A Wizard of Earthsea

First, let me express my hearty thanks to Anton Rose (@antonjrose) for letting me raid his bookshelf so that I could finally read this masterwork of speculative fiction. Second, how did it take me so long to get around to this wonderful little book?

There are a lot of things I could write about when it comes to A Wizard of Earthsea, but I’m going to focus on just one here, and it comes from the end of the book so beware: SPOILERS AHEAD!

If you’re still with me, then let me proceed. For a large chunk of this book (and it’s less than 200 pages long, by the way), Ged is either fleeing from or pursuing a shadow, a denizen of the darkness who was allowed to enter into the real, physical world through Ged’s carelessness and arrogance. The turning point in the story is when Ged transitions from fleeing the shadow to seeking it out. In seeking out what has terrified and crippled him, that thing loses its terrible power over him. All that is well and good, but at the end of Le Guin’s tale, after Ged has finally confronted the shadow and named it with his own name (see, I told you there would be spoilers), his friend Vetch sees that

Ged had neither lost nor won but, naming the shadow of his death with his own name, had made himself whole: a man: who, knowing his whole true self, cannot be used or possessed by any power other than himself, and whose life therefore is lived for life’s sake and never in the service of ruin, or pain, or hatred, or the dark.

This is a powerful narration of the spiritual formation process. We are so prone to emphasizing those facets of our character and personality that make us look good, that make others respect, admire, or appreciate us. But at best that is just a snapshot of who we really are – it’s just the tip of the iceberg. At worst, it’s an outright lie, a fabrication set up to mask and disguise reality.

But wholeness – at least as far as life within the world as we know it is concerned – necessitates acknowledging, embracing, and welcoming our shadow-selves (naming our darkness with our own name and knowing that Christ died for that aspect as well as our “more presentable” side; or as Thomas H. Green, S.J. might have encouraged, we need to learn to sit among our weeds, not just within our wheat). Wholeness rests in allowing Christ to shine his light into the darkness of our souls, welcoming the Spirit into more and more of our hidden places so that they too can be seen and known and redeemed.

Le Guin has not written an allegory of the spiritual life in her little book, but the insight she narrates sheds light on the world around us, on what is true both psychologically and spiritually. And because she has narrated this reality rather than simply telling us that this is the case, the insight is more striking and resonant. We experience it through another’s perspective and we might just see how we can experience it in our own. We might see ways in which we can name our shadow-selves with our own names, and in doing so experience the love of Christ even there, where we may feel darkest and least lovable.

Anselm’s Proslogion

Come now, insignificant man, fly for a moment from your affairs, escape for a little while from the tumult of your thoughts. Put aside now your weighty cares and leave your wearisome toils. Abandon yourself for a little to God and rest for a  little in Him. Enter into the inner chamber of your soul, shut out everything save God and what can be of help in your quest for Him and having locked the door seek Him out [Matt. 6:6]. Speak now, my whole heart, speak now to God: ‘I seek Your countenance, O Lord, Your countenance I seek’ [Ps. 26:8].

There’s a lot to like in reading Anselm’s Proslogion, but the bit I’ve quoted above is probably my favorite.

Anselm is preparing to wade into some difficult questions about the nature of God and how we are to know Him, but before he does, he invites us to stop along with him and attend to God. To not just ask the questions of himself, but of God Himself. He will not idly speculate (why should he?) when the One he longs to know, and know more truly, is available to question. He invites us to ask these questions of God in a place where our hearts and minds will be capable of hearing the answers.

Anselm is following in Augustine’s footsteps here, doing theology as prayer–as conversation with God, the beginning and end of all things. And this is why the two men were canonized! Their lives were marked by the fragrance of Christ obtained through close and thriving association–communion even–with him. Their lives were changed by the God they longed to see and to know. You see, their theological endeavors weren’t just out of a desire for information or to explore the world and how it worked. Their theology was done out of a desire to know God, and in him to know all else. Theology for them was both prayer to God and a seeing of all things in light of their necessary relationship with God, their source and creator.

How could that kind of theological study not leave them changed?