of magic—he’s describing the nature of life, of the universe. All of it is linked, and there is nothing outside of its harmonious unfolding. This is a very Tao-like point of view, and ties into the concept of wu wei, or “action-less action.”
On the most superficial level, Earthsea’s sorcerers don’t cast spells willy-nilly because it will ruin the Equilibrium, which at first seems like a way for LeGuin to create a pseudo-mystical system of checks and balances that keeps mages from resolving every problem with magic. Of course, that’s the wrong way to look at it.
Sorcerers in Earthsea aren’t gods acting upon the world with magic, they’re part of the world they’re changing, and so is magic itself. That means they need to act in accordance with nature and avoid imposing their will on it, because doing so inevitably starts to disrupt order. In fact, you can argue that of all the animals, plants, rocks, oceans, and stars in the universe of Earthsea, humans are the only things capable of acting against the order of nature. No one has to tell a fish to act in harmony with the universe—it does it. Wizards, on the other hand, need to be taught about it.
So instead of trying to bend the world to their will, wise mages know how to align their will with the workings of the world and achieve their goals through patience and wisdom, rather than force. For example, instead of trying to change the wind with magic to sail at a certain time, a wizard like Ged might instead watch the patterns in the weather, wait for the wind to change, then sail with it. Talented mages have the power to change the world, but the best ones rarely need to use magic at all. This is part of wu wei.
We run into a problem, however. If everything is part of the universe, then everything is part of the grand pattern of balance, too, right?
So what about evil?
THE PROBLEM OF EVIL
Fantasy takes a lot of criticism for being dualistic. In Lord of the Rings, it’s the righteous and pretty humans and elves vs. the evil and ugly orcs and goblins. In Wheel of Time, it’s the Shadow vs. the Light. There are plenty of counter-arguments against these characterizations, but the one thing both these series (and a lot of fantasy) have in common is a cosmic evil, and the existence of that evil says something about those universes.
When Eru Iluvatar created Melkor in The Silmarillion, he created him with the potential to become an apocalyptic evil that would ruin Middle-Earth, similar to the Christian god creating the angel that would become Satan. So did Iluvatar intend for the fall of Melkor (and all the resulting chaos and perversion of the Elves) as part of a divine plan, or was it an oversight?
Meanwhile, Shai’tan in The Wheel of Time is actively trying to destroy the Pattern, the metaphysical phenomena that’s supposed to be the embodiment of balance. He represents a force that is apart from balance, beyond it, and his will involves railroading all of creation into an eternal dead end that it cannot recover from. Shai’tan cannot be part of a grand plan, because his explicit goal is to destroy the aforementioned grand plan.
So we’re stuck in a conundrum: either ‘evil’ is a natural part of the grand plan of the universe (as well as all the destruction and pain it causes), it’s a flaw in that grand plan, or it’s an aberration that somehow exists outside of the universe, apart from it, but still has the power to destroy it. In the latter two cases, the universe is similar to a rowboat that was created with a hole in the bottom, which raises some terrifying existential questions all its own: was the universe an arbitrary, flawed construction? Was there any plan to begin with?
The problem of evil applies to universes centered on the concept of cosmic balance (rather than deities) too. Some Star Wars fans love to argue that if the Force really is a balance between the light and dark, then the Jedi aren’t any better or worse than the Sith. If that’s true, then the Star Wars galaxy has to have destruction, greed, and hate in it, along with peace, love, and the profound sense of mercy that represents the sole obstacle to Jar Jar Binks’ immediate and graphic public execution. If it all arises together and complements each other, “heroes” like Luke are misguided—they aren’t actually righteous or heroic, they’re just playing their part in a grand dance between light and dark.
Earthsea seems to be relatively neutral when it comes to ethical judgments and evil overlords, but there is evil. One example is the Old Ones, also known as the Old Powers of the Earth. Here’s how they’re described:
They have no power of making. All their power is to darken and destroy. They cannot leave this place; they are this place; and it should be left to them. They should not be denied or forgotten, but neither should they be worshipped. … And where men worship these things and abase themselves before them, there evil breeds; there places are made in the world where darkness gathers, places given over wholly to the Ones whom we call Nameless, the ancient and holy Powers of the Earth before the Light, the powers of the dark, of ruin, of madness…”
The origin of the Old Ones is never fully explained, but they and the earth may represent the dark yin to the ocean’s positive yang. If we go by their description, they have their place in this world, too, but when humans begin to interact with them (through worship, sacrifice, and deals), terrible things can happen.
This brings us back to the idea that humans are the only thing in Earthsea that can really be evil, because the only truly evil act would be to ruin the Equilibrium itself. Ged faces exactly that in The Farthest Shore, when a mage begins to unravel the world (and magic) by cheating death. If Ged doesn’t stop him, it’s implied that chaos will put an end to the world and there will be no more Equilibrium to maintain.
So where did the seed of that evil come from?
In the book, it’s shown that this mage fears death most of all. He doesn’t want to die and become a ghost, so he clings to life so ferociously that he’s willing to sacrifice the rest of the world just so he can survive. Fear and selfishness created the willingness to do evil, and that’s an important idea: it wasn’t some cosmic, elemental evil that almost doomed Earthsea, it wasn’t even something profound or comparatively alien, like the sadistic motivations of a psychopath or the entropic viewpoint of an Elder God—it was just some guy who didn’t want to die.
What’s troubling is that the emotions that drove this mage to almost destroy the world came from that wonderful, harmonious world Ged described, where every name is part of the single, great word that is unfolding slowly. Everything, from candles to stars, from humans to magic, all arises together. In that sense, the universe created something that could break itself, and may do so again. However, a Taoist might say that every person who emerges to threaten the balance of the world has their heroic opposite to stop them.
Or maybe wizards in Earthsea are just Dutch boys trying desperately to keep the dike from breaking.
Directly after giving his speech on how the universe is all one, unified power, Ged is asked whether death is part of the grand order of nature and the universe. Ged has this to say:
“For a word to be spoken,” Ged answered slowly, “there must be silence. Before, and after. Then all at once he got up, saying, “I have no right to speak of these things…It is better that I keep still; I will not speak again. Maybe there is no true power but the dark.”
Ged’s uncertainty speaks to a deep-seated human anxiety over whether the universe truly does have order, and whether we can understand it at all. They’re also the words of someone who has unleashed an evil upon the world and now has to fight it, though they don’t know how.
Every fantasy writer and worldbuilder has to deal with the questions of good and evil because they’re really questions of meaning, and stories are explorations of meaning. A fantasy universe and its magic are part of that tapestry of meaning, along with plot, characters, conflict, and everything else. Even if you take the Lovecraft route and say that good and evil are useless terms in a universe that’s nothing more than a giant entropic nightmare created by the inane gibbering of an idiot god, Lovecraft’s message wasn’t to embrace nihilism, it was that the world is full of wonder, terror, and mystery.
I still don’t know where Earthsea stands, but it keeps me thinking.