Study Guide

A Wizard of Earthsea Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Ursula K. Le Guin

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Shadow

Here's what happens when you don't have electrical light and have to use candles and torches – you get a heck of a lot of shadows. A Wizard of Earthsea is kind of like a shadow magnet: it's just covered in them. Let's check out the very first chapter for some examples:

  • Ged uses fog and shadows to deal with the Karg raiders (1.40);
  • During his naming ceremony, clouds cover the sun and cast shadows (1.48); and
  • When Ogion takes Ged with him, they pass "through the leaves and shadows of bright autumn" (1.51).

We could go on and on – we counted over a hundred mentions of shadow/shadows, which averages out to about ten shadows per chapter – but that last example points out something useful: even a "bright autumn" has shadows. Or rather, "a bright autumn" will especially have shadows because you need to have some light to get all those shadows.

So if someone asks you, "Why does this book have a lot of shadows rather than darkness?" you can answer that shadows need light. The Master Hand actually makes this point when he notes, "To light a candle is to cast a shadow …" (3.57). Aha! Shadows are another symbol of the cause-and-effect issue that comes up a lot in this book. (That is, the Balance.) Shadows are caused by something – light – that seems to be their exact opposite. It's almost like opposites are connected to each other and depend on each other.

There's another thing about shadows: unless you jump or fly, your shadow's going to stay attached to you. Archmage Gensher reminds Ged of that when he tells him that the shadow monster is connected to him (4.78).

Let's sum this up. Your shadow may be dark and scary, but shadows are an effect of light (you can't have one without the other). Also, your shadow is a part of you. That's why Ged's main competition in the book is his own shadow. It's a necessary part of him, and it's not something that he can really kill, so he has to recognize that it's part of him.

Birds

After shadows (which are everywhere – Ged's main enemy is a shadow, after all), birds may seem like pretty small potatoes in this book. But still, they're pretty common:

  • Ged summons falcons to him, which is why people call him Sparrowhawk;
  • Ogion lives in Re Albi, which means "Falcon's Nest" (2.17);
  • When Ged meets Archmage Nemmerle, he seems to understand the singing of the birds (3.13);
  • Vetch imagines Ged flying high like a hawk (4.94);
  • Serret turns into a gull to escape the Servants of the Stone (which doesn't so much work for her), while Ged turns into a falcon to fly back to Ogion (which does work, except that he can't turn back into a human); and
  • A few more here and there. (Like Vetch's brother Murre, who's also named after a bird, but not a bird that we care about. Like, some people have folklore about ravens, but who tells stories about murres?)

Hmm. Why birds? Why not dragons or dolphins? Or otaks? Well, as much as we love otaks and dolphins, birds have two special qualities: first, they're real rather than mythical, so we all know about birds, and it's easy to picture them. Second, birds fly, which is something that humans can't do. Dolphins swim, but Ged can swim too (or sail, to get over the water), so turning into a dolphin would be neat but not totally new. Flying, on the other hand, is something entirely new for people – people can't fly unless they're wizards or live in a post-Industrial Revolution and post-Wright Brothers world. So the bird-human connection reminds us that wizards are a special. And can also get a bird's-eye view of things.

Ooh, let's not forget that birds sing, which brings us to our third symbol …

Song and Dance

We actually have a whole page on "Themes: Language," which is super important to the book. You know, there's a particular language that people use for magic (Old Hardic) and magic is only possible if you know the true names. Ged even thinks about himself as being a word spoken by the sunlight (3.13).

But there's something that doesn't entirely fit, which is that song and dance are particularly important in Earthsea's culture. All of their historical lessons are put into poems and songs (which the Master Chanter teaches the students). And one of the most important ceremonies of Earthsea is the Long Dance, which is their New Year's celebration – they sing all about the history and dance to welcome the new year (4.6-7). By singing and dancing all together, the people of Earthsea share a connection.

And on that note, check out this line: "So, as the mageborn will, Ged made his fear and regret into a song, a brief lament, halfsung, that was not for himself alone" (10.11). Interesting. It seems like speaking spells is a very individual thing to do; but by contrast, singing is a public and social act – it's a way to share.