Journey to the Sea

an online magazine devoted to the study of myth

The Land of the Dead in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea

Posted by Laura Gibbs • Jul 1st, 2009

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.


Works Cited

6 Responses »

  1. Great introduction to Earthsea. Do you plan to delve any further into Le Guin’s conception of the land of the dead? As I’m sure you know, she returns there in The Other Wind (2001). In some ways, though perhaps more metaphorically, the second Earthsea book, The Tombs of Atuan, also involves a jouney to the underworld. Here, however, it is the relgion / mythology of the Kargad lands, not the Hardic islands, that Le Guin explores. There is also “The Word of Unbinding” (1964), a short story collected in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, which predates and in some ways anticipates The Farthest Shore. I’ve always found her image of the underworld remarkably vivid (irony intended) and very haunting.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Jason! Tombs of Atuan is actually my personal favorite of all of her books – and of course there are the hints of those terrifying “old gods” throughout the Earthsea books. Haunting is definitely the word: I’m amazed at how LeGuin is able to convey and suggest so much in books that are really quite short – yet every time I re-read them, I discover new things. She’s quite a hero of mine! Have you read her science fiction novel, The Lathe of Heaven? A genius book: I re-read that one again recently as well, and found it as amazing as ever.

    I’m not quite sure what is going to come of this little series of articles here at Journey to the Sea looking at the land of the dead – I am a big fan of LeGuin, and also of the beautiful metaphors that Pullman develops in his depiction of our deaths in The Subtle Knife (that’s what I’ll be doing for the next issue)… I’m hoping somehow to use these thoughts about LeGuin and Pullman (both of whom I like very very much) to set up just why I have found Rowling’s books to be so disappointing by comparison. Anyway, we’ll see how that all turns out. It’s an excuse for me to read LeGuin and Pullman again, which is such a pleasure, and it’s meant to coincide with Rowling’s Deathly Hallows finally coming out in paperback this month. That’s a sure sign of my undevotional attitude towards Harry Potter – I’ve waited for the paperback edition before reading the final volume… :-)

  3. Interesting topic this month! I’ve just read three of the Earthsea books for the first time recently, and really enjoyed them.

    I couldn’t help but think of one of the most memorable literary “land of the dead” that I’ve read, and that is in All Hallow’s Eve by Charles Williams. I found the opening chapter of that book especially to be a powerful and interesting depiction of a kind of in-between world of living and dying.

    Just wondered if you’ve read this…

    Thanks for this article. I’m enjoying these monthly posts.

  4. Thanks for the book suggestion, Leanne – that is not a book I have read, and the information I found by Googling the title and authors makes it sound really fascinating. I will definitely track down a copy and read it. Thanks so much! :-)

  5. [mild spoiler alert: plot elements from Le Guin's The Other Wind and Pullman's The Amber Spyglass are revealed in this post]

    It seems to me that Le Guin’s treatment of the dry land as part of a “natural balance” changes substantially in The Other Wind, written decades after The Farthest Shore. In fact, I thought Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass echoed it strongly. In both cases the land-of-the-dead as a dim dry place where the dead mill about aimlessly becomes exposed as an unnatural aberrance that needs (and receives) repair.

  6. Hi George, thank you for your comments! You are so right about LeGuin’s vision of Earthsea changing dramatically as she returned to it in later years (even magic itself is viewed very differently in Tehanu, where we get to see Ged in such a different way than before) – which makes sense, of course; there is no reason why world views should be monolithic in fictive worlds, any more so than in the real world in which we live. I’m going to be writing something about Pullman next time, and I’m really looking forward to sorting through his vision of death; it is one of the most powerful elements of the trilogy, I think. Meanwhile, I don’t know if you have read LeGuin’s recent novel Lavinia, but it has some really mind-bending speculation about the meaning of life and death and the status of fictional characters (mythical characters) in relationship to the people who tell stories about them, their “authors” – great stuff. There’s a review online here at Salon.com: http://www.salon.com/books/review/2008/05/01/LeGuin/