The gestures of trees
Last updated: 12.13.2020
Published: 10.24.2020

The gestures of trees

Recently I read Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. The book has a certain kind of ethos, which I found moving and beautiful, but which can seem — to some, and to some parts of me — questionable. In this post, I’m going to try to gesture at that ethos; in the next, I hope to scrutinize it. I’m aiming to avoid salient spoilers, but I’ll discuss many details from the book, and give quotes.

The book’s ethos is perhaps best expressed in Ogion the Silent, the wizard who takes the main character, Ged, as an apprentice early in the book. True to his name (the book cares about the truth of names), Ogion speaks little: “to hear,” he says, “one must be silent.” He lives plainly and without magical conveniences. Other wizards use magic to ward off the rain; Ogion lets it fall. And he teaches no spells to Ged, save the runes Ged will eventually need to know. Instead, the master instructs his apprentice to learn herb-gathering, familiarity with local weeds and seedpods, and how to wander in the woods. Yet Ogion’s power is deep: once he calmed a mountain with his words, preventing an earthquake.

Soon, Ged — young, eager for power and recognition — chooses to leave this slow, quiet apprenticeship for a Wizarding school where he will learn more magic faster. Much of the early book is animated by the tension between Ged’s pride and Ogion’s ethos, which the teachers at the school largely share.

Later, Ged is humbled, and his journey in humility is, I think, what gripped me most about the book. Here, for example, is a passage that follows Ged’s journey to the dry hills of the dead, in which he is almost lost, and after which the nuzzling of his otak — a sleek, furred creature who travels with him in his robes — revives him:

“It was only the dumb instinctive wisdom of the beast who licks his hurt companion to comfort him, and yet in that wisdom Ged 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, and in later years he strove long to learn what can be learned, in silence, from the eyes of animals, the flight of birds, the great slow gestures of trees.”

Ged also shares Ogion’s openness to humble labor and craft. At one point, a ship won’t take his money or his magic as fare, so he joins the crew as an oarsman. At another, he befriends a boat-maker with an act of kindness towards the man’s son, and ends up learning to build and handle boats without magic — a skill that is later central to his voyaging.

Power, here, is in roots of things, and the roots join: “years and distances, stars and candles, water and wind and wizardry… My name, and yours, and the true name of the sun, or a spring of water, or an unborn child, all are syllables of the great word that is very slowly spoken by the shining of the stars.” The wise are the ones who can listen.

In doing so, they seem to inhabit many worlds at once. Ged can see enchanted doors others can’t. He steps off his boat into the open sea, and also onto an island. He is in a cottage, and also in the land of the dead, where he knows the constellations by name — the Sheaf, the Door, the One Who Turns, the Tree — but has never seen the stars.

Here is one of my favorite illustrations of the magical universe of the book, from Ged’s first entry into the wizarding school:

“‘Welcome to this house, lad,’ the doorkeeper said, and without saying more led him through halls and corridors to an open court far inside the walls of the building. The court was partly paved with stone, but was roofless, and on a grassplot a fountain played under young trees in the sunlight. There Ged waited alone some while. He stood still, and his heart beat hard, for it seemed to him that he felt presences and powers at work unseen about him here, and he knew that this place was built not only of stone but of magic stronger than stone. He stood in the innermost room of the House of the Wise, and it was open to the sky.

Then suddenly he was aware of a man clothed in white who watched him through the falling water of the fountain. As their eyes met, a bird sang aloud in the branches of the tree. In that moment Ged understood the singing of the bird, and the language of the water falling in the basin of the fountain, and the shape of the clouds, and the beginning and end of the wind that stirred the leaves: it seemed to him that he himself was a word spoken by the sunlight.

Then that moment passed, and he and the world were as before, or almost as before.”

And later:

“The Archmage looked at Ged and looked away, and began to speak in a tongue that Ged did not understand, mumbling as will an old old man whose wits go wandering among the years and islands. Yet in among his mumbling there were words of what the bird had sung and what the water had said falling. He was not laying a spell and yet there was a power in his voice that moved Ged’s mind so that the boy was bewildered, and for an instant seemed to behold himself standing in a strange vast desert place alone among shadows. Yet all along he was in the sunlit court, hearing the fountain fall.”

(This last part – the overlapping worlds, the desert and the courtyard — seems vaguely familiar to me. A few weeks ago, for example, there was a moment where a room I spend a lot of time in seemed a different room than usual, surrounded by a different world.)

Sometimes, Earthsea wisdom seems primarily oriented towards balance. I hope to say more about this in my next post. Notably, though, it also comes with a must:

“You thought, as a boy, that a mage is one who can do anything. So I thought, once. So did we all. And the truth is that as a man’s real power grows and his knowledge widens, ever the way he can follow grows narrower: until at last he chooses nothing, but does only and wholly what he must do…

What is this must? It doesn’t feel moralized: the possibility of guilt or blame is not in focus. But maybe it’s moral after all. Maybe this is simply what duty feels like when its basis is seen clearly. I’m reminded of stories of people who jump onto the subway tracks to save someone who has fallen, and who later say that they had no choice, they didn’t even think about it.

This, then, is a gesture at the ethos of A Wizard of Earthsea. To me, it is deeply resonant. But I also wonder if resonance obscures skepticism. In the next post, I’m going to try scrutinize this ethos more.