Ursula K LeGuin died recently. Her book A Wizard of Earthsea was one of my biggest influences growing up.
I’ve never read much else from her, although I should. The original Earthsea trilogy was good, but the 4th book veered into weird territory that didn’t make sense to me. I’m old-school and archetypal like that.
I’ve heard that she disliked her earlier writings (like my favorite) because they were too traditional and patriarchal, and felt like she “found her voice” when she started injecting feminism in her work. I read The Disposessed, which was interesting for a while but ended sour and preachy. I hate it when books do that.
I keep meaning to read The Left Hand of Darkness. Maybe now is a good time to do that.
When I lived in Portland, I met her once. She signed my copy of A Wizard of Earthsea and was very quiet and writerly. It turns out I lived in her neighborhood for a few years, but I never passed her on the sidewalks or in the park.
Here is my favorite passage from Earthsea. Our hero, Ged, has just escaped the embodiment of evil–the shadow–only to fall into temptation of unlimited power by Benderesk, Lord of the Terrenon, and the Lady Serret. “Only darkness can defeat the dark,” she says.
Ged’s eyes cleared, and his mind. He looked down at Serret. “It is light that defeats the dark,” he said stammering,–“light.”
As he spoke he saw, as plainly as if his own words were the light that showed him, how indeed he had been drawn here, lured here, how they had used his fear to lead him on, and how they would, once they had him, have kept him. They had saved him from the shadow, indeed, for they did not want him to be possessed by the shadow until he had become a slave of the Stone, then they would let the shadow into the walls, for a gebbeth was a better slave even than a man. If he had once touched the Stone, or spoken to it, he would have been utterly lost. Yet, even as the shadow had not quite been able to catch up with him and seize him, so the Stone had not been able to use him–not quite. He had almost yielded, but not quite. He had not consented. It is very hard for evil to take hold of an unconsenting soul.
I love A Wizard of Earthsea because it is a little book about fear–where it comes from, how it chases you, and how you and you alone must stare it in the face and defeat it. You might think that Dune is a book about fear. Dune does indeed have the great Litany Against Fear, but it is one player on a stage of many things. The hero’s journey in Earthsea revolves around fear. It is an intimate, terrifying portrait.
This passage reminds me how easily we–especially those of us who understand some of the unseen undergirdings of the universe–can be tempted by power that is much bigger than us, that reveals all that we want to know and be. Power that would ultimately enslave us, because it is false.
This passage reminds me to keep up the good fight, and not give in to temptation. And yet, it also gives me hope–for even though I will stumble, I do not consent.
That idea–that evil cannot take you without your consent–is I think what marks the heroic men and women who stare evil in the face to investigate or prosecute or report or even just bear witness and who do not give into it.
We are not perfect. We will tremble. But evil cannot touch us if we do not allow it.
There’s a reason we are given a shield of faith and a sword of the spirit.
One of my failings in life is that I have not faced my fear, my shadow self, in a manner that would be worthy of Ged. I have stared fear in the face, certainly, and lived my life, but there are still places where fear has its claws burrowed in.
Now. Rewind to 2011, when I was first introduced to the band Gatsbys American Dream. I will have to write a whole post about them. Writing the paragraphs above made me tear up, but trying to put into words how I feel about Gatsbys makes me remember why I hate the world.
Their masterpiece is Volcano. Musically, it is pop-punk but asymmetrical and interesting. The songwriting is delicious. The album is cohesive, wrapping around to reference itself with music and lyrics. It is a beautiful package tied up with a little bow (my favorite).
And then. You barely hear it, a plaintive but insistent piano melody. It builds in intensity, and you finally catch ahold of some lyrics:
My pride ripped a hole in the world that set loose…a shadow….
I sail into jaws of the dragon: a beast before me, a shadow behind me….
“Is this…a song about Earthsea?” you think to yourself. “I thought I was the only person in the WORLD who cares about that little book.” You listen again. It still fits. You are excited, but realize that the likelihood of a lesser-known song of an indie band is highly unlikely to be based on your 12-year-old self’s favorite book. You decide that whatever you learn about the lyrics to that song, you’ll always pretend it’s about Earthsea even if it isn’t.
Lyrically, all of Volcano based on science fiction and fantasy. Books, video games, television. Ender’s Game makes an appearance, as does Interview with a Vampire.
Rest assured, friend, this really is a song about Sparrowhawk and his shadow.