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[Earthsea] Sorcery and Subsidiarity
In which no thing or person is severable from its world
Can you think of any stories where mastery of a skill, and its concomitant power, are pursued for their own sake, or the sake of the journey there, and that's viewed as fine?
As Ged begins his studies in sorcery, he keeps returning to the question of what illusion is worth and what a magic more powerful than mere illusion would cost.
When he first meets his classmates, he’s frustrated watching them show off their glamours, and thinks:
What did he know but mere village witchery, spells to call goats, cure warts, move loads or mend pots?
Later, when he can keep up with his classmates, he asks the teacher known as Master Namer when they’ll learn real magic.
"Sir, all these charms are much the same; knowing one, you know them all. And as soon as the spell-weaving ceases, the illusion vanishes. Now if I make a pebble into a diamond"—and he did so with a word and a flick of his wrist—"what must I do to make that diamond remain diamond? How is the changing-spell locked, and made to last?"
I’ll get to Master Namer’s response in a moment, but what struck me is that Ged has learned the kind of magic that sticks already. It’s the “mere village witchery” that cures warts, rather than cloaking them; that mends pots so that the water will not run out.
Master Namer replies to Ged and tells him:
A mage can control only what is near him, what he can name exactly and wholly. And this is well.
It isn’t trivial for Ged to change a pebble to a diamond, even though the two objects are so small, and feel like neighbors in objectspace. And the more he treats the pebble as trivial, the less prepared he is to change it at all.
I will fight to preserve what grows and lives well in its own way; and I will change no object or creature unless its growth and life, or that of the system of which it is part, are threatened.
Nothing is severable; nothing can be considered in isolation.
Ged can pick up a pebble, but by so doing he doesn’t uproot it from its own world. He is learning not just to name, but to look.
There’s another work of art that gave me a strong sense of the world as densely interconnected, and therefore requiring a gentle, tentative touch. But the robed protagonists intensely fixated on naming and knowing were Supreme Court Justices, not wizards.
I reviewed the Elevator Repair Service’s Arguendo for The American Interest some years ago, and the play has really stuck with me. It’s (mostly) composed of the oral arguments from a Supreme Court case on whether stripping is an expressive act that merits 1st Amendment protection.
As case after case is brought up and analyzed, it becomes obvious that the logical extension of this ruling, however odd, will affect future rulings. After all, the lawyers and justices refer to a case (Ward v. Rock Against Racism) that dealt with whether a noise ordinance was an unconstitutional limit on free expression. Rock bands unsuccessfully argued that their message could only accurately be communicated when delivered at earsplitting volume. Whatever the musicians’ personal interest in nudity, it is unlikely that they realized that losing Ward could bar the door to exotic dancers in the future. […]
The overall impression of the wall of [projected precedents] isn’t of a weighty, dependable history book, but of a fragile tapestry, with nine curators and caretakers frantically trying to keep the fabric from unravelling. The judges, flying like dervishes across the stage, seem much less interested in the plight of the dancers than the problem of ruling as narrowly as possible, so that Barnes v. Glen Theatre Inc. is never called up in a future court to cause new problems.
At this stage of the novel, we have less of a sense of how Ged’s trivial changes could cascade, but I’m curious about your own experience.
Where have you been part of an institution (including one as small as a family) where you felt like knowing exactly as wholly really was the prerequisite to action (and where knowing was given the time it needed)?
Where has something trivial or severable feeling turned out to be fragile and/or enmeshed?
And one more comment (of many) I enjoyed from last week. Ana had a thoughtful meditation prompted by the chapter and a phrase she’d heard from the Godsplaining podcast: "God delights in our choosing.”
Choice is not what stood out to me while reading this chapter, though. Instead, it was friendship. Rather than the word love, it is friendship that comes to mind when I read about Ogion's relationship to the raincloud. Once a thing is a friend, which is to say, once the wizard knows "its true being: which is more than its use," that's when he can name the thing. "What, after all, is the use of you? or of myself? Is Gont Mountain useful, or the Open Sea?" When we love things we don't think of their use, but of their being, and enjoy that being and want to share with it more in friendship.