Hello everyone. Welcome back to the /ursulakleguin
Earthsea Reread. We are currently reading the third book, The Farthest Shore,
and this post is for the third chapter, "Hort Town." If you're wondering what this is all about, check out the introduction post
, which also contains links to every post in the series so far. Previously: Chapter Two, "The Masters of Roke."
Chapter Three: Hort Town
At 31 pages, "Hort Town" is, by far, the longest chapter in the entire series so far. (The previous books' longest chapters topped out at sixteen pages.) I thought about splitting the write-up into two parts, but. . . nah. We're just going to do it. I imagine I'll eventually need to change things up (there are only five chapters in The Other Wind
and they're all super long) but for now I'm going to stubbornly stick to one chapter, one post. So strap in.
On the morning of the spring equinox, Sparrowhawk and Arren set sail for Hort Town. They are aboard Ged's famous ship Lookfar
, which he has had since the end of A Wizard of Earthsea
. I imagine it didn't see much use in the last five years while Sparrowhawk was Archmag. Indeed he is openly enthusiastic about getting to go somewhere
and do something
. He tells Arren they will be going incognito as Uncle Hawk and his nephew, and practices his Enlad accent. He sails Lookfar
by hand, without magic or magewind.
The second night out it rained, the rough, cold rain of March, but he said no spell to keep it off them. . . Arren thought about this, and reflected that in the short time he had known him, the Archmage had done no magic at all.
This is an echo (Earthsea is full of echoes, repeats, cycles) of Ged's first few days apprenticed under Ogion, in A Wizard of Earthsea
. Ogion would not turn the rain aside either, or cast spells to satisfy young Ged's impatience. Now Ged is the master, and keeps the Balance and the Equilibrium just as Ogion taught him, though he has not Ogion's quiet heart. But Arren is a more faithful, patient student than Ged was as a boy. He doesn't seem bothered by the lack of magic. Besides, Sparrowhawk has been teaching him sailing.
He was a peerless sailor. . . Arren had learned more in three days' sailing with him than in ten years of boating and racing on Berila Bay. And mage and sailor are not so far apart; both work with the powers of sky and sea, and bend great winds to the uses of their hands, bringing near what was remote. Archmage or Hawk the sea-trader, it came to much the same thing.
On the second night, Sparrowhawk confesses to Arren that he's been pretending to be free from his responsibilities ("That I'm not Archmage, not even sorcerer") and that he doesn't want their peaceful journey to end.
"Try to choose carefully, Arren, when the great choices must be made. When I was young, I had to choose between the life of being and the life of doing. And I leapt at the latter like a trout to a fly. But each deed you do, each act, binds you to itself and its consequences, and makes you act again and yet again. Then very seldom do you come upon a space, a time like this, between act and act, when you may stop and simply be. Or wonder who, after all, you are."
How could such a man, thought Arren, be in doubt as to who and what he was? He had believed such doubts were reserved for the young, who had not done anything yet.
This distinction that he draws here between the life of doing and the life of being, and the alluded-to moment of choice between Ogion and Roke, is a key concept for me in understanding Ged's character. I've already alluded to it before in this series and I probably will again.
They discuss also what it is they are searching for. Arren asks if it might be a plague or pestilence, of a sort that can affect the spirit as well as the body. No, says Sparrowhawk:
"A pestilence is a motion of the great Balance, of the Equilibrium itself; this is different. There is the stink of evil in it. We may suffer for it when the balance of things rights itself, but we do not lose hope and forego art and forget the words of the Making. Nature is not unnatural."
And I have to say that as much as I have found Le Guin's writing to be relevant for our times (see this thread
about "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas"), this passage is not relevant or useful for us, in my opinion. There is very little comfort or sense to be found in thinking of the suffering and death of our current pandemic as "natural," or as a restoration of a great Balance. A virus may be a thing of nature, but I know now that a plague is not
simply natural. Partly it is biological, but at least as much it is political; it is social; it is cultural. There is the stink of evil in it. And not just our current pandemic: a hundred years ago the influenza of 1918 was just as man-made as is the coronavirus of 2020. So to me Le Guin very much misses the mark here.
Sparrowhawk says that he expects to find a man at the root of this ill. Only men can do evil, just as only men can fight evil. So a man, and a mage. Arren protests that he had been taught (as has the reader) that wizardry depended on the Balance and Equilibrium, so how can a mage do evil?
"That," said Sparrowhawk somewhat wryly, "is a debatable point. 'Infinite are the arguments of mages'. . . The Firelord, who sought to undo the darkness and stop the sun at noon, was a great mage; even Erreth-Akbe could scarcely defeat him. The Enemy of Morred was another such. Where he came, whole cities knelt to him; armies fought for him. The spell he wove against Morred was so mighty that even when he was slain it could not be halted, and the island of Soléa was overwhelmed by the sea, and all on it perished. Those were men in whom great strength and knowledge served the will to evil and fed upon it. Whether the wizardry that serves a better end may always prove the stronger, we do not know. We hope."
I could not resist quoting this in full. First, it's another instance of Infinite are the arguments of mages
, which is a saying repeated throughout the six books (Vetch quoted it to Ged, when they were discussing whether or not Ged's shadow had a name.) Second, it's got that mythology. Sounds like the two greatest heroes of Earthsea each had their own fitting, mighty enemy. This was the Enemy whose name Morred saw written in the rain. I think the Firelord's plot to "undo the darkness" bears some resemblance to the short-sighted death-denial which we will begin to discover in Hort Town.
The pattern of great heroes having great enemies is also a bad sign for Ged. In the first two books, the servants of evil were not defeated but reconciled, embraced. What had been broken was made whole. Now, though...Ged is perhaps as great a wizard as were Morred and Erreth-Akbe; does he know it? Does he see the danger of at last finding his own fitting enemy; and though he may triumph, does he yet fear what he may lose as dear to him, as world-altering, as the island swallowed by the pitiless sea?
So nature is incapable of evil. It is a capability unique to men. This is a statement the reader might nod along with. But then Arren asks, "What of dragons?" And now the reader says, hang on, yeah, we're in Earthsea! What about dragons?" It's a deft shift from direct commentary on our world, back to the world of Earthsea (a type of trick that the fantasy genre is uniquely suited for; Susanna Clarke is also very good at this), and Sparrowhawk's answer is fascinating:
"The dragons! The dragons are avaricious, insatiable, treacherous; without pity, without remorse. But are they evil? Who am I, to judge the acts of dragons?. . . They are wiser than men are. It is with them as with dreams, Arren. We men dream dreams, we work magic, we do good, we do evil. The dragons do not dream. They are dreams. They do not work magic: it is their substance, their being. They do not do; they are."
This, I feel, must
have some philosophical or mystical correspondence in the real world, that Le Guin is describing for us, but I'm not sure what it is. The dragons are a manifestation, a literalization of. . . something. Maybe dreams. Maybe a certain state or spiritual attainment that humans can strive for. Any Daoists in the audience with thoughts on this?
God, we're only seven pages into the chapter. That conversation was too good. Moving on: Ged and Arren reach Hort Town on the third day. Nervously eyeing a slave galley moored nearby, Arren reaches for his sword, but decides not to take it with him. ("It makes me feel a fool. It is too much older than I.") He takes his knife instead Sparrowhawk dons a magical glamor, the persona of the sea-trader Hawk, and they set off through the busy marketplace.
It's creepy, in Hort Town. Unsettling. Sparrowhawk seems to be searching for any sign of magic, but what they mostly find are signs of widespread drug addiction. This is a drug called hazia
which seems to bear some similarities to heroin:
"It soothes and numbs, letting the body be free of the mind. And the mind roams free. But when it returns to the body it needs more hazia. . . And the craving grows and the life is short, for it is poison."
Groups of lethargic hazia addicts are laying openly in the street, ignored by everyone except the flies that congregate over their mouths. Sparrowhawk, who has been to Hort Town before, is shocked that there are so many.
Finally in one of the market squares they find a stall run by a woman who, unlike everyone else they've seen so far, still has some verve and vim in her. Yet her friendly banter turns to defensiveness when Sparrowhawk, who recognizes her, recalls that years ago she used to perform showy magical illusions for her living:
"We don't do those tricks anymore. People don't want 'em. They've seen through 'em. . . Those who want lies and visions chew hazia," she said. "Talk to them if you like!"
Sparrowhawk persists, asking if every
sorcerer in Hort Town has turned to other trades. The woman loses her temper:
"There's a sorcerer if you want one, a great one, a wizard with a staff and all—see him there? He sailed with Egre himself, making winds and finding fat galleys, so he said, but it was all lies, and Captain Egre gave him his just reward at last; he cut his right hand off. And there he sits now, see him, with his mouth full of hazia and his belly full of air. Air and lies! Air and lies! That's all there is to your magic, Seacaptain Goat!"
This was incredibly disturbing to me the first time I read it. The magic just. . . doesn't work anymore? Imagine how frightening that would be if that happened and you didn't know why. But worse yet is that part of the evil seems to be that people are apathetic, they ignore it, they pretend there is no problem.
The man pointed out by the stall-keeper, the former wizard, is someone Sparrowhawk thinks he might have heard of, a man called Hare. They tail Hare down a series of streets (Arren's "senses were all alert, as they were during a stag-hunt in the forests of Enlad.")
At last Sparrowhawk catches up with the lethargic, apathetic Hare. But Hare's attention is roused when Sparrowhawk speaks some words of the Language of the Making.
"You can still speak—speak—Come with me, come—"
And he brings them to where he lives, a bare room with only a sack stuffed with straw for a mattress. (Sparrowhawk seats himself on the floor "with the simplicity of one whose childhood had been totally without furnishings." I love how Le Guin never stops pointed out that Ged came from some of the poorest folk on Earthsea.)
Hare cannot speak the Language of the Making. Literally cannot. He cannot even say the word wizard.
He has to say dragon
instead. He weeps when Sparrowhawk speaks the words he's lost.
Sparrowhawk asks Hare how he lost his power.
"Yes. I remember being alive," the man said in a soft, hoarse voice. "And I knew the words and the names. . ."
"Are you dead now?"
"No. Alive. Alive. Only once I was a dragon. . . I'm not dead. I sleep sometimes. Sleep comes very close to death, everyone knows that. The dead walk in dreams, everyone knows that. They come to you alive, and they say things. They walk out of death into the dreams. There's a way. And if you go on far enough there's a way back all the way. You can find it if you know where to look. And if you're willing to pay the price."
"What price is that?" Sparrowhawk's voice floated on the dim air like the shadow of a falling leaf.
"Life—what else? What can you buy life with, but life?"
It's erratic and obscure, a free-association ramble, but there is something in there. He's talking about people coming back from death, somehow. Sparrowhawk also thinks Hare is saying that he did not lose
his power, but traded it away.
Hare urges Sparrowhawk to come back again that night, if he wants to see the way ("I'll take you. I'll show you.") Sparrowhawk hedges and says that he might. Later to Arren, he says Hare is likely to set an ambush for them, but they also might not find any better leads. Arren asks if the Archmage isn't defended from thieves. ("What do you mean? D'you think I go about wrapped up in spells like an old woman afraid of the rheumatism?")
They go back into town. Arren feels uneasy, on edge. There is something deeply wrong in Hort Town.
The squares and streets bustled with activity and business, but there was neither order nor prosperity. Goods were poor, prices high, and the markets were unsafe for vendors and buyers alike, being full of thieves and roaming gangs. Not many women were on the streets, and the few there were appeared mostly in groups. . .
There was no center left in the city. The people, for all their restless activity, seemed purposeless. Craftsmen seemed to lack the will to work well; even the robbers robbed because it was all they knew how to do. All the brawl and brightness of a great port-city was there, on the surface, but all about the edges of it sat the hazia-eaters, motionless. And under the surface, things did not seem entirely real, not even the faces, the sounds, the smells. They would fade from time to time during that long, warm afternoon while Sparrowhawk and Arren walked the streets and talked with this person and that. They would fade quite away. The striped awnings, the dirty cobbles, the colored walls, and all the vividness of being would be gone, leaving the city a dream city, empty and dreary in the hazy light.
Again, I had a huge anxiety spike the first time I read this. Pulls some particular knotted fear-cord inside me. That frantic activity papered over a universal hopeless dread. . . the unstoppable slide into unreality...it gets to me. You win this round, Le Guin.
It is scarcely to be wondered that Sparrowhawk and Arren have no luck finding more information. So at dusk, they return to Hare's room. (In a gesture I find rather endearing, Hare has gotten a second straw-sack for his guests to sit on—though Arren chooses to stand guard in the doorway instead.)
Hare urges Sparrowhawk to take hazia, insisting that it's the only way to follow him. ("We've got to go the same way.") Of course Sparrowhawk refuses.
Hare, who has already taken hazia, rambles worse than ever as he tries to argue the point.
". . . I'm going to be going pretty soon now; if you want to find out where, you ought to do what I say. I say as he does. You must be a lord of men to be a lord of life. You have to find the secret..."
What's this—"I say as he does"? This is the first time Hare has mentioned any he.
And then he says this:
"No death. No death—no! No sweaty bed and rotting coffin, no more, never. The blood dries up like the dry river and it's gone. No fear. No death. The names are gone and the words and the fear, gone. Show me where I get lost, show me, lord..."
A lord, then. There is a he, a lord, who has shown Hare how to deny death, how to be a "lord of life."
And though the reader will not fear for Ged, who embraced his death long ago, Arren
proves susceptible to Hare's erratic rapture.
Arren listened, listened, striving to understand. If only he could understand! Sparrowhawk should do as he said and take the drug, this once, so that he could find out what Hare was talking about, the mystery that he would not or could not speak. Why else were they here?
Arren has not taken hazia, nor even spoken to Hare, but something is wrong. Arren feels drowsy and like he's missing chunks of time. His thoughts suddenly seem to ramble almost as disjointedly as Hare speaks. He knows he is supposed to guard the door.
But it was hard, hard to keep watching those two faces, the little pearl of the lamp-flame between them on the floor, both silent now, both still, their eyes open but not seeing the light or the dusty room, not seeing the world, but some other world of dream and death . . . to watch them and not try to follow them . . . .
There, in the vast, dry darkness, there one stood beckoning. Come, he said, the tall lord of shadows. In his hand he held a tiny flame no larger than a pearl, held it out to Arren, offering life. Slowly Arren took one step toward him, following.
And no sooner is the lord hinted at, then he (or rather a vision of him) appears, right there in the room. And that's
where the chapter (finally) ends. God, there aren't a lot of cliffhangers in Earthsea, but this one's incredibly tense. We will have to wait until next time to see how it is resolved. Next: Chapter Four, "Magelight."
Thank you for reading along with me. Please share your thoughts in the comments.