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Consummation Without Conquerors
The end of our voyage across Earthsea
This is the final week of our summer Wizard of Earthsea book club, covering “Iffish” and “The Open Sea.”
In the last chapter of A Wizard of Earthsea, Ged and Estarriol speak open-heartedly to each other, using the intimacy of their true names, sheltered by the isolation of the Open Sea.
The two friends brainstorm together about how they might riddle or wrest away the name of Ged’s shadow, but it’s in a moment of quiet appreciation that Ged receives the true name of Estarriol’s sister. He isn’t trying to seize her name; he simply falls into contemplation and knows it because he knows her.
"She is like a little fish, a minnow, that swims in a clear creek," he said, “defenseless, yet you cannot catch her."
At this Vetch looked straight at him, smiling. "You are a mage born," he said. "Her true name is Kest." In the Old Speech, kest is minnow, as Ged well knew; and this pleased him to the heart. But after a while he said in a low voice, "You should not have told me her name, maybe."
But Vetch, who had not done so lightly, said, "Her name is safe with you as mine is. And, besides, you knew it without my telling you…”
Ged’s final confrontation takes the form of truth-telling. While the Shadow presents a range of faces to him, he holds steady, holding out a light by which to see it clearly, and ultimately he and his Shadow face each other and speak their shared name, Ged.
It’s important to note that LeGuin doesn’t frame the Shadow as the bad part of Ged that he must accept—knowing and naming his shadow doesn’t mean he has to accept doing evil as part of who he is. His shadow was the mark of a wound, a sundering.
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.
I’m always interested in what we lose when we lie, to others or to ourselves. It’s part of why I’ve been so interested in facilitating cross-partisan debates, where people have the chance to question and contemplate each other.
About ten years ago, I was part of a cross-religious debate on the ethics of lying, actively or passively. Part of my objection is that a lie is a wall between you and the person you are deceiving, as well as a wall keeping them from knowing and loving the world-as-it-is.
I might call it interfering with the eschaton. The telos of humanity is to be healed of all divisions. The wounds we have inflicted on ourselves or on others will be closed up, and it will be possible to be wholly united with each other and with God. Lying to someone is creating distance between my target and the world-as-it-is. And I’m deepening the distance between myself and the person I am instrumentalizing.
LeGuin says in her afterword that she’s interested in heroic stories that aren’t war stories. Specifically:
A hero whose heroism consists of killing people is uninteresting to me […] All too often the heroes of such fantasies behave exactly as the villains do, acting with mindless violence, but the hero is on the "right" side and therefore will win. Right makes might.
I share her interest in what tactics work only when you are in the right, and what tools you set down, no matter how effective, because they are uncorrelated to the truth of your claim. This is why I was interested in profiling the Red Rose Rescue movement, who is doing something very different than conventional abortion activism. (Lauren Handy, one of the women I interviewed, was found guilty of violating FACE and may be sentenced to up to 11 years in prison).
I’d like to spotlight one reaction to our prior reading, and one meditation on LeGuin by a friend of the blog. Marie responded to my question about when it makes sense to seek a more chaotic environment when the odds are against you.
This reflection immediately brought to mind Des Linden’s 2018 Boston Marathon win. In that particular year, Des was far from the fastest runner on the field, and was privately dealing with a hypothyroid diagnosis. However, she leveraged the disastrous race conditions (severe, freezing rain and win the whole way) in her favor. What she lacked in speed, Des made up for in grit and resilience, and she shocked herself by breaking the tape and taking gold.
And Dave Kasten has been reflecting on LeGuin’s The Dispossessed:
You actually have the ability to decide whether you’re going to be involved in whatever thing matters to you — organizing it, doing it, maintaining it, and occasionally mucking out its stables — and be a part of shaping your community. Or you can choose to become the sort of person who says the real fight is over which low-status group you want to force to do it instead of you, while you sit back and shoulder no moral responsibility for what results.
Thank you for everyone who read along with me, and especially for those who commented. I read a book differently when I anticipate discussion, pausing more to turn things over and examine them, anticipating someone else’s pleasure or question.
Below are my last questions for you, and one of my final favorite quotes:
If you were reading for the first time, what surprised you about the climax? If you were rereading, what had stuck from previous readings and what was different than your recollection?
How do you tell the difference between a hard truth you have to stop pushing away versus an invitation to despair that you should reject and rebuke?
Any suggestion for future bookclubs? Would it have been better to cover more ground per week? Would you be interested in 1-2 zoom calls for live discussion?
Even when they called out fisherman's charms they caught very little, for the fish of the Open Sea do not know their own names and pay no heed to magic.