Magic in Earthsea and The Problem with Dragons

One of the aspects of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series that fascinated me immediately upon my arrival in her archipelago is the way magic works in her world. While Harry Potter’s wizards focus on spells and wands, and Tolkien’s wizards wield the innate light-power of the Maiar, magic in Earthsea (or rather “magery”) is entirely based on knowing and calling the names of things.

Le Guin’s choice of “magic system” in Earthsea seems to be based on a long tradition of names-based magic, both in European tradition and also in Native American tradition. Le Guin’s father was an anthropologist, and undoubtedly some of his experience and stories shaped the way she approached her world building.

In any case, a young boy who wants to become a wizard of Earthsea must spend a year of long hours poring over endless lists of names in the Isolate Tower on Roke Island, supervised by Kurremkarmerruk, the Master Namer. He tells them that “magic, true magic, is worked only by those beings who speak the Hardic tongue of Earthsea, or the Old Speech from which it grew. That is the language dragons speak.”

And there’s where things get weird.

The Old Speech & Truth

According to the narrator of A Wizard of Earthsea, “Although the use of the Old Speech binds a man to truth, this is not so with dragons.”

Why is that?

We’re told it’s because the Old Speech is a dragon’s native tongue; it’s their speech and they can sorta do with it whatever they dang well please.

But that’s rather unsatisfying to me. I’m no native German speaker, for example, but I could still say “ich spreche Deutsch” and proceed to lie in German. The only thing I actually know in German is “Spülbecken” which means “kitchen sink” and is rather fun to say, so taking German as an example here is pretty fitting.

So the idea that humans simply don’t understand the nuances of the Old Speech and therefore can’t lie in it breaks down a little bit.

I recently slogged through Umberto Eco’s Theory of Semiotics. It was a beast of a book and rather an unpleasant read for many reasons, but I did learn a thing or two from him. One of his claims (boiled down) is that, for a language to have any meaning, you have to be able to lie in it. Or at least that the study of semiotics is the study of anything that can be used to lie. Like a staircase (an actual, befuddling example he uses).

Anyway, in Le Guin’s “Description of Earthsea” in the back of Tales from Earthsea we learn this:

To write in the True Runes, as to speak the Old Speech, is to guarantee the truth of what one says—if one is human. Human beings cannot lie in that language. Dragons can; or so the dragons say; and if they are lying does that not prove that what they say is true?

And that, folks, is where my master’s thesis begins.

I’ve spent the last six months with every spare, sane moment reading everything I could find on Le Guin, Lewis, Tolkien, Barfield, Taoism, the Old Speech, Platonism … everything that seemed to be a useful rabbit hole for answering what really ought to be a simple question:

Why can dragons lie in the Old Speech but humans can’t?

The solution began to peek its head through when I read Owen Barfield’s Poetic Diction. In it, he advocates for the idea that language has shifted over the millennia from being something in which words uttered by humans were things that encompassed meaning and signification, the idea and a poetic understanding all at once. “Sun” meant everything from the big ball of light in the sky to the day in general and all things bright and beautiful. It’s not until after we started to think logically, like Plato and Aristotle and Tweedledee and Tweedledum and Scientists, that we abstracted the poetic meaning away from words. Poetry is something that strives to unify the rational abstractions we have with words with their deeper, inherent, creative meaning.

For Barfield, the job of poetry is to create new meaning, to regain old meaning, to help us look at the world in a new, old, unified way. And the poets are the people who see that unified world in a way that the rest of us as-yet-unpoetic people don’t.

I’m currently in the throes of planning and writing my thesis still, but my initial sketch of a solution revolves around the idea that dragons, not wizards, are the true poets of Earthsea. They see with a deeper sight than wizards. While a wizard says tolk and knows it means “rock”, a dragon says tolk and knows that it means this rock. It sees that rock’s complete identity, it’s story, and knows it for what it is in all its full, unified, poetic complexity.

Le Guin often speaks of telling lies for a living. I’m sure Tolkien would have some choice words for that! But I don’t think she means quite what Lewis meant as a misomythus, a hater of myth. It’s pretty clear that Le Guin loves myths and stories.

And that’s what she means by “lies.” She means things that aren’t true in our primary world. Things that aren’t true by the abstract, un-unified view of the world. Things that are, y’know … poetic.

I’d imagine that dragons “lie” in the same way Le Guin “lies” with her stories. A dragon’s “lies” may well just be expressions of nuance that us boring humans simply reject as untrue.

Enter This Blog

I’ve started Word in Silence for a variety of reasons. Partially, I was inspired by a Signum lecture by Brenton Dickieson, Sørina Higgins, and David Russell Mosley on being a “public intellectual,” along with their own blogs. Definitely check out their work if you’re interested in more thoughts on fantasy than you’ll know what to do with.

This idea of dragons being the poets of Earthsea will be the core of my thesis, I think, and I’m looking forward to digging more into all the little steps along the way!

As I continue the writing stage of my thesis, I expect I’ll use this space to “think on paper” and work out ideas. Hopefully as time goes on, I’ll be able to hear from some of you as you tear my ideas to shreds (to make them stronger, of course. Hopefully.).

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