Ava Gili (Fourth Year Category)
The Promise of Magic: The Balance Between Language, Knowledge and Power in Fantasy
When one muses on fantasy worldbuilding, it is nearly impossible to ignore how deeply intertwined language is with the world’s magic systems. Words are foundational to the fantasy genre, as spells are the vessel in which power is created and wielded. In J. R. R. Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories,” he accentuates this point by observing that it is a “small wonder that spell means both a story told, and a formula of power over living men” (15). Most clearly seen in Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, power stems from knowing the true name of all living things, as wizards cultivate a deeper understanding of the world around them in order to exercise control over it. However, Tolkien also notes that the power language creates has the ability to “be carried to excess . . . [and] be put to evil uses” (Fairy Stories 27). Jonathan Auxier’s Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes and Namina Forna’s The Gilded Ones explore the inverse of Le Guin’s ideal world: what are the consequences of limiting one’s access to true knowledge and words? Diving deeper into these three novels, it becomes apparent that the use of language and knowledge creates power; therefore, this power must be held in balance and checked by past truth, or else evil forces can utilize it to control and harm others.
In magic’s purest form, the forces of good and evil should always be balanced; one cannot exist without the other, but an imbalance of either leads to conflict. In an uncorrupted state, magic “does not seek delusion nor bewitchment and domination” but strives to create a world that seeks “shared enrichment, partners in making and delight” (Tolkien Fairy Stories26). Of course, the start of a novel rarely begins with perfect harmony or there would be no conflict to further the plot. Instead, the story often commences when a force seriously threatens the balance of magic. In their book The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, John Grant and John Clute define this imbalance as Thinning: the fantasy world is “constantly under some threat of lessening . . . and/or a sense of Wrongness” (para. 2). The world has or is currently experiencing a decline from its former glorious state as an imbalance of power grows. Therefore, the responsibility of the main character “is to preserve the Balance” (Manlove 39). Tolkien establishes how this recovery, which “includes return and renewal of health,” is the process of “regaining . . . a clear view” (Fairy Stories 28) of the past. In one way or another, the main character’s ultimate goal is to reinstate past truths in their world that used to be universal but have now faded.
A Wizard of Earthsea most clearly emphasizes the interaction between language and power, “for magic consists in this, the true naming of a thing” (Le Guin 56). In this way, every living thing has an inner being—a soul—which is its truest essence and is categorized by the ancient language of Old Speech. Laura Comoletti and Micheal Drout reveal that Old Speech is perfect “because its vocabulary is able to describe thoughts, actions, things—the world in all its complexity—precisely”; unlike the other arbitrary languages of the Archipelago, its very nature is rooted in creation (119). In order to be a part of reality, all living things must have a name that binds their soul to the physical world and gives them an identity. While sharing one’s name creates strong bonds between characters, such as Ged and Vetch, it also reveals the possibility of manipulating another lifeform: he “who knows a man’s name, holds that man’s life in his keeping” (83). Since “there is no end to that language” (Le Guin 56), there is inversely no end to the power available to wizards, whose primary goal is to learn as many true names as possible. Even at the beginning of the novel, Ged is naturally powerful, but with this power comes temptation (Manlove 33); he desires to use his power in order to rise above everyone in status and ensure that everyone respects him. Ultimately, Ged’s pride and disregard for the consequences of his actions culminate in his world’s greatest threat: letting loose “the shadow of [his] arrogance” (Le Guin 79).
During his time at school, Ged receives technical education but is still primarily motivated by the prospect of increasing his power. Just as Ged is unable to understand the lessons that Ogion attempts to teach him as a boy due to his impatience and unwillingness to listen, his reliance on sheer determination will never be enough to control magic to the level he desires. Instead, Ged must come to recognize that “knowledge legitimates the exercise of power” (Comoletti and Drout 133), as magic with selfish intentions will always lead to negative consequences. Indeed, knowledge that is rooted in understanding others in humility, while rejecting knowledge that is driven by a desire for control, “is the most powerful key to magic” (Manlove 41). It is only when Ged harnesses magic that is focused on external benefit instead of internal gain does he unlock his true potential. Therefore, Ged’s spiritual journey as a character and wizard reveals the main theme of the novel: “Need alone is not enough to set power free: there must be knowledge” (Le Guin 12).
With both power and knowledge—which is gained from personal adversity and experience—Ged is able to restore balance to himself and the world around him. Finally able to understand that it is knowledge, and not power, “which the true wizard knows and serves” (Le Guin 9), Ged learns his ultimate purpose: “how to respect and preserve the immanent metaphysical balance of nature” (Manlove 44). Comoletti and Drout emphasize that the true motivation of a wizard is to use “the Old Speech as a means of both knowing the world and controlling it” (120). However, I would argue that Le Guin intends to go further: Ged uses his knowledge and power to know and control himself and, ultimately, become whole. The significance of the shadow being nameless demonstrates the vindictive and malicious life that results from a lack of knowing oneself. Through his journey, Ged realizes he must become the namer for the thing he is responsible for, mirroring the process by which everyone receives their true name. By bestowing his own name on the shadow, Ged accepts that death is an important and necessary part of life; it is in the submission to his own mortality that Ged “[makes] himself whole” and “free” (Le Guin 214). He is rewarded for his efforts, as he can now lead a life that “is lived for life’s sake and never in the service of ruin, or pain, or hatred, or the dark” (Le Guin 214). Subsequently, Ged’s development towards inner balance reinforces that the words of a powerful wizard directly affect the outside world, as he succeeds in averting a magical catastrophe.
A Wizard of Earthsea demonstrates the ideal perspective of knowledge resulting in the ultimate end goal of balance, but language can also be warped into a destructive force. Michel Foucault expounds upon power’s “cyclical relationship with the production of knowledge,” as “knowledge always belongs to the groups with the power to authenticate their versions of information” (Sazzad 5). False knowledge or a lack of ability to participate in language often leads to a select few—who do have access to the truth—exerting their influence and control over the vast majority. In his Valedictory Address to the University of Oxford, Tolkien explains how a society initially reaches this point; a society that is solely focused on gaining knowledge “without reference . . . to personal improvement” is in danger of “their tradition [becoming] sclerotic” (226). Instead of critically engaging with reality and challenging the meaning behind societal norms, language—and therefore, power itself—becomes rigid and unadaptable. Given enough time, society may begin to regard these misleading words and fabricated practices as natural processes. Paul Klanderud defines this process as “linguistic totalitarianism,” which explains how “manipulation of and by the language . . . leads to man’s dehumanization, to his transformation into an unthinking and homogenized automaton” (444). When people try to question their lack of control or push against the boundaries of convention, they are socially punished. On the other hand, conformity is rewarded, which discourages dissent: the threat to the oppressor’s control is thwarted before it truly begins. While control may manifest differently in various fantasy settings, it is always the main character’s duty to restore truth to their imbalanced world.
One form of control is the removal of language, as Peter Nimble explores in its treatment of the detrimental effects that result from a lack of knowing one’s self. King Incarnadine recognizes that “language is a vehicle of power”; if he is the sole possessor of truth, he can easily “suppress and govern other people” (Nikolajeva 78). With the help of a magical drug, Incarnadine effortlessly seizes control over the minds of his adult citizens by removing specific vocabulary words from reality. Without these words—such as justice, children, and key—the adults “believe his lies and follow his commands without question” (Auxier 227). His power is further reinforced when he takes “away everyone’s names so they [can’t] remember what he [has] done” (215). With their inner being stripped away, the citizens lose their purpose. The adults cannot think critically, as they lack the memory of their past experiences which are crucial in the development of their identity; the inability to properly communicate facilitates powerlessness. Coupled with fear tactics, the removal of essential language ensures Incarnadine’s complete control over his adult citizens.
Although Incarnadine underestimates the enslaved children of the kingdom, he does employ misinformation tactics to decrease the children’s knowledge and ensure their tenuous subjugation. While Incarnadine is confident in his ability to control adults, he “[recognizes] at once the threat that [children pose] to his plans” (Auxier 214). Children—who are not as easily “intimidated and deceived” to “accept a fraudulent ruler”—have a “constitution [that] is made from far stronger stuff” (Auxier 214). Seemingly a bold claim at first glance, this concern is proven true by the heroic actions of Peter and Peg. Princess Peg remains resilient in the face of oppression, choosing to “[hold] onto her real name” (215) and actively seeking help in order to actualize her belief in a better future. Maria Nikolajeva confirms children’s “resistance to linguistic oppression,” as their unique approach to the world includes “testing rules by breaking them and exploring the boundaries and possibilities of language” (85). The theme that knowledge holds power is heightened by everyone’s belief that simple technology is a form of magic. If the citizens only know it to be magic and do not have another possible explanation of reality, then there is no alternative: it must be true. With his knowledge of the outside world and lack of linguistic brainwashing, Peter observes how the palace runs on clockwork, not magic, leading him to see that “people here knew almost nothing about science or logic” (227). Incarnadine knows that by saying he can do magic—which is inaccessible to everyone else—he elevates himself to an untouchable position of knowledge. He accumulates power simply by speaking it into being. In reality, all it takes to break Incarnadine’s “spell” of omission is the common knowledge Peter teaches to others.
The Gilded Ones expands upon the theme of gatekeeping the truth, as Deka’s world operates under the fear of stigmatization. By socially prescribing labels to everyone and validating these roles through rituals, the religion and empire of Otera are able to foster the “uncritical assimilation of its dominant values” (Klanderud 446), exerting control through patriarchal ideals. Women endure abuse and abide by the Infinite Wisdoms of the Infinite Father—a title that is telling in and of itself—as they are not willing to be ostracized from society. At the beginning of the novel, Deka is terrified of possibly being impure, which is a name associated with words such as cursed, inhuman, and unnatural, as the consequence of failing to conform is fatal. When she is deemed impure by the village elders, she willingly submits to torture under the guise of piety: “I will do anything to cleanse myself of my impurity, of my sins. . . . I am an abomination in the eyes of Oyomo” (Forna 33). Deka subscribes to horrors unimaginable because this sole viewpoint is the only one that exists to her; there is no evidence that contradicts the claim that “rights are the domain of men and boys—not women, and certainly not alaki” (Forna 81). By manipulating society’s power structure through language and labels, the men in power rely on the women’s lack of knowledge to sustain their own oppression for fear of religious condemnation and social rejection.
Initially subscribing to her society’s patriarchal conventions, it is only once Deka gains the knowledge of her true heritage that she is able to truly break free from society’s constraints. When she is no longer isolated in her small village, Deka finally has the opportunity to challenge the beliefs she has held her entire life. Aligning with Foucault’s perspective that it is necessary to “[question] the discursive reality that constructs [one’s] identity” (Sazzard 12), Deka’s empowering experiences from training and excursions expose that “purity is an illusion” (Forna 104) created by men to control women. She realizes that her reality is comprised of “lies” (Forna 104), leading her to reclaim the hateful words she was so afraid of and find community within her newfound identity: “‘I am a demon.’ . . . [because of] the blood that binds us to each other” (Forna 151). Once White Hands reveals the true history of Otera, Deka has the correct language and knowledge to actualize her true purpose: “You are the deliverer. . . . It is your task to free us all” (Forna 371). In this way, Deka proves Foucault’s theory true, as he argued that it is possible to see past “the power-knowledge nexus [that] constructs our values, ideas, and identities . . . if we change the perspective of viewing it” (Sazzard 8). It is essential that Deka ceases to “thoughtlessly” follow convention, as her world’s knowledge imbalance can only be stabilized by “thoughtfully inserting suppressed points of view back into discourse” (Sazzard 8). Ultimately, by exposing the truth behind oppressive language and false knowledge, Deka gains the power necessary to free her sisters and dismantle a patriarchal regime, restoring “Otera back to what it once was: a land of freedom, a land where men and women ruled equally” (Forna 376).
In each novel, the main characters strive toward the common goal of a balanced happy ending. Not all must be righted in the world, but the protagonist must restore a sense of balance that was previously missing, allowing healing to occur. Tolkien establishes that the happy ending—which he calls the Eucatastrophe—is the “true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function” (Fairy Stories 34). A eucatastrophic ending “does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe,” as in the midst of conflict, “sorrow and failure . . . is necessary to the joy of deliverance” (Tolkien Fairy Stories 34). Just as good cannot exist without evil, a happy ending cannot exist without hardship and turmoil. Therefore, the “past is central” (Manlove 37) in fantasy storytelling, as it provides the characters with a guideline of what the Eucatastrophe should emulate. Tolkien makes the significant distinction that restoration does not mean merely “seeing things as they are,” but rather focusing on more progressive healing that is “seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them” (Fairy Stories 28). There is not a static perfect ending for what the restoration of a world’s Thinning looks like, as “each age alters the factors in the Balance, or sees different threats to it, or recovers more of the past than was previously known” (Manlove 37). Fantastical storytelling is a cyclical process: inevitably, the balance gained by a past hero will fall and dire circumstances will demand that a new hero rises to the call once again.
Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, Jonathan Auxier’s Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes, and Namina Forna’s The Gilded Ones all demonstrate an essential theme of fantasy writing: language creates knowledge and facilitates power. Who has access to the truth determines who controls the world at large. Le Guin presents a more optimistic approach to this concept, as wizards recognize that their magic can be perilous, so they commit to “follow knowledge, and serve need” (Le Guin 53) before want, showing benevolent respect towards all living things. In contrast, Auxier and Forna offer a more critical outlook, as their stories show how the interaction between language, knowledge, and power can delude the minds of those in more powerless positions and cause their exploitation and oppression. However, all three novels showcase a journey towards balance and recovery, as only through the knowledge of truth and self can the main characters unlock their true potential in order to achieve the Eucatastrophe. Ultimately, the fantasy genre brings a magic of its own into our world: it promises the happy ending of restoration and balance, rewarding those who genuinely seek truth.
Auxier, Jonathan. Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes. Penguin Random House, 2011.
Clute, John and John Grant. “Thinning.” Encyclopedia of Fantasy, Orbit Books UK, 1997, https://sf-encyclopedia.com/fe/thinning.
Comoletti, Laura B. and Micheal D. C. Drout. “How They Do Things with Words: Language, Power, Gender, and the Priestly Wizards of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea Books.” Children’s Literature: Annual of The Children’s Literature Association and The Modern Language Association Divisions on Children’s Literature, vol. 29, 2001, pp. 113–41. EBSCOhost, https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mlf&AN=2002703240&site=eds-live&scope=site.
Forna, Namina. The Gilded Ones. Delacorte Press, 2020.
Klanderud, Paul. “Language Control and Dehumanization in Il’f and Petrov’s Poetic World.” The Slavic and East European Journal, vol. 40, no. 3, American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages, 1996, pp. 442–57, https://doi.org/10.2307/310142.
Le Guin, Ursula. A Wizard of Earthsea. Parnassus Press, 1968.
Manlove, C. N. “Conservatism in Fantasy: Ursula Le Guin.” The Impulse of Fantasy, Kent State UP, 1983, pp. 31–44.
Nikolajeva, Maria. “‘When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean’: Power and (Mis)communication in Literature for Young Readers.” Humane Readings: Essays on Literary Mediation and Communication in Honour of Roger D. Sell, edited by Jason Finch et al., John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2009, pp. 77-88. EBSCOhost, https://doi.org/10.1075/pbns.190.08nik.
Sazzad, Rehnuma. “Said and Foucault: Resistance through Revealing the Power-Knowledge Nexus.” Postcolonial Text, vol. 4, no. 3, 2008, https://www.postcolonial.org/index.php/pct/article/view/891.
Tolkien, J.R.R. “On Fairy Stories.” ENGL 400 Spring 2022 Van Dyke, 1947.
Tolkien, J. R. R. “Valedictory Address to the University of Oxford.” The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, edited by Christopher Tolkien, Houghton Mifflin, 1984, pp. 224–40.