Return of the shadow

Still from Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922)

“[The] shadow is that hidden, repressed, for the most part inferior and guilt-laden personality whose ultimate ramifications reach back into the realm of our animal ancestors. [It] can now be ascertained on closer investigation that the unconscious man, that is his shadow, does not consist only of morally reprehensible tendencies, but also displays a number of good qualities …” — Carl Jung (1963)

Ursula Le Guin: A Wizard of Earthsea (1968)
in The Earthsea Quartet, Puffin Books 1993

When I first read A Wizard of Earthsea (this is now my third read) I almost believed magic could exist, just as I had when I was a child. Le Guin’s words themselves wove a spell — it takes a special skill to make such art appear artless — and I could credit an adept affecting local weather, imagine I, shaman-like, could transform into a bird of prey, even converse with dragons … if they existed. Yet the magic that gripped me most was the terrifying moment when the newly apprenticed wizard conjured up a nameless shadow. Nameless, shadow — what else speaks to our most basic fears than something we can’t identify that manifests in our peripheral vision?

The Earthsea series, and especially the first four books (the quartet as they first known until the author brought out two more volumes) has been pointlessly compared to Tolkien’s Middle Earth books and C S Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia; I say pointlessly because apart from being set in a fantasy world they share little in tone, characterisation and motivation. Tolkien and Lewis recount epic battles where Le Guin has the odd skirmish; the Oxford authors plunder medieval or classical literature for their inspiration while Le Guin creates societies that feel credibly bound in an anthropological matrix; and Middle Earth and Narnia are continents with a Eurocentric aspect while Earthsea is an island archipelago with hints of societies lived on the Pacific Rim. Above all, Le Guin’s protagonists have a psychological depth that is less marked in the British authors, writers whose interests lay more in religion and mythology.

Superficially, A Wizard of Earthsea is a bildungsroman centred on Duny, subsequently known as Sparrowhawk but who withholds the secret name of Ged. Duny it is who exhibits incipient magic powers on the island of Gont, Sparrowhawk who publicly trains on Roke and ministers as a wizard in the Ninety Isles, Ged whose secret name is devined by the shadow which lurks by the threshold of his consciousness, threatening to draw him into a place he doesn’t want to go. The classic tale of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice is the true spring for the narrative, the inadvertent calling up of a Daemon the foolish act of this story’s equivalent of Victor Frankenstein; will the student’s deed here end in tragedy as it did for Mary Shelley’s protagonist or safely result in a lesson learned as it does for Disney’s animated mouse?

Le Guin has turned the fantasy meme of a universal Dark Lord into something more personal, taking her cue from psychology. “The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality,” Jung proposed, “for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real.” Jung believed that this recognition “is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge, and it therefore, as a rule, meets with considerable resistance.”

So it proves with Ged: in a second rash act, smarting under taunts and goaded by his own overweening pride he allows this shadow to escape into his everyday world, to his own physical and mental hurt. Once recovered he attempts to escape from the nemesis haunting him by tackling the dragons on the island of Pendor, but is eventually persuaded that the only respite from pursuit is to become the pursuer. As Jung wrote, “self-knowledge as a psychotherapeutic measure frequently requires much painstaking work extending over a long period.” Ged’s bid to achieve wholeness does indeed demand a considerable period of time, and we fear that without supreme effort and support he will fail.

Rarely do secondary worlds utterly convince, but they do here; and it’s an unusual fantasy hero who allows us to fully believe in their existence and to invest in their future, as in A Wizard of Earthsea. Curiously, despite my earlier strictures, there are parallels with Tolkien’s and Lewis’s worlds — for example, like Bilbo in the Lonely Mountain Ged is able to talk to a dragon, a Narnia-like episode with an Ice Queen in all but name is included, and, as in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, there is a journey by sea east through uncharted waters to fulfil a quest — but I defy anyone to claim Le Guin is slavishly imitating her predecessors. The Earthsea stories from the start allow the reader to completely suspend disbelief, and that excludes any suggestion of her indulging in memes, tropes and clichés. A triumph in 1968, A Wizard of Earthsea still draws in fans, both new and old, fifty years on.


As most of the world heard, Ursula Le Guin died in January of 2018 at the age of 88. Many of her fans on Twitter have spent February #ReadingEarthsea, specifically A Wizard of Earthsea, and this review celebrates the first of some six books in the Earthsea series. I’m indebted to fellow blogger Dale for drawing my attention to this thread.

I mentioned Frankenstein in passing in the review above, so what more fitting than that I review Mary Shelley’s acclaimed novel next, March 2018 being the bicentenary of the appearance of the first edition; though this version is less familiar to modern readers than the 1831 edition that’s more generally available.


2018 Ultimate Reading Challenge: a book with a place in the title

19 thoughts on “Return of the shadow

  1. I didn’t enjoy Wizard of Earthsea when I read it as a child, just because people said it was like Narnia and then it wasn’t. Luckily I have a copy on my shelf so I can give it another go.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, do give it another go! Despite the fact that this has a young protagonist (actually he is a young man by the novel’s end) and that the author had been encouraged to come up with what we’d now call a young adult novel, this is a sophisticated piece of writing: the language is exquisite for a start and the protagonist’s dilemmas convincingly exhibited.

      Though most of the characters are seen through the lens of Ged’s preoccupations that’s not to say they are puppet figures in the drama; and subsequent instalments in the series bring more characters into relief and to our lose attention.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. If I’d read this in my pre-teens or early teens I would have found it unutterably bleak after a promising start and too drawn out and, in a way, inconclusive at the end.

        If I’d read it when I was enjoying LOTR in the one-volume edition back in 1968 I would have appreciated the writing more but perhaps would’ve been disappointed at its lack of ‘epic-ness’.

        Now I’m just in awe of it as a character study and for its prose poetry. Interestingly, on Twitter many experienced readers just don’t get on with it, and of course its male-centredness is a stumbling block for many.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Ugh, it’s so myopic to insert today’s identity politics into a book 50 years old. That kind of discourse is really getting tiresome.

          I guess aside from being an experienced reader, one also has to have the openness of mind to appreciate speculative literature – that KSR quote at the end of my review of Shaman springs to mind. Maybe that is the problem for some?

          Liked by 1 person

          1. “Although this time he was telling the story as simply as he could.” Yes, this was a woman writing a story from the, admittedly third person, POV of a man. Yes, the only significant woman in this tale is a conniving temptress. And yes, wizards in Earthsea seem to be exclusively male. UKLG’s did address and redress this imbalance in later instalments but given that this is first and foremost a human story and not a polemic it’s, as you say, nonsensical to critique it for something it’s not intended to be.

            And of course she ventured deep into polemics territory in later novels.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Great, that applies too! Yet I meant this quote, although it is about SF, I feel parts of it apply to all kinds of speculative fiction: “sf looks at the present and imagines the various futures that could come to pass, given where we are now. It’s not prediction of one future, but consideration of a multitude of possible futures, and that gives sf readers their particular flexibility of mind, their ability to react to history without huge surprise and disorientation.”

              Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m really glad you reviewed this Chris. I’ve heard it mentioned a lot but didn’t quite know what it was about and then Ursula le Guin died earlier this year and I’ve been thinking about it all over again. Sounds like it’s worth a go. Nice review

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks again, Lynn, always appreciate your thoughtful, measured comments (and I mean that in a nice way!). If you’ve never read any UKLG this is as good a place as any to start, though something like The Left Hand of Darkness or The Dispossessed are more usually recommended for adult readers. It’s quite easy to immerse yourself in this world though. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Return of the shadow — Calmgrove – Earth Balm Creative

  4. earthbalm

    Great post and a dynamic series of resulting comments. Again, thanks for the name check. I have to admit that although I took part in the group read, I failed to keep to the reading schedule as I just couldn’t put the book down. Enjoyed it even more as a re-read and couldn’t believe what I had forgotten. Perhaps I ought to read more slowly and let the details sink in.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There was a reading schedule?!? I read it at the beginning of the month and let my thoughts marinate before serving up this review. Like you I couldn’t put it down, and it took a bit of willpower not to carry on with The Tombs of Atuan.

      Anyway, glad you like the review and the comments. On to Mary Shelley next!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I think I saw this at uni, Laurie, shown by the film society, but can’t be sure (so long ago, half a century now!) yet much of the imagery remains in the memory. There was also Werner Herzog’s more recent remake, in colour, not perfect but retaining much of the aesthetic. Yes, lingering sympathy is definitely there for this sad doomed figure! Just finished the 1818 version of Frankenstein (book, not film, of course :)) and the same motifs appear here too; review soon I hope.

      Anyway, do try this novel, it doesn’t disappoint despite its age — another half century survivor!

      Liked by 1 person

Do leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.