Dancing above the hollow place


will do to start me off on a brief visit to the spirituality represented in Le Guin’s first three Earthsea stories.

And let me start with three sources, rather than end with references:

  • Paul Reps representation of classic Zen texts in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, linked here
  • Alan Watts’ Tao, the Watercourse Way, linked here
  • And the text itself of the Tao Te Ching, which exists in a number of different versions and translations into English – this one, for example, and this one. 

And by saying, as if  it needed saying, that I am no Zen master or Taoist scholar. I cannot begin to explore the riches of these great traditions. I might be the scholar of spirituality that the early expression of  Christian monasticism dismisses as someone who “has filled his window with books.”

So let’s look at Earthsea.  In the first book, A Wizard of Earthsea,  Le Guin describes how Ged, the boy who will be at the centre of all three stories, is recognised by the wizard Ogion, and struggles to make sense of his desire to “learn, to gain power,” when Ogion will not even use magic to stop them getting wet. Silence is key to Ged’s learning, but so also is a simple life. It reminded me of the apprenticeship of a young Buddhist with a mountain hermit, where the apprentice asks about the Buddha-nature and the master responds with instructions about tea, or rice. Ged’s choice of action and scholarship as a Mage in the city/college of Roke colours his life in the next books, to the point where there is a wistfulness about his return to his ageing master in the third book – a wistfulness, and something akin to the tension Herman Hesse explores in Narziss and Goldmund, and The Glass-Bead Game (The desert-and-a-city is also a fundamental tension in the early Christian monastic developments in Egypt, where “going back to the city” is a recurring problem, and word-and-silence a theme throughout the great recounting of the sayings of the desert monastics).

But when we come to the Tombs of Atuan, we are, perhaps, more in the labyrinth of Jungian mapping of the subconscious. The protagonist, Tenar, discovers herself, or she discovers the nature of her role as the Eaten One, the priestess of the claustrophobic  temple above a dark labyrinth,  and then meets the questing Mage, Ged. This is not a master and apprentice relationship as in Book 1, but an uncomfortable negotiation that leads to liberating Tenar to “a vast, clear, wintry sky, a vast barren, golden land of mountains and wide valleys.” As she watches Ged she realises that

Living, being in the world, was a much greater and stranger thing than she had ever dreamed.

It is the same idea, maybe, as Thomas Merton’s lines

…to be ordinary is not a choice:

It is the usual freedom

Of men without visions.

And the very Le Guin-like pondering of R S Thomas:

               …is man’s

meaning in the keeping of himself

afloat over seventy thousand

fathoms, tacking against winds

coming from no direction

going in no direction?

But here we are the heart of the difficulties of very deep spiritual experiences: that there is both enlightenment and no enlightenment, vision and no vision. The night in Ged’s boat, Lookfar, shows Tenar

a vaster darkness… There was no end to it. There was no roof. It went on out beyond the stars. No earthly Powers moved it. It had been before light, and would be after. It had been before life, and would be after. It went on beyond evil.

Is Le Guin referring to the Tao? The core message of the Heart Sutra? No roof, no obstacle, the destroyer of all suffering the incorruptible truth? Maybe I overstate my case, or maybe I’m just jumping the gun.

In The Farthest Shore, the ageing Mage, Ged, has a number of statements very close to classic Taoism. The Chinese links are reinforced by the changing power relationships around the dragons: none of the terrible creatures in Le Guin’s world are really like Qinglong or the other traditional dragons, but the connection seems important: in Earthsea they are also sources of ancient wisdom and magic. They are as necessary in Earthsea as in the heavens of the Jade Emperor.

The Farthest Shore is already a special text  for me, and I know I will read it again. This is partly because of the episode below, and the ways that master and pupil interact, lose sight of one another, face doubt and pain and come to their understanding of their lives together. I know this is simply a personal matter, but in terms of tonight’s blog post it has some relevance. For me the most meaningful episode is the confrontation and reconciliation that occurs when the youth Arren recognises his despair as he discusses his all-but abandonment of his hero, Ged. The stricken hero effects the reconciliation with a resounding rhetoric:

…This is. And thou art. There is no safety. There is no end. The word must be heard in silence. There must be darkness to see the stars. The dance is always danced above the hollow place, above the terrible abyss.

The dance above the emptiness, the Yin and Yang.  The wording  echoes the song that starts the first book, which the boy Arren then sings when the summer ritual falters, and brings us back to the silence of meditation.

There is much, much more, of course: Farthest Shore is a moving, insightful Pilgrim’s Progress around society’s attitude to death, for one thing, but for this blog this will have to do for the lyrical prose about self-discovery. I am sailing too close to the Argus posters of the 70s.

There is, however, one, much more explicit, Taoist link, in Ch 4. The reader begins to understand what might be in store as Ged, the understanding and compassionate leader whose decisions will take Arren  into danger and death (yes, there are shades of Dumbledore and Harry, or rather we might check off another source for Rowling), sees the youth’s future as king. He talks to the youth of kingship and its role in the Earthsea world:

We must learn to keep the balance. Having intelligence we must not act in ignorance. Having choice we must not act without responsibility. Who am I – though I have the power to do it – to punish and reward, playing with men’s destinies?

[…] I will continue to do good, and to do evil … But if there were a king over us all again, and he sought counsel of a mage, as in the days of old, and I were that mage, I would say to him: My lord, do nothing because it is righteous, or praiseworthy, or noble, to do so; do nothing because it seems good to do so; do only that which you must do, and which you cannot do in any other way.’”

Powerful. Compare these extracts from the Tao Te Ching:

[37] If kings and the nobilities can abide by their true nature and follow the great Tao, All things shall be reformed naturally. If during the process of reform, desires arouse. I shall overcome with the simplicity of original nature. With the simplicity of true nature, there shall be no desire. Without desire, one’s original nature will be at peace.

[46] The greatest crime is to have too much desire. The greatest disaster is not to find contentment. The greatest mistake is to desire for endless possession. Hence, when one is gratified with self-contentment, True contentment can then long endure.

Le Guin puts her hero Ged into questing and travelling narratives, and while the wandering scholar is at home in Buddhism and Taoism, it would be misleading to ignore the Tao Te Ching when it says

[47]…there is no need to leave the house to take journey in order to know the world. There is no need to look outside of the window to see the nature of Tao.

To end the post. If we understand there are religious/philosophical influences here, how might it warn the reader to read carefully? I find the points at which Le Guin seems to lay bare a theological approach based on Buddhism/Taoism (I am very aware they are not the same) almost at the same level as C S Lewis lays bare in Narnia a Western Christian cosmology. If this is the key to Le Guin’s world as Anglican Christianity is to Narnia, then it is more than an oriental wallpaper, and needs to be treated with as much regard.

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