The theme of the journey to the “land of the dead” is not confined to the ancient exploits of Orpheus or Jesus discussed in other articles in this issue. Over the millennia, many storytellers in many cultures have invented tales about this journey, and each time a storyteller narrates their own account of the journey, there are many possibilities for their imaginations to explore. What is the geography of this “land of the dead” and what are its distinctive features? How do people, living or dead, come to this land? Is it possible for anyone, living or dead, to return again to the land of the living? In this article, I will explore how Ursula K. Le Guin depicts the land of the dead in her Earthsea trilogy; in subsequent issues, I will ask these same questions about Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.
In 1968 Ursula K. LeGuin published The Wizard of Earthsea, the first volume in the Earthsea trilogy, followed by The Tombs of Atuan in 1971 and The Farthest Shore in 1972. Although Le Guin has since returned to the land of Earthsea in other writings, the trilogy focuses on the central character, a wizard named Ged, whose exploits unfold in a series of confrontations between the land of the living and of the dead. In the first volume, the young Ged uses a forbidden spell to summon a spirit from the land of the dead. Another wizard exerts all his power to send the spirit back. As that wizard then lies dying, we glimpse his journey from life into death:
The death of a great mage, who has many times in his life walked on the dry steep hillsides of death’s kingdom, is a strange matter: for the dying man goes not blindly, but surely, knowing the way. (63)
We learn more about “the hillsides of death’s kingdom” when Ged later attempts to heal a dying child. His spirit follows the child’s spirit, “running fast and far ahead of him down a dark slope, the side of some vast hill.” Ged realizes he has come too far, and he struggles up the hill and over the low wall that divides life and death:
Either he must go down the hill into the desert lands and lightless cities of the dead, or he must step across the wall back into life. (81)
Ged returns into life, but he will indeed later go down into those lightless cities, in The Farthest Shore, third novel in the trilogy.
As The Farthest Shore begins, Earthsea is stricken by a strange disaster. Magicians no longer remember their spells, singers no longer remember their songs, and there is gloom and madness everywhere. It turns out that a wizard named Cob, seeking immortality, has opened up a breach between the world of the living and the dead so that he can freely pass back and forth, never dying. The hole he has created is sucking out the forces of life itself which power the wizards’ spells and and inspire the singers’ songs. It is up to Ged, now the greatest wizard of his age, to find Cob and close the breach.
On his journey Ged is accompanied by a boy, Arren, whose presence fulfills an ancient prophecy. For centuries, the throne of the King of Earthsea had been empty, awaiting the one “who has crossed the dark land living and come to the far shores of the day” (17). These “far shores of the day” by which Ged and Arren reach the land of the dead — and which give the novel its title — lie at the western edge of the world, on the island of Selidor, a “beautiful and desolate place” (158), where there are no homes of men or of animals. As Ged and Arren walk the island of Selidor, looking for Cob, the desolation of the place prompts Arren to exclaim that Selidor is “as dead as the land of death itself” (165). Ged swiftly corrects him:
Look at this land; look about you. [ ] The hills with living grass on them, and the streams of water running . . . rising cold out of the earth where no eyes sees it, running through the sunlight and darkenss to the sea. (165)
In contrast to the springs of the living land, the land of the dead will be a dry place, unwatered by the streams of being.
Ged and Arren follow Cob into the land of the dead, descending the sloping hillside, and crossing over the wall, going farther than Ged had gone in pursuit of the dying child long ago. They enter the cities of the dead:
The marketplaces were all empty. There was no buying and selling there, no gaining and spending. Nothing was used; nothing was made. (172)
The dead show no signs of their dying or their death: “quiet were their faces, freed from anger and desire, and there was in their shadowed eyes no hope” (173). There is no song or any other craft in the realm of the dead, and those who loved each other in life do not know each other now.
Leaving behind the cities, Ged and Arren then follow the Dry River, which runs beneath the Mountains of Pain, until they find the door that Cob has opened between the worlds, which is at the dry spring of that dry river, the “mouth of dust, the place where a dead soul, crrawling into earth and darkness was born again, dead” (183). Using all his magic powers, Ged closes the door. Ged and Arren lack the strength to go back to the low wall on the hillside, so they must try to climb over the mountains themselves. When Ged collapses, Arren picks him up and carries him towards the summit. From that summit, he sees the shore of that westernmost island, Selidor, where they had left their bodies behind to make this journey among the dead. Arren then awakes, but Ged’s spirit has still not returned to his body. The journey had been a dream, but it was none the less real for having been a dream: Arren’s thirst is that of someone who had been a long time in the dry land. After a while, Ged too finally awakens, and they travel back to the inner islands of Earthsea, and to the royal island of Havnor, where Arren is crowned king, having fulfilled the ancient prophecy.
Ged and Arren have brought nothing and no one out of the kingdom of the dead, only themselves — but they did close the gap in the world, so that the springs of life are no longer flowing out of Earthsea. In LeGuin’s imaginary world, the land of the living and the land of the dead must be kept separate. Death is something to be feared, indeed, but the land of the dead is not a place of punishment; rather, it is part of the natural balance of the world, the balance of light and dark, of water and dust, of waking and sleeping. This hero’s journey has won Arren a kingdom, but we also see the toll paid on such a journey, as Ged has lost his powers of magic. Ged had suspected this would be the price he would pay for having long ago used a forbidden spell to summon one of the dead into the land of the living. That was the terrible mistake he had made as a “Wizard of Earthsea,” and only by making this journey beyond “The Farthest Shore” was he able to set things right again, at last.