LeGuin feels that fantasy may say more about what is real than “realistic” literature.

One of the best science fiction writers today is Ursula Kroeber LeGuin. She has twice won both Nebula (by science-fiction writers) and Hugo (by readers) awards for The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), and The Dispossessed (1974). In addition to science fiction, she has published a collection of short stories, a contemporary novel of two adolescents in love, and a body of fantastic literature. She won a Hornbook Award for A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), Newbery Honor Medal for The Tombs of Atuan (1971), and a National Book Award for The Farthest Shore (1972). This trilogy, written about the coming of age of three young people in the island landscape of Earthsea, may be the best crafted fantasy work since C. S. Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles.

LeGuin feels that fantasy may say more about reality than “realistic” literature: “We who hobnob with hobbits and tell tall tales about little green men are quite used to being dismissed as mere entertainers, or sternly disapproved of as escapists. But … readers are [beginning to accept] the fact that an improbable and unmanageable world is going to produce an improbable and hypothetical art. At this point, realism is perhaps the least adequate means of understanding or portraying the incredible realities of our existence. A scientist who creates a monster … a wizard unable to cast a spell … may be precise and profound metaphors of the human condition. The fantacist, whether he uses the ancient archetypes of myth and legend or the younger ones of science and technology, may be talking as seriously as any sociologist—and a good deal more directly—about human life as it is lived, and as it might be lived, and as it ought to be lived. For, after all … it is … by the imagination that we achieve perception, and compassion, and hope” (National Book Award acceptance speech).

What are LeGuin’s “incredible realities?” They are, by and large, the same as they have been for other writers: love, the meaning of life, coming of age, the meaning of personhood, death. She adds another which is less common, however: the role of man as a species, and she isolates some of the old realities in remarkable ways. She writes, according to her own statements, as neither Christian nor post-Christian, but out of Taoist philosophy.

Pervading the Earthsea trilogy is “… the interest in the I Ching and Taoist philosophy evident in most of my books …” (Dreams Must Explain Themselves, 1975). It is the working out of LeGuin’s statement: “The Taoist world is orderly, not chaotic, but its order is not one imposed by man or by a personal or humane deity. Its true laws—ethical and aesthetic, as surely as scientific—are not imposed from above by any authority, but exist in things and are to be found—discovered” (Dreams).

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In LeGuin’s own words, the subject of Wizard is “coming of age.” That of Tombs is “sex” or “more exactly … feminine coming of age.” Farthest Shore “is about death, which is why it is a less well-built, less sound and complete book than the others. They were things I had already lived through and survived. The Farthest Shore is about the thing you do not live through and survive” (Dreams).

In Earthsea, the chief means by which man achieves mastery over his environment is not through science, but through art—the art of wizardry. “Wizardry is artistry. The trilogy is then, in this sense, about art, the creative experience, the creative process” (Dreams). The development of the wizard Ged, from village boyhood until his last creative act and retirement, is the thread that ties Wizard, Tombs, and Farthest Shore together.

All the magi of Earthsea are trained in a school for wizards. There, they are taught various wizardly arts, such as changing into animals. The most important lesson, however, is to do only “what is needful” (Farthest Shore). It is taught by spending time in a grove of trees, discovering “true laws” by such investigations as watching a spider spin a web. The Taoism is obvious. The wizards are seeking to discover the tao, the Way, and to follow the advice of the first chapter of the Tao Te Ching: “action without deeds” (Lin Yutang translation).

The most compelling aspect of the magi’s life appears not to be Taoist. It is the world of the dead, the dry land. Magi enter this, and return, at some times for specific reasons, but at others because they are drawn into it. As LeGuin says, her imagery of death is not perfectly worked out, but it is awful and desolate: “They came then into the streets of the cities that are there and … saw … with quiet faces and empty hands, the dead … the dead moved slowly and with no purpose … no marks of illness were on them. They were whole and healed. They were healed of pain and of life.… Quiet were their faces, freed from anger and desire, and there was in their shadowed eyes no hope … [they] saw the mother and child who had died together, and they were in the dark land together; but the child did not run, nor did it cry, and the mother did not hold it or ever look at it. And those who had died for love passed each other in the streets. The potter’s wheel was still, the loom empty, the stove cold. No voice ever sang” (Farthest Shore).

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The Earthsea trilogy has a happy ending—in fact, to use Tolkien’s word, a eucatastrophe. Yet it is a strange one. The eucatastrophe is the healing of a breach. But it is a breach in the dry land. A mage (magus) who seeks immortality has found a way to come back to the real world from the dry land after death. Not content with mere discovery, or doing only “what is needful,” he has tried to change the order of things, to achieve immortality. (This errant mage may be a Christ figure.) In so doing, he appeals to the people of Earthsea, through their dreams, to attempt to do the same. They leave off their normal pursuits and cannot achieve anything worthwhile, because the meaning of life has been lost to them. Even the magi lose their power. Ged goes into the dry land with the errant mage and heals the breach, spending his power in the act, and retires to solitude. The errant mage, restored to the true way, remains in the dry land.

Christians may agree with LeGuin, and/or Taoism, on our need to treat our world carefully and to understand what we are doing as fully as possible before we do it. But Taoism is not Christianity. God expects us to act positively to right the wrong in the world, and his mandate to man in Genesis 1 includes more than just observation.

Fantastic literature is an expression of the philosophy of the writer. While it may portray “the incredible realities of our existence” even better than realism, it can be a dry land for the soul. Though it can truly describe, it does not always properly prescribe. There is only One who can close the breach: he who is truly dead yet alive. Like the psalmist, our soul longs for him, in this dry and thirsty land.

MARTIN LABARDr. LaBar is chairman of the division of science, Central Wesleyan College, Central, South Carolina.

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