Aliens in This World

An ordinary Catholic and a science fiction and fantasy fan.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

An Ancient Mariner of Earthsea

I've just been doing a re-read of Ursula K. LeGuin's A Wizard of Earthsea. It's always had a very strange feel to it, IMHO -- a sort of spookier version of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, with the Shadow substituting for the Albatross. I was never satisfied with LeGuin's explanation of what the Shadow was supposed to be. But this time around, older and aware of LeGuin's abortion, I suddenly realized something very odd: Ged being followed around by the Shadow seems like a very accurate depiction of a post-abortive woman's grief and pain.

It would explain why Ged's a guy (it'd hit too close to home otherwise). It'd explain why the Shadow's initial appearance on Gont is the result of being tempted by the opposite sex, and why the Shadow is so very nameless and faceless, and why it keeps calling to him. Most of all, it explains why the Shadow wants to come after Ged and _live inside him_. The possessed body called a gebbeth sounds like a horror movie version of pregnancy itself!

It would also explain why the Shadow is so closely associated with dreams of fame, power, and education -- because LeGuin's pro-choice speech explicitly said that it was good that she'd had the abortion because otherwise she'd have to stay at home and not go to school and be nothing. (Which makes the whole thing about how Ged really should've stayed on Gont and learned patience and quietness kinda ironic...not to mention "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas", but everyone spotted that.) It would explain, as well, why Ged kills more creatures than any other LeGuin protagonist I
can think of.

Finally, it would explain why LeGuin's other Earthsea books almost always seem to be about unwriting and retconning this one. If I'd written a book about something that made me feel really guilty, I guarantee I'd keep picking at that scab, too.

I realize I could be all wrong about this, because I usually think psychological explanations for writers' writing are either too all-encompassing or too bizarre. But I honestly think this explains a great deal of the odd emotional power LeGuin seems to have invested into the story. It is a story of sin and admitting one's own accountability for evil actions. It is a story of recovery from grief. If I'm right, moreover, this is one of the greatest literary elegies of all time, a children's book written for a child that, like the Shadow, has no face and has no name.

Some possibly relevant quotes:

Then he fell forward as if to embrace earth with his outstretched arms, and when he rose he held something dark in his straining hands and arms, something so heavy that he shook with effort getting to his feet...the shapeless mass of darkness he had lifted split apart. It sundered, and a pale spindle of light gleamed between his opened arms, a faint oval reaching from the ground up to the height of his raised hands. In the oval of light for a moment there moved a form, a human shape: a tall woman looking back over her shoulder. Her face was beautiful, and sorrowful, and full of fear.

Only for a moment did the spirit glimmer there. Then the sallow oval between Ged's arms grew bright. It widened and spread, a rent in the darkness of the earth and night, a ripping open of the fabric of the world. Through it blazed a terrible brightness. And through that bright misshapen breach clambered something like a clot of black shadow, quick and hideous, and it leaped straight out at Ged's face...Ged fell, struggling and writhing, while the bright rip in the world's darkness above him widened and stretched...the lump of shadow that clung to Ged, tearing at his flesh. It was like a black beast, the size of a young child, though it seemed to swell and shrink; and it had no head or face, only the four taloned paws with which it gripped and tore...

The intolerable brightness faded, and slowly the torn edges of the world closed together...The shadow-beast was gone. Ged lay sprawled on his back, his arms flung out....

See? Sort of an odd birth metaphor going on there, with the shadow-beast as some sort of "bad seed". Ged spends a long time out of school recovering, btw, and when he gets back, he acts more like somebody depressed and grieving than somebody badly hurt and embarrassed. Read these passages as if they were talking about a high school girl in the early sixties, and see what you think.

For four weeks of that hot summer he lay blind, and deaf, and mute, though at times he moaned and cried out like an animal. At last, as the patient crafts of the Master Herbal worked their healing, his wounds began to close and the fever left him. Little by little he seemed to hear again, though he never spoke. On a clear day of autumn the Master Herbal opened the shutters of the room where Ged lay. Since the darkness of that night on Roke Knoll he had known only darkness. Now he saw daylight, and the sun shining. He hid his scarred face in his hands and wept.

Still when winter came he could speak only with a stammering tongue, and the Master Herbal kept him there in the healing-chambers, trying to lead his body and mind gradually back to strength. It was early spring when at last the Master released him...

None of his companions had been allowed to visit him in the months of his sickness, and now as he passed some of them asked one another, "Who is that?" He had been light and lithe and strong. Now, lamed by pain, he went hesitantly, and did not raise his face, the left side of which was white with scars. He avoided those who knew him and those who did not....


  • At 11:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Boy, this really makes some sense. All three books had a haunting quality that I could never pin down.

    Very timely this interest of yours is, cause the SF channel is making an Earthsea miniseries that will air in Dec.--wonder how badly they will screw it up?


  • At 9:07 PM, Blogger alicia said…

    what an insightful observation!


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