Earthsea is the world where the Earthsea stories and novels take place.
The world of Earthsea is one of sea and islands: a vast archipelago of hundreds of islands surrounded by mostly uncharted ocean.
The term "archipelago" is used to refer only to the central grouping of islands around the main island of Havnor and the Inmost Sea. The outlying islands are loosely grouped into four "Reaches" (West, North, South and East), and the Kargad Lands, four large islands to the northeast inhabited by the warlike nation of the Kargs. Islands pivotal to the novels include Roke and Havnor in the Inner Sea; Gont in the northeastern Archipelago, and Atuan, one of the Kargad lands.
People and cultures
The cultures of Earthsea do not directly resemble those of our world, except insofar as there are general resemblances to any literate non-industrial civilization. Technologically, Earthsea appears to be comparable to an early Iron Age society, with bronze used in places where iron is scarce. Ged's father is a bronze-smith. Weapons also include the use of wood and other hard but easily crafted metals.
Individual cultural elements in Earthsea can be compared with Earth cultures, without complete identification. Like the peoples of the Pacific islands or the Mediterranean basin, they have a way of life based on contact with the sea. However, on many of the larger islands like Havnor, Semel, and Way, people can live a totally inland life. No archipelago on Earth has the mix of island sizes, close grouping, and distance from continental landmasses that Earthsea does; its largest island, Havnor, which measures about 380 miles N-S and E-W is only slightly larger than Sicily, or Mindanao, less than half the size of Ireland. However, they are usually larger and much more closely grouped than the atolls of the Pacific.
The overall climate of Earthsea is temperate, comparable to the mid-latitudes (over a distance of about 1800 miles) of the Northern hemisphere. There is a yearly transition from warm summers to cold and snowy winters, especially in northern islands like Gont and Osskil. In the southern regions of Earthsea it can be much warmer.
Earthsea, with the exception of the Kargad lands, is a literate society using a writing system called the "Hardic runes." The name suggests similarity to the real-world Germanic runes, but there are supposed to be several thousand runes in use, suggesting a logographic system similar to Chinese.
The racial characteristics of the people of Earthsea are for the most part "red-brown" in coloring; in the South and East Reach and on Way, they are much darker brown, but with straight black hair; in Osskil, they have a more central or eastern European look, though still with dark skin, and the Kargs resemble predominantly blond northern Europeans.
The Creation of Éa is a 31-stanza poem, the oldest part of Earthsea's oral tradition. It describes how Segoy raised the islands of Earthsea from the ocean by naming them in the true speech.
Little is known of the original inhabitants of Earthsea, but scattered legends suggest that humans and dragons were once one race. The ancient Pelnish lore and Kargad legends describe an agreement between them called the Vedurnan or Verw Nadan to separate because of their differing temperaments and goals.
Early in the history of humans, the largest and most powerful realm was centered on the northern islands of Enlad and Éa, although this realm did not rule all of Earthsea, and it is unclear whether other realms existed. Later, as more of Earthsea came under the dominion of the Kings of Enlad, the center of the kingdom moved from Enlad to the largest island, the more central Havnor. This dynasty of Great Kings ruled all or almost all of Earthsea, but ended soon after the death of Erreth-Akbe, and the kingdom fragmented into many separate principalities and domains. By the time of Ged and the beginning of the series, this state of affairs had persisted for millennia, though the emergence of a new king had been prophesied.
Magic in Earthsea
Magic is a central part of life in most of Earthsea, with the exception of the Kargish lands, where it is banned. There are weather workers on ships, fixers who repair boats and buildings, entertainers, and court sorcerers. Magic is an inborn talent which can be developed with training. The most gifted are sent to the school on Roke, where, if their skill and their discipline prove sufficient, they can become staff-carrying wizards.
A strong theme of the stories is the connection between power and responsibility. There is often a Taoist message: "good" wizardry tries to be in harmony with the world, while "bad" wizardry, such as necromancy, can lead to an upsetting of the "balance" and threaten catastrophe. While the dragons are more powerful, they act instinctively to preserve the balance. Only humans pose a threat to it. In The Farthest Shore, Cob seeks immortality regardless of the consequences and opens a breach between life and death which endangers the living.
Magic on Earthsea is primarily verbal. Everything has a true name in the Old Speech, the language of the dragons. One who knows the true name of an object has power over it. A person also has a true name; for safety's sake, he or she will only reveal it to those he or she trusts implicitly. A "use" name, which has no magical property, suffices for everyday purposes. For example, the wizard whose true name is Ged is known by the use name Sparrowhawk.
One vital aspect of magic is that it is impossible for humans to lie in the old language, so that magic works by forcing the universe to conform to the words spoken by the magician. For example, to say "I am an eagle" in the old language means that the speaker becomes an eagle, so that the statement is no longer false.
The School of Magic
Roke Island is the magical heart of Earthsea and is protected by potent spells and a magical wind and fog that ward off evil. It contains several places of power, such as Roke Knoll and the Immanent Grove.
The school of Roke was founded by Elehal and Yahan of Roke, and Medra of Havnor, as a center of learning, a refuge for magicians fleeing feuding warlords who used them to do harm. The school gradually grew in power and influence, until eventually its leader, the Archmage, was considered second only to the king. However, through the long centuries, the wizards of Roke remained always loyal, though no king could have stood against their magic. Even in the long interregnum when the Archipelago was without a king, the Archmage did not try to usurp power, but sought only to maintain the balance. With the advent of the new king, Lebannen, the school's role must change. When the last Archmage, Ged, loses his magical abilities, no one is appointed to replace him.
Teaching in the school is carried out by the nine Masters, each with a specialty:
- Master Windkey, whose skill lies in weather control
- Master Hand, who deals with illusions
- Master Herbal, versed in healing
- Master Changer, who knows the arts of transformation
- Master Summoner, skilled in calling or summoning
- Master Namer, who teaches the students the rudiments of True Speech
- Master Chanter, teacher of music and chanted spells
- Master Patterner, seeker of meaning and intent
- Master Doorkeeper, the guardian of the gates of the school.
Their leader is the Archmage, chosen by the nine Masters, and often from outside the school. The position of the Master Finder was abolished by the first Archmage, Halkel, and replaced with that of Chanter. Halkel also banned women from the school.
The Dry Land
The Dry Land is where the people of Earthsea go when they die. It is a realm of shadow and dust, where nothing changes and "lovers pass each other in silence". Wizards can, at great peril, cross from the land of the living to the Dry Land and back again by using their magic to step over the low stone wall that separates the two realms. At the bottom of the valley of the dead is the dry river, and beyond that lie the Mountains of Pain. Ged loses his magical powers in the Dry Land; no longer able to cross the wall, he and his companion Arren become the first to traverse the Mountains of Pain to return to life.
It is revealed that the Dry Land was a failed attempt by early mages to gain immortality. The mages stole half of the land "west of west" from the dragons to create a paradise in which their souls would dwell. However, when they walled off the land, its beauty vanished, it fell under eternal night, the wind ceased blowing, and the immortal souls that went there existed without any meaning. The Other Wind recounts how the wall around the Dry Land is destroyed, freeing the trapped souls to rejoin the cycle of death and rebirth.
Dragons and Dragonlords
The dragons usually keep to themselves far to the West of Earthsea, but they sometimes attack inhabited islands in search of food or treasure and must be driven back by wizards. In A Wizard of Earthsea, the young wizard Ged guesses a dragon's true name and forces him to promise not to attack people again.
Dragons in Earthsea are neither good nor evil by human standards, but always extremely dangerous. There are several references to the dire consequences of looking a dragon in the eye and Ged avoids doing so on several occasions. Most dragons in the books are of a positive, though not benevolent, nature. In The Other Wind, it is revealed that dragons and humans were once of the same race. However, they chose to part ways because of their very different natures.
Dragons consider most humans to be uninteresting, short-lived mayflies. The exceptions are the dragonlords. In The Tombs of Atuan, the priestess Tenar asks Ged what a dragonlord is; Ged explains that it is not someone with a mastery of dragons, but "one the dragons will speak with" (rather than eat). In Ged's time, he and his enemy Cob are the only dragonlords. The most famous dragonlord is Erreth-Akbe, who is a legendary hero by Ged's time.
When dragons do speak, they are worth listening to, as they have long lifespans and the opportunity to gain great wisdom. Dragons speak only in the Language of the Making, from which the language of human magic is derived. Though they cannot lie, they are able to twist what they say and mislead the unwary because it is their native tongue, while no wizard can live long enough to fully master it. Indeed, much of the true speech remains unknown to humans. Dragons have a strange connection to the true tongue; one wizard described it by saying they live in it as a fish lives in water. In Tehanu, Ged says that perhaps dragons do not learn the old speech. Rather, it seems to be inherent in them and they simply 'are' the language.
Only wizards and other dragons are capable of defeating a dragon. The most famous example is the duel between Erreth-Akbe and the dragon Orm, in which each slew the other. Many centuries later, there was another duel between the dragon Orm Embar and Cob.
A gebbeth is a person who has been consumed and taken over by a power. In The Wizard of Earthsea, a man possessed by a creature that Ged inadvertently summoned nearly takes the wizard unawares.
In a time prior to the setting of the novels, the Enemy of Morred turns Elfarran's brother into a gebbeth and uses it to trick her into traveling to the Jaws of Enlad.
Otaks are small, furry carnivores with an aggressive temperament that prey on mice and insects. Otaks are rare, living only on four islands of the southern Archipelago: Roke, Ensmer, Pody and Wathort. The wizard Ged kept an otak as his pet, which was unusual given wild otaks rarely trust humans.
Trolls are enormous creatures with rock-like hands and gravelly voices who serve as guards and servants for evil magicians. Trolls went extinct in the realm of Earthsea at some time.
Religion in Earthsea
The people of the Archipelago do not worship any gods, but there are the "Old Powers" of the Earth, which existed since before Segoy raised up the lands. These include "The Nameless Ones" in Atuan and the Terrenon in Osskil. It is revealed in Tales from Earthsea that once, the women of power spoke with and learned from the Old Powers, but in Ged's age, they are considered evil. In The Tombs of Atuan, Ged states that the Old Powers are not evil in themselves, but that it is wrong for humans to interfere with or worship them.
Gods are revered in the Kargad Lands. The oldest are "The Nameless Ones", who are worshipped in Atuan. However, the reverence given them has gradually been usurped by human beings. The God-Kings were the mortal rulers of the Kargad Lands. The dynasty began with "priest-kings", but over the years they promoted themselves, until finally they declared themselves to be gods. The last God-King is overthrown in a civil war by Thol of Hur-at-Hur and flees to Atuan, where he is killed by a priest-eunuch.