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Journeys to Earthsea: An Ursula K. Le Guin Tribute | Isaac Yuen

Updated: Mar 14, 2019


The names are what first draw the eyes. For Kim at Kimprints Custom Framing, it was “The North Reach,” script in serpentine scrawl, bookended between Rogmy, the Ferrins, and the Allernots. She mouths the words on the paper map as if to try them out, then aloud again, slowly, as an incantation summoning an object from one world into another. She looks at me over the rims of her glasses, smiles.


“This…I like this.”


I nod. Kim knows nothing about the world depicted before her. She doesn’t know who you are when I tell her, doesn’t recognize your autograph at the bottom-right corner, east of the Great South Shoals and the Isle of the Ear. When she jots down “The North Reach” as the job title on the receipt I don’t correct her. The initial bond formed between place and name is very strong. I know because I formed it long ago with your archipelago, this Earthsea, where to know the name of a thing is to grasp the essence and nature of its being.


1.


Gont. Roke. Ged. Entry into Earthsea began with single syllable names. Perhaps you wanted to ease new travelers unaccustomed to the act of changing planes, but I am an old hat at the process after so many years. Against the glass of the newly framed map I mark the path most first take across this space, linearly, narratively, the same journey I first embarked on in fifth grade after pulling A Wizard of Earthsea out of a banker box of paperbacks, a lifetime ago.


Now, from memory: From Gont to Roke, stay awhile. Then east a spell in the Ninety Isles. A stop at Pendor before port of calls at Serd and Orrimy. Shoot north for Osskil, Ravenland—let the dread mount and the anger flash into a bolt, an arrow, a hawk’s flight over the sheer cliffs of Re Albi. Rest here awhile at the Overfell; seek counsel before changing course to brave the winter seas. Brace for the shipwreck always to come. Limp on through to The Hands, then southwards, towards Vemish and Iffish in the East Reach. Seek out Estarriol, dear friend, and Kest, clear soul, before sailing out past Astowell, last land, into the open ocean, beyond the edge of map and frame. To journey’s end.


This was the standard route. Yet even as I trace out the old ways in blue sharpie, each recurrent leg of the voyage takes on a different light. While the child in me once raced forth eager to confront dragon broods and shadow beasts, the adult now tarries on Low Torning, keen to take up the art of sailing with a kindly neighbor and his young son, flitting away the days napping under pendick trees, dreaming of all the possible shapes they once took root in your imagination. The hero's call beckons but I no longer heed it. The world of Earthsea contains more than one story. There is no single path through this country but many.


An Earthsea Tourist Itinerary


Things to do while in Earthsea (starred on map in green):


· Tour the inner isles of Ensmer, Pody, and Wathort in search of endemic populations of small fox-squirrels called otaks.

· Swim in the warm waters of the South Reach with flying fishes and singing dolphins.

· Watch the Lorbanery sunset while listening to the chatter of bats emerging to feed on the island’s prized silkworms.

· Embark on a historical expedition to learn why the polar region is named after someone called Hogen.

· Haggle for bolts of fine silk and vials of sweet tonics at Hort Town’s great bazaar.

· Listen to the royal trumpeters play The Lament for Erreth-Akbe daily at noon at the king’s palace on Havnor.

· Visit the Sattins and learn the local legend of a dragon who disguised itself as a man and gobbled up strangers chancing upon its secret.

· Stroll the sands of the Long Dune in autumn and witness the Children of the Open Sea return to shore to outfit their ocean-faring raft homes.

· Make a pilgrimage to Trimmer’s Dell to visit the grave of an unnamed hero rumoured to give his life to quell the bones of the earth.

· Walk amongst the trees in Roke’s Immanent Grove, which stretches on as far and wide as the mind.


Whenever I visit Earthsea nowadays, I spend some time searching for a sandspit somewhere in the northeast sea between Speevy and Karago-At. An old castaway once lived there, subsisting on shellfish and spotted seals. When we first met she was shy, but eventually she grew comfortable enough to show me her most prized possession: a child’s silk dress wrapped in greasy rags, salt-stained and yellowed from the decades. It fitted her once. The sweet smile she smiled was the one on my grandmother’s face during my last visit. The place where she lived out her days is not marked on this map or any other. I cannot find Springwater Isle again. I never learn the old woman’s name.


A Sounding


Narveduen. The name is what draws my eye. NAR-VE-DU-EN. The sound is what holds true. Surrounding it, the isles of Derhemen, Onon, and Hille. South and west, the scraps of rock above which dragons wheel in sunlight and glory. These details are only important in relation. Yet the relations themselves are important. For Narveduen, this isle I know only through the sound of its name, lies close to another isle I shall come to visit time and again: Selidor, the desolate heart, the farthest shore. But this comes later, always later—


2.


Other beginnings through Earthsea exist. One is in the far east, in the Kargad land of Atuan. The portal through lies in a desert. Within the desert lies a tomb. The priestess Arha is both its keeper and prisoner. Some journeys are not traceable on a map. Some journeys take place in the dark, deep within labyrinths of stone, of self. As a child I did not understand. As a boy I could not relate. When I was young I arrived on Atuan expecting epic feats and showy deeds. I trekked through the bare desert and found myself yearning for the open sea. I did not realize I was in the presence of courage when I met Arha even as she shed her old life to become Tenar. I did not understand what you meant when you spoke of how she took on the burden of freedom, that it was not a gift given, but a choice made. Your words were too wise for me. I left Atuan for many years.


I return now, older. It takes me two days and nights to reach the highlands that resemble your Alvord Desert of southeast Oregon. Up in those Steen Mountains you loved. After all these years, Tenar is still waiting for me at the entrance of the tomb, long since shattered and swallowed by the earth. She is about to take her first steps out under the cloudless sky. The sun is setting. I want to bask long in the golden light of this silent country, this land of sagebrush and juniper, but we keep moving to stay warm, to keep ahead of past shadows. After we reach the beach and push off into dark waters, Tenar begins to weep. She tells me she is afraid of leaving all she knows behind, is unsure of her place is this vast world. I am older now, wiser. There are no words to say and so I say nothing. We sail on the world’s wind, over the abyss.


On the map a hand's breadth separates Atuan from Havnor, the greatest city in Earthsea. I mark this voyage in black marker, west across the Kargish sea, past Torhaven and Eskel, up and through the Ebavnor Straits. Upon arrival at Havnor’s great port Tenar is greeted, welcomed, and praised. The locals bestow her with the title of “The White Lady.” Yet Tenar has no use for honour or desire for peace. One night I watch her slip away on the boat that bore me across strange seas. She sails away in search of who she is. She does not need me. I do not follow.


An Interlude


In between writing sessions I leaf through books on other islands and archipelagos. Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands is my favorite guide for armchair traveling to places I have never set foot on and never will. Brava. Takuu. Pingelap. I check the distances to their next closest inhabited lands, note their contours against the cornflower blue sea, try out their imposed and secret names. Schalansky conveys their histories in terse communiqués, like Morse code pulses of dots and dashes, slipping impressions between borders both real and imaginary:


"An island offers a stage: everything that happens on it is practically forced to turn into a story, into a chamber piece in the middle of nowhere, into the stuff of literature. What is unique about these tales is that fact and fiction can no longer be separated: fact is fictionalized and fiction is turned into fact."


Returning home from far-flung excursions, I sink into Kim Tingley’s feature on the world’s last wave pilot in a recent Best American Science and Nature Writing anthology, which contains this following passage:  


"All maps are but representations of reality: they render the physical world in symbols and highlight important relationships - the proximity of one subway stop to another, say - that are invisible to the naked eye. If storytelling, the way we structure and make meaning from the events of our lives, across from navigating, so too is the practice of navigation inherently bound up with storytelling, in all its subjectivity."


Did you ever think about projection when you first charted out Earthsea? Of how maps can obscure and distort, augment and diminish? Of how worlds, imaginary or otherwise, resist being held in frame? Of how they tint and tilt the mind?


I get up for a stretch break and inspect the framed map lying on the dining room table. The silkscreening process did not completely take. Some names are blurred and unintelligible. The blues and greens do not quite match the mountains and the coastlines. The base layer and the transposed one are slightly off. But your name remains clear. You had signed the map after everything was finished.


3.


I am tired of one story that keeps repeating. For the fourth time in five years I fly across the Pacific, from Canada to Hong Kong, from homeplace to birthplace. First for an uncle. Then a grandfather. Both grandmothers and an aunt. 


Each time I go I pack Earthsea with me. Each time I tread the same path, the one I now mark on glass in red, the one I know by heart and at need. Southwest from Hort Town is Lorbanery. A meander west leads to the coast of Obehol. An uneasy voyage past Jessage along the sea roads of Balatran. Then the thousand plus miles north past scraps of rocks and shoals to arrive at the westernmost edge of Earthsea, to the shores of Selidor.


SEL-I-DOR. The isle beyond the reach of man or beast. The place I make my center of grief. Here is solitude, the wind’s howl, the night’s stillness. Here is a taste of being on one of Schalansky’s unpeopled spaces - Bouvet Island, the Antipodes, Southern Thule - places where the weight of loneliness is sufficient to drown out all else. To the west of Selidor lies only the sea’s expanse; above, cold starfire mingle with brief shimmers that hint at the presence of others flying on another wind. When I first arrived on Selidor I came with a young king and old mage. Now knowing the way I return whenever the world has been robbed of sense and purpose. To walk along those shores is itself refuge. Yet I know I cannot stay. I must go on. I must go all the way.


At the northernmost cape of Selidor there is a door. The lintel shines with the white gleam of bone. The door leads to a dry land. I have been through it now many times. The slope always falls away into the dark. The scent of lilies clings thick and chokes the air. Each time I walk under the mountains named Pain I think of Rilke’s Tenth Duino elegy, as you did. Each time I go I try to gain solace from the old mage's iron words that once rang out clear across this land, that death does not diminish life, nor does it diminish the dead, that the departed shall remain earthbound, always, closeby, woven into the gestures of the world, recalled in the most unexpected of places. Yet that comfort is small and cold and hard.


On my trip back for one funeral I picked up a rock off the beach of Cheung Chau, the isle where I spent the first seven years of my life. Now each time the story repeats I bring along the black shard of granite and grip it tight, as your young king did, its heft and edge a reminder of what endures in this world and is worth the having.


4.


“Black or white?”


“I beg your pardon?”


“Did you want a black frame or a white outer frame?”  Kim from Kimprints Custom Framing alternates between the two corner samples.


“I’m not sure. I want to see each one again.”


“If you want my opinion I would go with the white. Matches the borders. Makes the map look like it goes on forever.”


5.


Is it possible that where the frame ends other worlds begin? That this map constitutes only one fragment of a greater whole? As I pore over the names of isles once more – Enlad, Ebosskill, Solea, Hur-at-Hur—my mind stretches north and east, skimming over the blue gulfs and white voids before suddenly, on the horizon, the snowbound coastlines of a feudal domain appears; or, a desert community bound and made flesh by a promise of mutual aid; or, a forest republic founded by an austere and pious people. I mouth the name of each space as it appears to anchor its substance. Gethen. Anarres. Laurentum. Worlds beyond Earthsea you also once visited, drawn maps of, lived long in. In each realm I would meet the envoys you once contacted, listened to, lived long with. Estraven. Shevek. Lavinia. Souls I would come to know and love because of you.


6.


This has always been an exercise in gratitude. Each time I find myself back in Earthsea I try to trace the paths you charted when you made your return, decades back, back to the dream you could not stop dreaming. You had warned others who follow after that the old map may no longer fit the terrain, that volcanoes have always existed in Earthsea, forming new lands with new voices, speaking new truths.


I heed your advice, and instead of burying my nose in the framed still, I look up and mind my surroundings. I try to keep a mental map of this shifting country, attempting to keep the distances right, the directions straight, the emotions true. I suppose this method of sense-making is haphazard and inexact, but I suspect you would say that it’s the orienteering that matters. Whenever I find myself lost, I would seek out guides who can point to the thread of you: Farmers, fisherfolk, goatherds, dyers, shipbuilders, sorcerers, cheesemakers, weavers, minstrels, potters, menders. I try to listen to their stories and learn the way, as you did, in silence, always in silence. They speak of life, the acts of casual cruelty and daily courage; the injustice of lives burned away by the lust for power; the tales of resistance that rise up against tyranny; the songs of love that bloom and wilt and bonds that hold even across death’s wall to reshape the world. As I journey and observe I begin to see strand by strand the tapestry that weaves tight and breathes life into this scatter-strewn collection of islands, made whole by the ordinary magic of words and language, ever-changing, even when its discoverer has gone on, will never come back.


7.


It took some time but I finally tracked you down. You were home in Portland and done with doing, being too frail to return to the worlds you once charted and explored. Yet you still craved the act of sailing across the sea of Ea, sledging over the Gobrin Ice, or hiking up the sparse hills of the Ne Theras. So you solicited fellow adventurers on your Book Café blog to talk shop, to share tales, to delve into the craft of navigating the ocean of story.


Naturally I responded. As an essayist turned explorer, I was particularly interested in endings, on certainties. How do I know when to finish my voyages, I asked, to my own outer realms and inner lands? You replied that there were no hard and fast rules, no certainties, but as one who chose to embark on a journey, my job was to pay notice and find where each must go. The itinerary may be planned from the outset, or the objective may only be realized upon arrival at the destination, but always it was my duty as traveler, cartographer, and maker to shoulder this burden of absolute freedom, alone, always alone.


That was the only time we corresponded. I think about your words often. After I finally get around to hanging the framed map up in the living room, I note down your years beneath in green.


Ursula K. Le Guin

(1929-2018)


Coda


A writer once told me that nostalgia is Greek for returning home. An envoy once told you that the true voyage is return. I think about settling down in Earthsea someday. You are there now, walking amongst its forests. When it comes time for me I think I shall like to sail back to Low Torning in the Ninety Isles, to live in the house on the hill above green fields of barley, to lie under the shade of those red-flowered trees you once dreamed into being, a lifetime ago.





A first-generation Chinese-Canadian, Isaac Yuen’s fiction and creative nonfiction can be found in Flyway, Zoomorphic, Tin House online, Orion, Shenandoah, and the “notables" section of Best American Nature and Science Writing 2017. He is a 2019 nature writer-in-residence at the Jan Michalski Foundation, and currently lives in Vancouver, Canada, on unceded Coast Salish territory.


Twitter: @ekostories 

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/isaac.yuen.14


Check out our Featured Writer interview with Isaac Yuen here!