Wizards as Hermits in Le Guin's Earthsea Cycle

Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea novels and tales have been compared to J. R. Tolkien's Middle Earth trilogy and the novels of C.S. Lewis' Narnia cycle -- if not in popularity, then in ambitious breadth of setting. All three fantasy novelists suffer from being labeled writers of juvenile works, primarily because their protagonists are young people. The label is accurate for Lewis, less so for Tolkien and Le Guin, though historical sagas, myths, tales, fables, legends, and the like are frequently classed as juvenile. As an aside: Some effort is required to understand the cultural and anthropological character of this literature, and adults would do well to be versed in it, representing -- as Rudolf Steiner and others insisted -- humanity's collective consciousness. 

One measure of comparison among the fantasy writers is ontology. If a fantasy writer's created world is the product of personal belief or frame of mind, then Tolkien's Middle Earth is Catholic and Lewis' Narnia is high-church Protestant, both based solidly on Western traditions. In a short essay on Tolkien's lyricism in her collection Wave in the Mind, Le Guin notes that "European story uses triads; Native American story is more likely to do things in fours." Tolkien stopped with three in his Middle Earth trilogy, but after stopping at three for many years, Le Guin made Earthsea a quartet of novels -- and added another novel and stories, too. But as far as ontology, Le Guin is decidedly a Taoist. And her wizards and hermits are, too.

There are no proper hermits in Lewis, as might be expected, and Tolkien's candidates are ambiguous in their eremitism. The wizard Gandalf and the ranger Aragorn are properly wanderers who invariably spend a lot of time alone, but they don't seem to cultivate their solitude. They take on life and meaning in the presence of others or when faced with a project.

More proper hermits of fantasy might be the Star Wars hermits, Yoda and Obi Wan Kenobi, apparently styled as Japanese sages or retired samurai counselors.  Le Guin's sorcerers are employed by lords and cities as part of their regular retinue. But they are minor wizards. Sorcerers and witches perform minor weather, mending, and healing tasks but unlearned in more complex arts.

Wizards are of a higher association, like the sages of ancient China, hovering around monastic-like foundations or independently functioning as counselors and healers as they would in medieval European literary works. Le Guin's Earthsea is at once Celtic, Scandinavian, Germanic, Japanese, Chinese, and Native American. But further, Le Guin's conclave of Roke mages is endearingly reminiscent of the Order in Hermann Hesse's The Glass Bead Game (or, Magister Ludi), complete with Joseph Knecht as what Le Guin would call "archmage."

The reigning ontology assures that plot and personality evolve naturally from circumstances, as opposed to grand questing themes in ancient Greek or Arthurian style, or in reaction to invading armies or other nemeses that will determine the evolution of the characters and plots. The protagonist and wizard Ged goes so far as to attribute his wisdom to his ability not to act, a protocol of the Taoist adept.

Wizards as Hermits

The name Ogion reminds the reader of Edith Wharton's hermit character in her story "The Hermit and the Wild Woman." Le Guin's choice of the name for her most representative hermit may or may not be intentional; there is some resemblance of person but not much. Ogion first appears in A Wizard of Earthsea as Sparrowhawk's master. He is called Ogion the Silent, and it is only later, in a story entitled "The Bones of the Earth" from Tales of Earthsea, that Ogion's origins are revealed. He was the inadvertent disciple of the wizard Dulse or Heleth, and was called Silence by his master, who both observed the taciturn character of his new ward and also insisted on having mostly silence from him.

Dulse, the original wizard of Re Albi, is the model wizard-hermit, independent of the great schemes, rivalries, and power struggles that occupy Earthsea. He is an eighty year old eccentric and domestic figure when first presented in the old house on the Overfell, the house with the new wooden floor (thanks to Silence, his new apprentice), scattered chickens in the yard, beans and cabbages in the garden, and a simple pallet and blanket for sleeping. He grumbles about how fine had been the old mud floor because you didn't  have to clean your bare feet. A near counterpart of Heleth might be T. H. White's Merlin in A Sword in the Stone, only more rooted and mature.

Of Gont and Re Albi, "this was his island, his rock, his dirt. His wizardry grew out of it." Dulse "was a peaceful man, but he did not mind a bit of danger." "Though he was talkative, for a wizard, Heleth was silent as a stone about some things."

But in the greatest crisis of his life, Dulse admitted to Ogion that he wasn't sure his wizardry would work. 

Ogion inherited the little house in Re Albi, outside the village and adjacent to the Overfell, after his master died in the mountain, vainly holding back an earth tremor while his apprentice held it back from the quay. But we are more fully introduced to Ogion in the first Earthsea novel, where he is already a mature man. Here he receives the young Sparrowhawk, names him Ged, and sets out teaching his precocious apprentice. Like a Chinese monk, Ogion teaches no doctrine but only the lore of flora and weather and books, no "marvels and enchantments." When his restless disciple is ready, Ogion then sends him on to the school of wizards at Roke, and that chapter of Ged's life closes and years pass.

Here is a glimpse of the rhythms of his life.

Ogion the Silent had come home late to Re Albi from his autumn wanderings. More silent, more solitary than ever he had become as the years went on. ... Ogion, who spoke to spiders on their webs and had been seen to greet trees courteously, never said a word to the Lord of the Isle. ... There was perhaps some discontent or unease i Ogion's mind, for he spent all summer and autumn alone up on the mountain, and only now nearing Sunreturn was coming back to his hearthside.

Ogion's wanderings are logically seasonal, like the rain retreats of the forest monks of Southeast Asia. Here we have the hermit as wanderer, close to nature, hardly acknowledging the local ruler, inured to physical hardship but content with his old and simple homestead. His wizard powers are carefully conserved and essentially irrelevant, or a mere extension of what he can manage for himself, not a source of power or aggrandizement. There is a prize to pay for power, too.

As a boy, Orion like all boys though it would be very pleasant game to take by art-magic whatever shape on like, man or beast, tree or cloud, and so to play at a thousand beings. But as a wizard he had learned the price of the game, which is the peril of losing one's self, playing away the truth.

The wizard might lose the ability to revert back to human form from being too long a bear, eagle, or snake. Le Guin suggests a clear psychological lesson, that we cannot afford to be alienated from our true and original selves or we risk becoming what society and others want us to be.

Ogion returns in Tehanu, the fourth and "last book" of the Earthsea cycle. Le Guin originally intended a trilogy, as mentioned earlier, but Tehanu appeared nearly twenty years after The Farthest Shore. The latter novel had neatly completed the epic disappearance of Ged the archmage, but Tehanu sought to resolve not only Ged's fate but that of the heroic woman Tenar of The Tombs of Atuan. Rediscovery of other characters includes Ogion.

By this time, long a friend of Tenar the farmer's widow, Ogion is old and sick. He had been a father-figure to the young Tenar, and now she is summoned to his house at the cliff-top because he is dying. She finds him lying on a pallet on the floor.

     "No one is looking after you!"
     "I sent 'em off," he whispered.
     His face was as dark and hard as ever, but his hair was thin and white, and the dim lamp made no spark of light in his eyes.
    "You could have died alone," she said fierce.
    "Help me to do that," the old man said.
    "Not yet," she pleaded, stooping, laying her forehead on his hand.
    "Not tonight," he agreed. "Tomorrow."

The next day Tenar helps Ogion go outdoors and down a forest path to a large beech tree. He lies down and, after a while, dies.

Throughout the course of Tehanu, the reader becomes familiar with Ogion's old house, for it is the setting of Tenar's house after Ogion's death, and later Ged, who has lost his wizard's powers in the epic struggle of The Farther Shore. Ged is now a common person. In this little house, the two remaining protagonists can better identify with the modest Ogion , the mage of Silence who guarded his powers so carefully in obscurity that he was little noticed, dismissed as a hermit.

In a final novel, The Other Wind, Ged refuses to attend the coronation of his protégé Lebannon, who had wanted Ged himself to lay the crown upon his head. But Ged has gone beyond the Confucian dictum to serve the king when good and recluse when the king is evil. He will recluse himself even when the king is good.

Characteristics of Wizards and Hermits

The wizard is bound to be something of a hermit, just as the hermit is bound to identify with some characteristics of the wizard. According to a crude consensus of mythology, fantasy, psychology, and logic, wizards seek to develop the self by manifesting a talent or strength unique to themselves. This strength is a natural one, a refinement of one of the multiple intelligences, as we might say nowadays. A simpler society would have allowed such a power to finds its place. That, at any rate, is a premise of fantasy and prehistory. Except for women, where such powers, threatened the social hierarchy and so were they were branded witches.

The wizard is extraordinarily observant of people, animals, environment, situations, contexts, emotions, and moods. This attentiveness places the wizard beyond the assumed norms of society, where contrivances are given artificial importance. By being so sensitive to nuances, the wizard develops the talent or strength alluded to above and seems to enjoy extraordinary foresight, when, in fact, it is to the wizard simply a matter of logic and observation.

The wizard's desire for what today is called "self-actualization" means a development of a system of values, priorities, and preferences. There is no time or energy to waste on what is unhelpful, irrelevant, harmful, or frivolous. The wizard is thus highly motivated and focused, to the exclusion of society and social conformity. The wizard preserves the necessary autonomy for self-development , for the exercise of unique strengths, skills, and what are considered powers. In that regard, wizards are a refinement of the shaman of more primitive cultures. But the powers are put to creative uses -- innocent, guileless, and in harmony with the purity of nature.

The hermit is often criticized for eccentricity. The criticism is valid if the person is immature and not conscious of self. The wizard may be characteristically eccentric, forgetful, obsessive, irrational. But the hermit can learn from the wizard how to channel excesses of personality into harmless routine.

Ultimately, all behavior traits must work towards the preservation of self-development, creativity and -- for lack of a better word -- wisdom. Originality and creativity are the birthright of the human being. To discover how to express this is the use or acquisition of knowledge, experience, practice, and discipline. But to achieve true self-development, the person must be in harmony with nature, self, and universe. The archetype wizard teaches the hermit how to accept and cultivate the self while remaining free of the crushing weight of social life.


Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea novels and stories have an intrinsic value beyond looking for hermits, of course. Watching for the interplay of wizards, hermits, adventures, and philosophy of life makes for intriguing reading, though. Being more sparse than Tolkien, Le Guin's endearing characters beg for continuous development. But the reader must learn the very patience of the Taoist world of Earthsea, and be content with reflecting on how to respond to one's own more mundane world.