The Ocean and the Word

Spells and enchantments are enticing to writers because they suggest that words – the writer’s most beloved commodity – have power and value beyond what simply appears on the page. And in 1968 Ursula LeGuin incorporated the similarities between writing and magic into her masterful bildungsroman A Wizard of Earthsea. Long before Harry Potter, A Wizard of Earthsea is the story of a young man sent to a school for wizards, to learn the craft of magic.

Words, more specifically the ancient tongue known as the Old Speech, are the foundation of power in the Earthsea universe. Our hero learns that words have the power to change and shape the world. No lies can be told in the Old Speech (save by dragons, although that’s a whole other story) as it is the language of truth, the language of being whose words do not describe things but are things. As LeGuin said:

For magic consists in this, the true naming of a thing…magic, true magic, is worked only by those beings who speak the Hardic tongue of Earthsea, or the Old Speech from which it grew. That is the language dragons speak, and the language Segoy spoke who made the islands of the world, and the language of our lays and songs, spells, enchantments, and invocations.

A Wizard of Earthsea is one of my favorite books and my copies of the  Earthsea cycle are battered and worn from frequent reading. So imagine my surprise when halfway through nerd-lord Neil Gaiman’s most recent book, The Ocean At the End of the Lane, I came across these lines, spoken at the introduction of a character named Ursula, no less:

In those dreams I spoke that language too, the first language, and I had dominion over the nature of all that was real. In my dream, it was the tongue of what is, and anything spoken in it becomes real, because nothing said in that language can be a lie. It is the most basic building brick of everything. In my dreams…I had spoken the language of shaping.

How’s that for an homage? Gaiman’s Ursula even has her name, thought to be secret, used against her – just what happens to the dragon Yevaud in both ‘The Rule of Names’ (LeGuin, 1964) and A Wizard of Earthsea. To say that these sections borrow from LeGuin would be an understatement and, to my own surprise, this homage ultimately detracted from my enjoyment of The Ocean At the End of the Lane.

As I don’t imagine that Gaiman meant anything but kindness by leaning on LeGuin, why am I averse to this passage? I’ll need to look to music to explain.

My favorite band, Gatsbys American Dream, often leaned heavily on books, games, movies and TV shows for not just the names of their songs but also for the content of their lyrics. ‘The Loosing of the Shadow,’ for example, is based upon none other than A Wizard of Earthsea and takes its name from the book’s fourth chapter. One of the things I love about Gatsbys is that their songs reference other works – there’s something so gratifying about recognizing an allusion in their (or any other band’s) songs; it makes you feel like an insider. So, again, why am I displeased by Gaiman referencing LeGuin?

When an artist borrows from another artist, as either an homage or an outright cover, the best results seem to come when they inject a little of themselves and present the source material in a new and different light. To my eyes, Gaiman has not reappropriated LeGuin’s ideas into a new style or used them in an unconventional way. LeGuin’s depiction of words-as-magic was used in a novelized fantasy world filled with magical beings. Gaiman uses it in a novelized fantasy world filled with magical beings. It’s less a reinvention and more a repetition. Gatsbys, by comparison, was able to transmute LeGuin’s words to songs, mixing them with other ideas, presenting them as dynamic and melodic, modified for rhyme scheme and to fit within a larger lyrical scope (in the case of ‘The Loosing of the Shadow’ that larger scope is focused on pride and hubris). They borrowed, yes, but they gave, too.

Without modifying the medium or offering a new direction for LeGuin’s ideas, it seems as though Gaiman is just lifting from LeGuin rather than using her work as a part of something new and bigger. Not that this is a new or unheard of thing to do in literature; LeGuin’s ansible has developed a usage-life of its own. It seems to me, though, that LeGuin’s take on words-as-magic is more than just an object that she’s created. It’s the heart and soul of the Earthsea universe and seeing it tossed into another story without further development feels thin and unsatisfying.

I feel like I should mention here, as something of a disclaimer, that I quite enjoy Gaiman’s writing (The Graveyard Book and Coraline, in particular) and that I don’t think that his borrowing from LeGuin is necessarily wrong even though I don’t particularly enjoy it in this instance. I’m not trying to bury the man and it may well be that other readers, who may not be so invested in LeGuin’s worlds, will find nothing amiss with all of this. And it’s not as though The Ocean At the End of the Lane is a bad book by any means. It’s an interesting read from a master of the craft. It’s just that, given my love of LeGuin, this ocean is a little too shallow for me.

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