Friday, January 17, 2014

A Wizard of Earthsea part 3: Facing the Shadow

When he was a youth on the Island of Gont, the wizard Ged was called "Sparrowhawk" for his interest in birds of prey and his ability to summon them. This was his use name, the everyday name people called him, as opposed to his true name, known only to himself and those closest to him. The name has now proven to be prophetic, for, in order to flee the servants of a malevolent sorceror, the Sparrowhawk has transformed himself into a falcon.

He has come to the sorcerer's castle fleeing the shadowy creature of evil he had inadvertently summoned from the realms of death. Possessing one of Ged's traveling companions, the creature almost seized Ged and turned him into a gebbeth, a mere husk of a living man. For a time, Ged found sanctuary in castle of a sinister nobleman and his flirtatious wife, who wished to use him for their own purposes. Now, upon discovering the dark power residing within the castle, Ged has again taken flight -- this time, quite literally.

As we saw in his fight with the Dragons of Pendor, Ged is quite good at these transformations; but they carry an innate risk. A mage who remains too long in a borrowed form may start to forget his true identity. And Ged, driven by anger, fear and a need to escape, is not really concentrating.

Whether by instinct, or by some latent vestige of conscious thought, the falcon comes to perhaps the only man in all of Earthsea capable of recognizing him and recalling him to his human form: Ged's former master, Ogion the Silent, the wizard of Re Albi on the Island of Gont.

"I have come back to you as I left: a fool," Ged says bitterly when he has again recovered. He tells Ogion of his the shadow he unleashed and of its pursuit across the islands of Earthsea.

Although Ged is pretty hard on himself, Ogion points out that he is not as weak and helpless as he thinks, He did, after all, best the Lord of the Terremon Stone on the sorcerer's home turf, and hold off the Stone's guardians; and he held his own against the Dragon of Pendor -- no small feat, even for a wizard. And although the shadow has pursued Ged, it has not managed to overcome him.

Ged doesn't see how he can possibly defeat the shadow when he doesn't know its name. The magic Ged knows is based on the power of names to correspond to reality. If a mage knows the true name of a thing, or of a person, he can bind that thing to his will. Ged isn't sure the shadow even has a name. Le Guin doesn't even capitalize the word "shadow" when she refers to it, emphasizing its anonymity -- a subtle touch that I missed until I stepped back to edit this piece.

Ogion is sure that it does, and reminds him that the shadow spoke Ged's name when the two last met. If the shadow could guess Ged's true name, there must be some way for Ged to learn the shadow's.

Ogion can offer no sanctuary from the shadow, nor does Ged expect it; but the mage does have a suggestion for his former pupil: turn around.
"If you go ahead, if you keep running, wherever you run you will meet danger and evil, for it drives you, it chooses the way you go. You must choose. You must seek what seeks you. You must hunt the hunter."
Ged takes his mentor's advice. It is the dead of winter and there are no ships willing to venture out upon the seas at this time of the year, but Ged is able to buy a decrepit old boat from a local fisherman. The practical shipwright skills he learned from his friend Pechvarry come in handy as he applies both craft and spells to make the boat seaworthy.

He sets off in the direction from which he came when he flew on falcon's wings to Gont. When he gets out to the open sea, Ged calls out to the shadow to summon it. The shadow appears, but instead of attacking, it turns and begins to flee. As Ogion surmised, the shadow is most powerful when Ged tires to avoid it; facing his enemy gives Ged a greater advantage. Now Ged is the hunter.

The shadow moves swiftly, but Ged's boat, impelled by his magically-created winds, moves quickly as well. By the time night falls, Ged is far to the southeast of Gont in unfamiliar waters. A mist comes up upon the waters, and Ged soon finds himself surrounded by a dense fogbank. He sees the shadow dimly through the mist and presses on. He does not see the rocky shoals until it is too late.

The shadow has stolen Ged's own trick and lured him into a deadly fogbank, just as the young Sparrowhawk had done to the Kargad raiders, long ago. Ged's boat is wrecked upon the rocks and Ged finds himself washed ashore on a cold, barren beach.

The spit of land on which he's been cast away barely ranks as an island; it's only about a half a mile across and little more in length. But Ged finds that it is not uninhabited. An elderly couple live alone on the islet, in a little hut made of scavenged driftwood. They fear Ged, and do not understand his speech, but they grudgingly offer him some small hospitality; the little shelter of their hut and what shellfish they can gather to eat.

The woman seems more friendly than the man, and from some of the few possessions the woman shows Ged, he guesses that the two were a brother and sister from a noble family of the Kargad Lands, left on this remote rock as children to die during some political strife.

The woman gives Ged a strange relic, a half of a metal ring. It has no meaning to Ged, and has absolutely no bearing on the rest of this book; but he keeps it, and it later becomes significant in the second book, The Tombs of Atuan.

Ged repairs his boat with bits of driftwood roughly cut into a serviceable shape and lots of magic. The result isn't pretty, and it requires constant attention to his spells to keep the planks together; but the boat will float and not leak. Much.

Ged offers to take the old couple back to civilization, but the sister cannot understand him, and the brother does not want to go. Neither the foreign islands from which Ged comes, nor the Kargad Lands in which the old man was born are home to him. The two will remain on their islet, a forgotten mystery in the middle of the great wide sea.

It is the day of the Winter Solstice when Ged sets out again, the longest night of the year and the day called the Sunreturn by the people of Ged's culture; an appropriate day to resume his quest, seeing as he has turned from fleeing the shadow and that now the shadow flees him. It could have easily attacked him when he lay half-drowned on the beach of the islet, yet it didn't. Ged doesn't know exactly where the creature is now, so he continues on his southeasterly course.

He comes to a island of high cliffs and narrow fjords, and beneath the shadows of those cliffs, his enemy appears to him again, this time in his very boat. Ged does not hesitate; before it has a chance to attack, he grabs it. The shadow dissolves like a mist in his grasp, but despite losing the creature, Ged has won a significant victory. This is the third time he had the creature have come in physical contact, but this time Ged initiated that contact and forced the shadow to flee. More importantly, the act of seizing it forges a link between shadow and man.
There was no need to hunt the thing down, to track it, nor would its flight avail it. Neither could escape. When they had come to the time and place for their last meeting, they would meet. ... He knew now, and the knowledge was hard, that his task had never been to undo what he had done, but to finish what he had begun.
He comes to an inhabited island where he rests for a few days, having slept little or none at all since leaving the islet. He buys a boat to replace the cobbled-together pieces of wreckage he has been using, paying the owner by magically healing the man's cataracts. The grateful man renames the boat Lookfar, and bids Ged paint eyes on it's prow, so that " thanks will look out from that blind wood for you and keep you from rock and reef. For I had forgotten how much light there is in the world, till you gave it back to me." The Lookfar becomes Ged's second home in all his future travels.

He continues from island to island, from village to village, along the chain of eastern islands, until he comes to the town of Ismay on the island of Iffish. He has resolved to spend only a night there and continue on, when he runs into an unexpected friend: his schoolmate, Vetch, whose true name is Estarriol; a fully-accredited mage who has established himself as the island's wizard.

Vetch welcomes Ged warmly and brings him home to meet his sister, Yarrow, and his younger brothers. He mentions a curious thing: just a couple days ago, Vetch saw a man passing through a marketplace who looked exactly like Ged. The curious thing was, that the man seemed to have no shadow. Ged is not surprised. He has heard the rumors of this doppelganger in one of his previous stops. He does not know why the shadow has taken his likeness, but he has no doubt that this is his shadow.

As they relax at Vetch's home, Ged tells of his adventures and his pursuit by, and then of the shadow. Vetch ponders his tale, and then decides, "I'll go with you, Ged." Ged protests that he doesn't want anybody else to suffer from his evil, least of all his friend; but Vetch will have none of it.
"Pride was ever your mind's master, ... "Now think: it is your quest, assuredly, but if the quest fail, should there not be another there who might bear warning to the Archipelago? For the shadow would be a fearful power then. And if you defeat the thing, should there not be another there who will tell of it in the Archipelago, that the Deed may be known and sung? I know I can be of no use to you; yet I think I should go with you."
Ged can hardly argue with that. And the company of his friend is a great comfort to him. They chat about other matters. Vetch tells him that Jasper, Ged's hated rival from school, left the School of Roke the same Summer that he did, without having earned his staff. The last Vetch heard, Jasper was working for a nobleman in another city. A year ago, Ged might have taken great satisfaction in his rival's lack of status; now he says nothing.

Ged spends a pleasant couple of days in Vetch's household, preparing for the next stage in his journey. It is an idyllic, homey place. He gets to know Vetch's younger sister, Yarrow, who is a welcome antidote to the treacherous, scheming women we have seen so far. Yarrow is friendly and pert. She admits that she does not understand magic, but her questions to Ged on the subject shows that she has an intelligent mind and an honest interest in the subject. I get the feeling that Vetch would like to fix his sister up with Ged, and perhaps the author originally had that intention too, but it's not going to happen. Le Guin establishes later on that the wizards of Roke do no marry, period. They devote their lives to their craft. And although this subject does not come up in the Trilogy, the later books show that this enforced celibacy is a failing of the Roke-mages for it limits their understanding of women, and by extension, of a great part of the world.

The two friends set out on the Lookfar, continuing southeast. Ged can sense the shadow ahead of him. Astowell is the easternmost island, called "Lastland" by its inhabitants for there is nothing known beyond it. Here the Hardic language of the Archipelago is spoken with an accent even Vetch finds unfamiliar, and the magic works in peculiar ways. Vetch quotes the proverb, "Rules change in the Reaches"; spells which he learned on Roke don't always work on the distant islands of the East Reach, and some of the spells he uses were never taught at the wizard's school.

But this is the way the shadow has gone, and so this is the way Ged must go. He feels sure that they will eventually come to land. The shadow has always fought him on or near land before, and has avoided him on the water.

After days of travel, steered by the conjured magewind, the Lookfar does come to land, sort of. The sea seems to become solid, as if its waves were dunes of sand. The two wizards beach their boat on the shoreless shoal, and Ged climbs out upon the water. He sees the shadow ahead of him and walks out to meet it.

The shadow takes of other shapes to distract him: first of his rival Jasper; then of his friend the shipwright Pechvarry, but with a face bloated as if he had drowned; then of Skiorh, the galley-oarsman whom the shadow had possessed and devoured. Unfazed, Ged advances closer, and the shadow-creature comes to meet him, now black and bestial.

In that dreadful silence, man and shadow come to stand face to face; and that silence is then broken as Ged and the creature simultaneously speak a single syllable, the shadow's name: "Ged."

He takes hold of the shadow, and this time it reaches out also to him. And as they touch, the two join and become one.

With this, the sea becomes normal again, and Vetch must row out to pull Ged from the water. For a horrible moment he fears that the shadow has overcome his friend and turned him into a gebbeth. Then Ged banishes his fears with a laugh. "Estarriol, ... look, it is done. It is over. ... The wound is healed, I am whole, I am free."
Now when he saw his friend and heard him speak, his doubt vanished. And he began to see the truth, that Ged had neither lost nor won but, naming the shadow of his death with his own name, had made himself whole: a man: who, knowing his whole true self, cannot be used or possessed by any power other than himself, and whose life therefore is lived for life's sake and never in the service of ruin, or pain, or hatred, or the dark.
Together the two friends return to Iffish, where Yarrow waits to welcome them.

A brief epilogue tells that Ged goes on to undertake great journeys and perform mighty works, which are recounted in The Deed of Ged, the epic song of his adventures which later generations will someday sing. But this, his first journey, was never recorded in that account. Ged will sail the Dragon's Run and recover the long lost Ring of Erreth-Akbe and eventually become Archmage of Roke and the greatest mage of his generation, just as his master, Ogion, once predicted.

But that, as a different storyteller once said, is another story.

No comments: