The Right to be Ordinary

Perry Nodelman generously shared his detailed and insightful essay on gender in the developing narrative of Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea books, full of wisdom and rich in neat phrases. His Reinventing the Past: Gender in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Tehanu and the Earthsea\” Trilogy\” looks at how LeGuin seeks to make sense of a Jungian landscape of shadow and a search for wholeness. This post (as I stand in awe at Perry’s scholarship) seeks not to contradict him – I can see what he is doing – but to see the fourth book of the Earthsea Trilogy [sic: and Perry reminds me that there is more to comment on after Tehanu] as a genuine attempt at a conclusion, and especially to assess its impact on my own thinking. I can’t do it without spoilers, and I can’t do it without at least some self-disclosure: apologies all round, perhaps.

A Wizard of Earthsea begins with the identification of a young wizard, a neglected young goat herder. Stumbling into his maturity he encounters power and the ambiguity of failure. His quest brings him close to the primal dragons and across into a land of death, the enemies he encounters only really being faced down as the trilogy unfolds. This is the highest of high fantasy.

The sense of magic ending or fading, marking a lot of great fantasy writing – Tolkien’s elves going into the West, followed by the apotheosis at the end of all things in Lewis’ Narnia, the departure of Merriman and the Old Ones for Susan Cooper – is also present in Ged’s magic world: we see its shadows, its limits, and witness its increasing weakness. Ged finally confronts death, and in a powerful scene the great dragon Orm Embar dies where his father died,

…and the fire died in his nostrils till they became like pits of ash…

LeGuin, The Farthest Shore, ch 11

Fantasy in Earthsea, it seems to me, is in its death-throws on the remote island of Selidor.

In the ending of The Tombs of Atuan Ged’s liberation of Tenar from being a priestess of shadows allows her a recuperation from the grandiose myths she has served,

Tenar’s loss of the power of darkness earns her the right to be ordinary


I see a justice in Tenar liberating the lost and visionless Ged in Tehanu. No longer taking his place is palaces and magic, he learns love and desire and rediscovers the plain concerns of the everyday. Candide-like, the characters turn their backs on the doings of the great and cultivate their own gardens in what Julian Barnes has called horticultural quietism. It was this phrase, and Perry’s line about ordnariness that took me back to Thomas Merton, and although I cannot begin to suggest LeGuin and Merton knew each other or that their common interest in Tao and Zen inspired anything more than a chance convergent evolution, this poem strikes me as having something to say about the ending of Tehanu:

When in the soul of the serene disciple

With no more Fathers to imitate

Poverty is a success,

It is a small thing to say the roof is gone: He has not even a house.

Stars, as well as friends,

Are angry with the noble ruin,

Saints departs in several directions.

Be still:

There is no longer any need of comment.

It was a lucky wind

That blew away his halo with his cares,

A lucky sea that drowned his reputation.

Here you will find

Neither a proverb nor a memorandum.

There are no ways,

No methods to admire

Where poverty is no achievement.

His God lives in his emptiness like an affliction.

What choice remains?

Well, to be ordinary is not a choice:

It is the usual freedom

Of men without visions.

Thomas Merton “When in the Soul of the Serene Disciple” The Strange Islands

The image that is near the top of this blog is the three first Earthsea books and then my iPad; I realise I don’t own a hard copy of Tehanu – which is symbolised by the iPad and a picture of the dawn, the same dawn that ends this post. Sun rises; work impinges: to be ordinary is not a choice. It was this line and similar ones that made me think more than twice about (as the phrase goes) “trying my vocation.” I think my Mertonitis took me away from the monastery more than towards it – and I read Perry’s work and re-read the end of Tehanu on my thirty-nineth wedding anniversary. Thirty-nine years ago… And since then, so much has changed. I am struck by how in my own life and society at large – and immensely so since Earthsea first was published – still there are New things to be learned, no doubt. It is, I think, becoming for the final judgement at the end to belong to Tenar:

She thought of the rows of beans and the scent of the bean flowers. She thought of the small window that looked west. ‘I think we can live there,’ she said.

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