The Magic of Earthsea

Michael Kern '07 English 65, Fantasy, Brown University, 2003

As Ged becomes more comfortable in Roke he begins to excel in his studies, and yearns for knowledge. He quickly masters the arts of Illusion, and seeks to learn the more advanced arts of wizardry. The teachers at Roke, however, continually remind about the importance of balance.

The Master Hand looked at the jewel that glittered on Ged's palm, bright as the prize of a dragon's hoard. The old Master murmured one word, "tolk," and there lay the pebble, no jewel but a rough grey bit of rock. The Master took it and held it out on his own hand. "This is a rock, "tolk" in the true speech," he said mildly up at Ged now. "A bit of the stone of which Rock Isle is made, a little bit of the dry land on which men live. It is itself. It is part of the world. By the Illusion-Change you can make it look like a diamond -- or a flower or a fly or an eye or a flame--" The rock flickered from shape to shape as he named them, and returned to rock. "But that is mere seeming. Illusion fools the beholder's senses; it makes him see and hear and feel that the thing is changed. But it does not change the thing. To change the rock into a jewel, you must change its true name. And to do that, my son, even to so small a scrap of the world, is to change the world. It can be done. Indeed it can be done. It is the art of the Master Changer, and you will learn it, when you are the ready to learn it. But you must not change one thing, one pebble, one grain of sand, until you know what good and evil will follow on that act. The world is in balance, in Equilibrium. A wizard's power of Changing and of Summoning can shake the balance of the world. It is dangerous, that power. It is most perilous. It must follow knowledge, and serve need. To light a candle is to cast a shadow. [43-44]

Ged becomes irritated by such explanations, as his questions remain unanswered.

He smiled, but Ged left dissatisfied. Press a mage for his secrets and he would always talk, like Ogion, about balance, and danger, and the dark. But surely a wizard, one who had gone past these childish tricks of illusion to the true arts of Summoning and Change, was powerful enough to do what he pleased, and balance the world as seemed best to him, and drive back darkness with his own light.

Questions

1. How does the nature of magic in The Earthsea Trilogy compare to that in Tolkien's series?

2. Why does Le Guin restrict the power of the Mages with the idea of Equilibrium? This idea is not present within Tolkien's trilogy, instead the nature of magic is veiled in mystery. How do these techniques compare?

3. What effect does the concept of a "true name" have in the world of Earthsea? What power does the knowledge of these names give to the Mages?

4. Is Ged's interest in the more potent arts of magic driven by a desire for power or a yearning for knowledge?

References

Le Guin, Ursula K. The Wizard of Earthsea. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968.


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Last modified 8 March 2004