Discover more from Other Feminisms
[Earthsea] Saved by Skin
The salvation of the great lies in the care of the weak
This is week five of our summer Wizard of Earthsea book club. This week’s chapter is “The Dragon of Pendor.”
I’m at the Napa Institute this week, so if you’re here too, please come up and say hi after my Saturday panel on “Toward a New Feminism: Healing the Sex Wars.” Some sessions are being livestreamed for virtual registrants.
Ged overreaches again in this chapter, but this time out of love for a friend rather than in defense of his own pride. He cannot save his friend’s son and nearly loses his own life. The passage that stuck with me comes during his recover, when his little otak licks him affectionately and calls him home.
Later, when Ged thought back upon that night, he knew that had none touched him when he lay thus spirit-lost, had none called him back in some way, he might have been lost for good. It was only the dumb instinctive wisdom of the beast who licks his hurt companion to comfort him, and yet in that wisdom Ged saw something akin to his own power, something that went as deep as wizardry. From that time forth he believed that the wise man is one who never sets himself apart from other living things, whether they have speech or not.
It put me in mind of my beloved Granny Weatherwax from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, who, despite being a powerful witch, has a healthy skepticism of magic. As her friend Nanny Ogg explains in Witches Abroad:
All the Weatherwaxes is good at magic, even the men. They've got this magical streak in 'em. Kind of a curse. Anyway . . . she thinks you can't help people with magic. Not properly. It's true, too.
[…] Never known her not treat someone ill who needed it, even when they, you know, were pretty oozy. And when the big ole troll that lives under Broken Mountain came down for help because his wife was sick and everyone threw rocks at him, I remember it was Esme that went back with him and delivered the baby. Hah . . . then when old Chickenwire Hopkins threw a rock at Esme a little while afterwards all his barns was mysteriously trampled flat in the night. She always said you can't help people with magic, but you can help them with skin. By doin' real things, she meant.
In both Pratchett and LeGuin, magic can only offer power. It takes the intimacy of skin and service to know when and how to apply it.
In our world, we face different temptations that are cousins to Ged’s pull toward power and aloof distance. I like howsummarizes the thesis of his forthcoming The Anxious Generation:
We have overprotected children in the real world, where they need a lot of free play and autonomy, while underprotecting them online, where they are not developmentally ready for much of what happens to them.
I’m not saying the internet is magic, but, like Ged’s sorcery, it can let us act at a distance without understanding how our actions will affect us or the world of which we are a part. A beginner’s feedback loop is an intimate, immediate one.
I liked your responses to last week’s chapter and our discussion of whether growing up means deliberately giving up your options and narrowing your path.
Bryce recommended the poem “Seed Leaves” by Richard Wilbur.
Forced to make choice of ends,
The stalk in time unbends,
Shakes off the seed-case, heaves
Aloft, and spreads two leaves
Which still display no sure
And special signature.
And Becca recommended another, longer work on the way our choices shape character.
It’s been a while since I have read it but I think Kristin Lavransdatter was a good example of a lifetime of choices and habits accumulating into consequences and character. Of course a book that covers a lifetime is better situated to do that than a book centered on some event or plot point.
I recently got myself a little memento mori ring to try and remind myself daily of how the way I am and act today is writing my eulogy—not necessarily what anyone will say but what will be true. It is actually helping me choose to try for greater moral/virtuous effort in hard situations. Highly recommend!
I am, as many of you know, an enormous fan of Kristin Lavransdatter. I wrote about her example in the early period of covid lockdowns. (“…at present, a number of people who are used to power and dramatic, visible forms of activity are being called unexpectedly to the cloister of the home.”)