The Earthsea is Flat: Metaphor as a Teaching Tool in The Wizard of Earthsea

Kristofer Barr

Dr. Bente Videbaek

English 301

November 4, 2015

The Earthsea is Flat: Metaphor as a Teaching Tool in The Wizard of Earthsea

            The world of Earthsea in Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea is flat. If not in the technical sense, Earthsea remains flat in the metaphorical sense. There exists in Earthsea a boundary between the oceans and islands that comprise Earthsea’s reality and the dark, unreal world of metaphor that is both the source of Earthsea’s magic and the basis of its creation. Vetch, remarks, as he and Ged sail towards the unknown waters at the edge of civilization at the end of the novel, that “[he holds] with those who think the world has but one face, and he who sails too far will fall off the edge of it” (205-6). Vetch is both right and wrong, for when he and Ged sail onto the unnamed island, made of things metaphorical and non-literal they have, indeed, “fallen off the edge of it.” Le Guin’s Earthsea is comprised both of the literal and the metaphysical intertwined, more a morality play, a teaching tool, than an adventure novel. A Wizard of Earthsea constructs the journey, the bildungsroman of its hero, Ged, as the process by which he comes to terms with the moral duality of the adult world’s shadow. The abstraction of Ged’s moral dilemma in the form of his shadow and his eventual synthesis with it on the unnamed island reflect elements of Jungian psychoanalytical theory, and Nietzschean philosophy, both of which require the synthesis of a person’s disparate light and dark sides for the restoration of a person’s “primal wholeness” (Dixon 4). An analysis of Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea through the lens of Jung and Nietzsche, illustrates that, by writing her young-adult fantasy novel in terms of an internal struggle, Le Guin seeks to teach the reader a moral lesson about adolescence, that true knowledge and true power and true development as a person do not come from unmediated knowledge and learning, but by gaining an understanding of oneself through metaphor at the utter exclusion of bookish learning. Ged’s struggles, in this fashion, come not from his emotionality, but from the ego that wells up from far too great a focus on knowledge without meaning, without understanding.

Le Guin, in order to reach the unnamed island, in order to complete Ged’s emotional, spiritual and moral development, eliminates the factors of external, rote learning. In her essay “The Child and the Shadow” Le Guin comments on the problems that realistic fiction serve for children in that they let children engage in “superficialities” and “simple moralism” that represent true “escapism” (65). Though the magic in Earthsea requires an objects or a creature’s true name to get power over it, Le Guin stresses constantly the necessity for understanding the thing one is to change. Le Guin maintains an almost Nietzschean disregard for rote learning, what Frederich Nietzsche calls “a blinding fog over the eyes and senses of men” (Dixon 58). Earthsea, like Nietzsche, utilizes elements of fog, utilized first as a tool Ged uses to fool the men raiding Gont in his youth and has it later used against him as he chases his shadow. Knowledge, as fog, as an obfuscating presence, leads men into danger because they understand little of how the world, Earthsea, actually works. Le Guin argues that nothing is understood by simply learning it. Wise masters such as Ogion illustrate to Ged that he must learn an objects name by “knowing its being: which is more than its use” (20). Le Guin drives Ged towards self reflection, towards an understanding of his self. Nietzsche attacks the moral consequences of absolutist thinking in the sciences, which undermines most human moral systems (Dixon 62). Though absolutist thinking is not specifically what creates Ged’s shadow, being that Ged’s shadow is merely a representation of his self, the rationalists among Ged convince him empirically, and thus wrongly, that his shadow must either be destroyed or feared and never actually understood.

The shadow gains its power from this lack of understanding gained via empirical learning. Le Guin, like Nietzsche, disregards the Socratic thirst for knowledge that drives much of modern thought. She does so by creating a dichotomy between the teaching styles of Ged’s teachers. She envisions Ogion as a pre-Socratic philosopher, engaging in the deeper understanding that Nietzsche mourns the loss of in his essay, “The Birth of Tragedy.” Likewise, Le Guin imagines some of the teachers at Roke island, among them the new archmage, Gensher as something Socratic, valuing “knowledge” and “rationalism” (Dixon 59) over proper understanding. Le Guin uses the character of Gensher, the replacement head wizard on Roke, as an example of the harm of absolutist reasoning. Gensher’s indictment of Ged drives him into deeper wells of self loathing. Gensher also fails to recognize the metaphorical significance to Ged’s shadow, saying definitively, “uncalled it came from a place where there are no names. Evil, it wills to work evil through you” (78). Le Guin calls this kind of absolutism “escapism.” She regrets anybody who “[poses] evil as a problem,” as “something that can be solved, that has an answer” (Child and the Shadow 65). Gensher is wrong to define the shadow in his absolutist terms, to assume it has no name and to assume that, as an “evil” it must exist independent of people. By proving Gensher wrong, Le Guin compels her reader to think not in literal terms, but in metaphorical ones – what the shadow actually represents.

The shadow that forms from Ged’s hubris creates in physical form a symbolic threat, akin to the shadow construct Carl Jung designs in his psychoanalytical theory. His lack of true understanding pushes Ged on a darker path, and it is from this path that his shadow grows and becomes its own distinct entity. For Ged, whose “crafts [come] easy to him” (Wizard of Earthsea 61), who, “within a month [is] bettering lads who had been a year at Roke before him” (50), his emotional development is neglected for the sake of rapid, rabid learning. Ged learns voraciously, but this is equivocated by Le Guin with a kind of “pure rage” (53). Hypercompetitive, “all work and pride and temper,” Ged socially withdraws himself, “[holding] himself apart” (62). In separating himself from the rest of his equals Ged joins himself to what in Jungian terms is referred to as the “collective consciousness”, into the “lonely crowd” of popular obsession and unsophisticated belief (Child and the Shadow 58). The “collective consciousness” functions much like Ged’s childhood rival, Jasper’s use of magic as a tool for to illustrate his own supremacy, to gain physical wealth and power. He thinks of magic and knowledge as tools to gain an advantage in his social sphere, but in doing so he stunts his own emotional development, pushing him into the “lonely crowd” of the other ignoramuses, those who are not “true wizards” like Ged’s aunt and the sorceress at Benderesk, who use magic as a tool and not as the language of reality, which holds dire consequences for those who change the world carelessly. Ged’s development as a man is contingent on his ability to recognize this difference and understand the difference, in Jungian terms, between his conscious life and the monsters of his unconscious desires.  As Jung writes, “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is” (Child and the Shadow 59). From the moment Ged first summons his shadow in Ogion’s hut, the thing festers and grows alongside Ged’s negative emotions.

When the shadow is finally summoned in its full form, its presence and its separation, its violence and its self-antagonism nearly destroy Ged. Though its form changes shape throughout the novel, from a “gebbeth” in the form of Skiorh, to a mirror image of Ged as Ged draws near to capturing it, it begins and ends its existence in the form of a small, grotesque mockery of a child. “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” (Wizard of Earthsea 72). Jung pictures his image of a person’s shadow in nearly the same way, “inferior, primitive, unadapted… awkward… it even contains childish or primitive qualities” (Barrow 28). As a tale of adolescence, of coming of age, the representation of the shadow as a creature so much like a child represents the psychological basis for Ged’s complexes, his child-bred resentment at a world that did not wish to nurture him. But it symbolizes also, in Le Guin’s teaching model, the childhood complexes present in the reader, the primal, bestial capacity for anger and carnage that most people have no choice but to bury deeply. Ged’s adolescence is marked by discrepancy between his conscious attitude, this being his deep-seated need to not let his humble beginnings keep him from greatness, and his unconscious desire, this being his deep personal hurt in his lack of a true parental figure to help guide him. By splitting himself so thoroughly, Ged creates what Jung calls a “split consciousness” (Dixon 135), an unhealthy condition marked by disunity, the same kind that Ged first feels and then is made literally manifest in his shadow. Le Guin explores the concept of the split in Ged’s wild upbringing, growing into the literal split between him and his shadow.

Much of Ged’s darker side and the invention of his shadow can be traced back to his childhood itself and his unmediated, wild upbringing as he searches for parental substitutes. Without a mother and with a distant father, Ged’s motives stay selfish, grounded in an obsession with learning to elevate himself among his peers. His instruction in magic takes the form of his aunt’s superficial tutelage. The narrative bemoans her teaching style, criticizing any creature that uses magic without a true understanding of its greater ramifications. Le Guin writes, “She knew nothing of the Balance and the Pattern which the true wizard knows and serves, and which keep him from using his spells unless real need demands” (Wizard of Earthsea 6). As this quote suggests, magic, itself a metaphor for an adults capacity to truly affect the world around them, without structure does not represent true understanding. This kind of magic becomes like a surrogate parent for Ged. Ged’s prodigious ability with magic, interpreted through a psychological lens, illustrates not just his aptitude but his direct need for magic in his adolescent life (Barrow 25). The magic itself however, functions as a projection of Ged, not as a means of internal discovery. His desire for learning is instead equated with power, for as Le Guin writes, “[Ged] hungered to learn, to gain power.” (Wizard of Earthsea 20), because in the world of Earthsea, these are the same thing. Ged’s magical explorations are conducted externally at the cost of his internal integrity, creating the self-image that distances him from his peers and places him in Jung’s “lonely crowd,” an ordinary person with nothing but material wants.

But in the same way Ged holds himself a superior creature to the other children in the village, Ged’s mastery of the goats and other animals represents his own growing feelings of supremacy, for lack of any true love of anything but himself. In his attempts at magic he draws goats, animals representing warmth, milk and affectionate closeness to him and soon draws falcons and other animals to him (Barrow 25). The nature of this closeness symbolizes an almost primal sexuality. In Ged’s formative years, “all his pleasure in the art-magic [is], childlike, the power it gave him over bird and beast.” This “pleasure [stays] with him all his life” (Wizard of Earthsea 7). Besides male friendship, the only deep emotional connections Ged forms are between him and animals. Le Guin states that, “The animal does not reason, but it sees” and thus is archetypically used as guides (Child and Shadow 62-63). These relationships remain throughout the novel as only proto-sexual, a representation of love that sublimates from a child-like love the innocence of the natural world. Le Guin’s implementation of the trope is bizarre in how tragic it must be by necessity. The death of the “Hoeg”, Ged’s faithful Otak, comes at the climax of Ged’s fear as he runs away from his shadow to the castle of Benderesk. Le Guin herself describes the oddness in the necessity of the fantasy trope of killing the “helpful animal,” as if this were an understanding shared between fantasy writers. She writes that, “when you have followed the animal instincts far enough, then they must be sacrificed, so that the true self… may step forth from the body of the animal, reborn” (Child and Shadow 63). Le Guin, word for word, reenacts this archetype by having Ged nearly succumb to his primal urges, almost becoming permanently stuck as a hawk. Le Guin, like Nietzsche, advocates transforming the animal instincts, rather than abandoning oneself to them (Dixon 301). Ged is only saved when he is forced to shrug off the animal parts of him by losing his otak and losing the sexually charged childhood sense of his self, unable ever again to try and transform himself into an animal for fear of losing himself totally. Thematically, Le Guin reinforces the necessity of Ged’s self-unity, even at the cost of his innocence and his love. Within Ged’s split consciousness, the shadow takes over this bestial side of Ged, leaving Ged a husk of his former self.

At the moment of Ged’s separation with his shadow, he becomes a shell of the ambitious young man he once was, yet the man Ged transforms into appears no better than the overambitious self. Ged seeks atonement via further separation from any kind of social context, becoming not an insular creature, but an impotent one, for whom “the words of any spell… [come] haltingly from his tongue” (Wizard of Earthsea 79). At the opposite end of hubris lies meekness in Le Guin’s narrative, a result of Jung’s split consciousness. Yet Le Guin never defines each of these concepts as explicitly negative. Only in the full absence of the other half of a personality do the sides of a split consciousness hold a negative connotation. Ged confesses to Vetch that he might want to work with the Tower Master, “to be one of those who seek among the books and the stars for lost names, and so… so do no more harm, if not much good” (Wizard of Earthsea 80). Again, Le Guin portrays knowledge for its own sake as a negative pursuit, not just built out of a hubristic desire to gain its power, but negative also in knowledge  without purpose. Both the men around him and the world itself compel Ged away from this path. The Master Summoner mentions to Ged, “The truth is that  as a man’s real power grows and knowledge widens, ever the way he can follow grows narrower: until at last he chooses nothing, but does only and wholly what he must do…” (85). The object of adulthood, as Le Guin defines it, follows a psychological concourse that encourages in her adolescent readership a policy of unavoidance. This too follows elements of Jung’s theories. Jung states, “The suffering that necessarily attaches to life cannot be evaded,” being that human nature is intrinsically dualistic; “it has its dark and its light sides” (Dixon 105). Judging from this quote, Jung, like Le Guin, believes that the “split consciousness” does not join naturally, that it must be joined actively, a process that A Wizard of Earthsea seeks to emulate. The balance between the two comes not at the level of destruction of the shadow, but at the synthesis and acceptance of the two.

In Le Guin’s fiction, the act of avoidance gives the shadow power over its originator, yet the act of a literal self-pursuit enables agency. Ged, after fleeing across a great length of Earthsea, returns home to the bosom of his old master, Ogion. His master tells him, “A man would know the end he goes to, but he cannot know it if he does not turn, and return to his beginning… If he would not be a stick whirled and whelmed in the stream, he must be the stream itself…” (151). The metaphor reinforces Ogion’s pre-Socratic philosopher archetype, the kind that Nietzsche supports (Dixon 59), using naturalistic metaphor to convince Ged to actively define the course of his life as a “stream.” In Nietzschean fashion, Ogion disregards an inactive lifestyle, compelling Ged to undertake not a cerebral journey, but a primal one. Nietzsche describes the act of becoming an “overman,” or, simply, a self-realized man capable of “[identifying] himself with the primal unity, its pain and contradiction” (Dixon 285). Jung defines this as the process of “individuation” (Dixon 136). Though at all times, painful, like Nietzsche says, Ged finds in his interaction with his shadow, even merely touching it, a sense of victory, the ability to track it, realizing his being is not opposed to his shadow but linked to it. Like Le Guin says in “The child and the Shadow,” “Evil… appears in the fairy tale not as something diametrically opposed to good, but is inextricably involved with it…” (62). The very act of hunting his shadow causes it to lose its power to pursue Ged. The act of trying to grab the shadow creates between the two a bond that allows Ged to follow it to the literal end of the Earthsea. Ged does not just oppose the “evil” of the shadow, but involves himself with it.

When the moment of Ged’s triumph does come, it comes only after having travelled to the edge of the world to the unnamed island, at the elimination of all external obstructions, allowing him to become the ultimate expression of his human potential. Ged follows Ogion’s advice and “[seeks] the very source, and that which lies before the source [of his stream]” (151). The island they arrive on exists only metaphysically. Ged’s actions are the visualized drama of his inner self, sacrificing all ties to magic and understanding in order to become one with himself. The shadow and Ged, by necessity, meet at the lowest point of their characters. They each speak each other’s names and Ged drops his staff, an act which symbolizes Ged’s true understanding of himself in opposition to Gensher’s belief, that he must fight his shadow, that it is evil. Instead, Ged embraces it. In the process of becoming a true adult, Le Guin describes the end result with Übermenschen qualities. Nietzsche describes the “true human being,” the “overman” as a creature which “is wholly nature and embodies its uncanny dual character” (Dixon 285). Ged, as an Übermenschen, self realized person “had neither lost nor won but, naming the shadow of his death with his own name, had made himself whole: a man…” (Wizard of Earthsea 214). He enters into what Jung calls “the social unconscious,” gaining access into the “true community” of actual, legitimate creation, being that he has remade himself and redefined himself. (Child and the Shadow 59). Ged, in “knowing his whole true self,” can finally understand that “life therefore is loved for life’s sake…” (Wizard of Earthsea 214). Le Guin portrays her final theme impressionistically instead of literally in order that the philosophy and theory do not obstruct the meaning. The synthesis of Ged and his shadow represents an integration built on understanding. Ged’s apotheosis into the realms of a “true man” is a theme taught unto the reader with Ged as its symbol.

The voyage of the unconscious in A Wizard of Earthsea is a metaphorical construct for adolescence. In “The Child and the Shadow,” Le Guin writes, “The events of the voyage in the unconscious are not describable in the language of rational daily life: only the symbolic language of the deeper psyche will fit them without trivializing them” (61). The unnamed island betrays an uncanny sense of unreality, from the lack of sound to loss of cardinal direction, for “there [are] no directions… only towards and away” (210). It is for this reason Vetch cannot set foot on the island, why he cannot comprehend what happens to Ged. The reader too is placed in the point-of-view of Vetch, forced into being voyeurs. The shift of point-of-view brings about an interesting point of Le Guin’s, that even the reader is not permitted to view so far into the heart of a person, because to do so may very well be impossible. The island itself is metaphor, a symbolic representation of the Ged’s mind. Le Guin writes, “The great fantasies, myths and tales are indeed like dreams: they speak from the unconscious to the unconscious, in the language of the unconscious… They are profoundly meaningful, and useable – practical – in terms of ethics; of insight; of growth” (Child and the Shadow 57). Thus the unnamed island that lies at the edge of the world must be constructed not just as the island of Ged’s unconscious, but as a kind of prototypical unconscious, usable by Le Guin’s reader as a model on which to allow themselves the chance to evolve into adults by destroying their previously held truths about reality. Le Guin, by necessity, eliminates the interference of the rest of Earthsea and places her grand character moment at the edge of the world, in fear of falling off it. In the same way the shadow and Ged each speak to each other wordlessly, through feeling, so too does Le Guin speak to the reader, emblemizing her themes so that her audience, whether young or old, may digest them and learn to live them, just as Ged does.

Le Guin, in designing Earthsea as a world where the literal and the metaphorical meet, creates a comfortable place to explain a parable of adolescence. Through digging deeper into the text with Jungian theory and Nietzschean philosophy, this analysis illustrates the meaning behind Ged’s synthesis with his shadow. Le Guin obfuscates her complex philosophy under metaphor, turning this complex and intricate theory into a young adult fantasy novel that can be read and digested by young readers. This analysis, however, illustrates that Le Guin utilizes theory and metaphor, both in a literal context and in describing for her reader the meaning of metaphor, to illustrate for her reader the true meaning behind adolescence.


Works Cited

Barrow, Craig, and Diana Barrow. “Le Guin’s Earthsea: Voyages in Consciousness.” Kent State University Press 32.1 (1991): 20-44. Web. 10 Oct. 2015.

Dixon, Patricia. Nietzsche and Jung: Sailing a Deeper Night. New York: P. Lang, 1999. Print.

Le Guin, Ursula K. “The Child and the Shadow.” 1979. The Language of the Night. New York: Putnam, 1974. 54-67. Print.

Le Guin, Ursula K. A Wizard of Earthsea. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2012. Print.



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