Ursula Le Guin, the language of Earthsea, and Tolkien

A tribute embedded in A Wizard of Earthsea?  

I used this question to introduce a social media post yesterday. Is should have waited until today, because this turns out to be the anniversary of Ursula Le Guin’s passing, a fact that I had overlooked. So now I seize the day in order to enlarge and refine my observation here, where it can more easily be found.

What happens if you want to translate the name of Ursula Le Guin’s world, Earthsea, into the Old Speech (or True Speech), the language of magic there? Let’s see…

Ursula Le Guin’s map of Earthsea, a primary piece of world-building by name-making

The word for ‘sea’ is easy. The Master Namer of the wizard isle of Roke tells it to our hero Ged: ‘We call the foam on waves sukien: that word is made from two words of the Old Speech, suk, feather, and inien, the sea. Feather of the sea is foam.’

‘Earth’ is a little trickier, but there’s a telling comment by the Master Hand, teaching Ged the lesser arts of Changing:

‘This is a rock; tolk in the True Speech,’ he said, looking mildly up at Ged now. ‘A bit of the stone of which Roke Isle is made, a little bit of the dry land on which men live.’

So the stuff of the earth is called tolk and the sea is called inien. Put them together. Elide the middle syllable as is done to produce sukien. What do you get?

Tolkien!

This is just a guess, a hypothesis. But it’s rather pleasing, no?

What would it imply? Simply a tip of the hat from one world-builder to a predecessor? Rather more than that, I think. Le Guin (born 1929) once thanked her lucky stars that she hadn’t encountered Tolkien’s work when, as a child, she began writing her own stories, because if she had, ‘that achievement might have overwhelmed me’.[1] Instead she was able to begin forging her own path before it crossed his.

Ursula Le Guin

Nonetheless she paid her dues: ‘To create what Tolkien calls “a secondary universe” is to make a new world. A world where no voice has ever spoken before; where the act of speech is the act of creation. The only voice that speaks there is the creator’s voice. And every word counts.’[2]

The fact that I unwittingly tweeted this on the eve of the anniversary of Le Guin’s death serves as a reminder that coincidences happen. But it’s not as if I’m cherry-picking from a vast vocabulary. If I were, it would make coincidence much likelier.

Actually there’s very little of the Old or True Speech in the Earthsea sequence. As Le Guin said, ‘No use trying to make a lexicon of Hardic [the daily language of the archipelago] or of the True Speech; there’s not enough in the books. It’s not like Tolkien, who in one sense wrote The Lord of the Rings to give his invented languages somebody to speak them.’[3]

In Always Coming Home (1985), Le Guin refers to language invention as ‘what an illustrious predecessor referred to as the Secret Vice’.[4] She meant Tolkien, whose essay ‘A Secret Vice’ had recently been posthumously in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays (1983).

All this should dispel any thought that Le Guin was casual (not the same thing as playful) about language invention. And her comments make clear she knew Tolkien was the master of that craft.

Tolkien in the 1930s

What better way to pay tribute than by inscribing it in the language – and in the language rules – of her invented world? Kris Swank gives it a modern spin by calling it an Easter egg. But what better way than to do it privately, secretly, like speaking a spell to the air?

The two conversations I’ve cited contain almost the only examples of Old Speech in A Wizard of Earthsea (1968). And yet they provide the bare essentials for construing that people in Earthsea would call Earthsea Tolkien.

Every word counts.

Tolk is mentioned repeatedly in the Earthsea books. It is the first word of the Old Speech mentioned in the stories; it is the first taught by Ged to Tenar in the second book, The Tombs of Atuan (1972; my favourite); and it is the first taught by Tenar to her adoptive daughter in the fourth book, Tehanu (1990). The thought that tolk resembled the name Tolkien struck me a long time ago (and I now hear that it has struck quite a few readers). But I construed nothing further from it. I did not see that it could directly point to Tolkien as a major part of the bedrock of inspiration for Earthsea.

In a foreword to Earthsea, Le Guin tops her list of inspirational dragons with ‘Smaug, magnificently’. Of The Lord of the Rings, she wrote, ‘I have no idea how many times I have read it myself. I reread a great deal, but have lost count only with Dickens, Tolstoy, and Tolkien.’[5]

Tolkien references go back to one of Le Guin’s first Earthsea stories, ‘The Rule of Names’, published in Fantastic magazine in 1964 before the books were conceived. There the dragon Yevaud is first introduced, like Frodo at Bree, as Mr Underhill.

The archipelago certainly includes other playful bits of nomenclature. ‘Three small islands,’ Le Guin said in the same account of the origins of Earthsea, ‘are named for my children, their baby-names; one gets a little jobial and irresponsible, given the freedom to create a world out of nothing.’[6]

There’s also the interesting question of whether Le Guin, in naming the westernmost isle of Earthsea Selidor, knew Tolkien’s observation that ‘most English-speaking people … will admit that cellar door is “beautiful”, especially if dissociated from its sense (and from its spelling).’ But as Nelson Goering has reminded me, that idea is peculiarly widespread in writing about phonaesthetics, and certainly predates Tolkien’s comment.

Of course, I can’t be certain that I’ve hit the bullseye with Tolkien = ‘Earthsea’, even though most reactions on Twitter and Facebook have been positive, with a few people enthusiastically declaring themselves convinced. (Nice to have my friend Michael Ward onside, whose book Planet Narnia advances an even more audacious hypothesis about C.S. Lewis’s hidden intentions!)

Don Standing reminds me that Le Guin’s world has a legend of the Creation of Éa, and Tolkien’s legendarium begins with the Creation of Eä. Barring the slight possibility that Le Guin heard the name in some unpublished letter from Tolkien, or heard it on the grapevine (the world of 1960s fantasy fandom was small but intense), this must be coincidence. Tolkien coined for his universe in 1951, but the name didn’t appear until 1977 with the posthumous publication of The Silmarillion. Le Guin’s Éa, an island not a universe, was coined in between.

Tolkien scholar Luke Shelton sounds the only real note of caution about Tolkien as the Earthsea name for ‘Earthsea’: ‘I like the idea behind this theory, and I so wish it to be true! Unfortunately, I don’t think it would hold up with Le Guin’s rules for language. If tolk is “rock”, then there is certainly a different word for earth. Just as each part of the ocean has its own true name.’

Yes, Ged is warned you can’t use inien ‘sea’ to command the whole sea because each bit of sea also has its own true name. As the Master Namer tells him in A Wizard of Earthsea, ‘So if some Mage-Seamaster were mad enough to try to lay a spell of storm or calm over all the ocean, his spell must say not only that word inien, but the name of every stretch and bit and part of the sea through all the Archipelago and all the Outer Reaches and beyond to where names cease.’

Nonetheless, inien still means ‘sea’, even if it can’t be used magically to command the sea as a whole.

Meanwhile, tolk is used for various specific rocks on Gont and Roke, but it seems reasonable to interpret the Master Hand as saying that it also means ‘the dry land on which men live’.

Actually, I believe have made one error in my original assertion. When the Master Namer derives sukien from suk and inien, he is illustrating to how the words of the Old Speech ‘lie hidden and changed among our Hardic words’. Hardic is the chief daily language of the archipelago, descended from but distinct from the Old Speech of creation and magic. Sukien is Hardic, and probably Le Guin meant the elision from suk+inien as an example of how the Old Speech is changed in Hardic. By that logic, Tolkien could be ‘Earthsea’ in Hardic, but probably not in the Old Speech.

I can’t claim any special insight into the workings of Le Guin’s mind. But I did once construe the unpublished birthdate of Colin Whisterfield in Alan Garner’s Boneland – and Garner told me I’d got it right.

If only I’d thought of Tolkien as Hardic for Earthsea by 2004! That’s when a mutual friend, the Tolkien scholar Marjorie Burns, kindly passed a copy of my book Tolkien and the Great War to Le Guin. I’d definitely have asked her if I was right.

I can imagine two responses: You found me out! Or How neat. I wish I’d actually thought of that!

[NOTE: I’ve made a couple of edits the morning after publishing this – adding dates for some publications, reference to Éa and , and mention of Michael Ward and Planet Narnia. I’ve also corrected my assertion, from memory, that the tolk and sukien passages contain the only samples of Old Speech in A Wizard of Earthsea (there are also a couple of untranslated charms, the untranslated ‘true names’ of characters, and the word kest ‘minnow’.)]

UPDATE, 25 January 2021. Julian Bradfield has pointed out to me that the tolkien observation has been made at least twice before, once in a 2015 blog post by Keith Miller about a talk given by Le Guin; and once in an online encyclopedia entry no later than 2005 (though this one just posits tolkien as a viable Earthsea word ‘presumably meaning “rock of the sea”’). Julian suspects the idea was in circulation before that too. I find a couple of further references, one on the TV Tropes website (no date) and one in a 2020 comment on a blog post by Sean Guynes. All this makes me even more intrigued to know whether Ursula Le Guin herself formulated the idea or heard of it and responded to it. I am grateful to Keith Miller for clarifying his blog post by stating in an email to me today, ‘Ursula didn’t mention it in the talk my wife and I attended.’


[1] ‘A Citizen of Mondath’ (1973), in Dreams Must Explain Themselves: The Selected Non-fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin (London: Gollancz, 2018).

[2] ‘From Elfland to Poughkeepsie’ (1973), in Dreams Must Explain Themselves.

[3] ‘Dreams Must Explain Themselves’ (1973). Thanks to Kris Swank for drawing my attention to this essay.

[4] Thanks go to Krzysztof Grzesik for pointing this out to me.

[5] ‘The Staring Eye (1974), in The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction (rev. ed. London: Women’s Press, 1989) 149.

[6] ‘Dreams Must Explain Themselves’.

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20 Responses to Ursula Le Guin, the language of Earthsea, and Tolkien

  1. Dominic Lane says:

    It feels right, John. It feels very right.

  2. apoolofsong says:

    I’m sure you are right, and I imagine it was put in as a stealth tribute perhaps thinking that if ever Tolkien read the book he would spot it (given that it’s specifically a reference hidden in language).

    • John Garth says:

      I like that idea! At the very least, Tolkien would have been able to construe that his name was interpretable in Hardic – either as “Earthsea” itself or as something close and elemental, “stone-sea”.

  3. I am decidedly in the “How neat. I wish I’d actually thought of that!” camp but still a very, very lovely idea!

    It would have been wonderful to ask her that.

  4. Andreas says:

    Very nice catch, thank you!

  5. Denis Bridoux says:

    Dear John

    Happy New Year.

    I hope you are keeping well.

    Thank you for this.

    You may be interested in the following

    URSULA K. LE GUIN

    The 33rd stamp in the Literary Arts series honors Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018), who expanded the scope of literature through novels and short stories that increased critical and popular appreciation of science fiction and fantasy. The stamp features a portrait of Le Guin based on a 2006 photograph. The background shows a scene from her landmark 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness, in which an envoy from Earth named Genly Ai escapes from a prison camp across the wintry planet of Gethen with Estraven, a disgraced Gethenian politician. The artist for this stamp was Donato Giancola. The art director was Antonio Alcalá. The words three ounce on this stamp indicate its usage value. Like a Forever stamp, this stamp will always be valid for the value printed on it.

    Take care.

    Denis

    Le 2021-01-22T23:22:45.000+01:00, John Garth

  6. Denis Bridoux says:

    Very neat argument.

    Take care.

    Denis

  7. Kevin says:

    To go along with Shelton, I wonder if Le Guin was hinting that Earthsea is decidedly not Tolkien, i.e. ‘tolk’ and ‘sukien’ together sounds like Tolkien, but it’s not.

    • John Garth says:

      Hmm. The Old Speech to Hardic word-building rules appear to allow a compound word or name spelt just like Tolkien. The only difference – if Luke is correct – is in meaning: “rock-sea” rather than “Earthsea”. The homage would not be so great, but a homage it would surely remain. Even if my reading is correct, I don’t suppose Le Guin intended publically to say her Earthsea was mere imitation of Tolkien.

      • Kevin says:

        I guess I was just saying that it could be more of a wink and a nod that the world of Earthsea does not quite translate to the world of Tolkien. I also don’t think anyone can argue Earthsea is a mere imitation. Like you said a playful homage to Tolkien, a master of language invention.

  8. Janbellina says:

    Don’t be too quick to dismiss ‘rock’ because ‘earth’ was almost certainly a different word; One builds on rock (as Jesus told Peter in that other famous book). Earth is for tilling.

  9. ‪Yariv says:

    Just looked at TvTropes’ history. Seems like the “ShoutOut” was added in 2016, part of this large edit: https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/article_history.php?article=Literature.EarthseaTrilogy#edit15497404

    Very interesting connection, of course, whether Le Guin intended it or not.

  10. David Bratman says:

    On the topic of Earthsea as an homage to or inspired by Tolkien, the best observation is Brian Attebery’s in his early book The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature: he distinguishes Le Guin from the Tolkien copyists by saying that she’s the rare author who has “absorbed Tolkien, comprehended him, and gone on in her own direction.”

    • John Garth says:

      Absolutely spot on!

      I noticed an interesting bit of trivia today in The Other Wind (2001), where she finally refers to the renegade wizard Cob as “the necromancer”. Of course, I realised, that’s exactly what he was! More of a necromancer, indeed, than Tolkien’s own Necromancer – because Cob’s whole magic is in breaching the boundaries between life and death. But when telling this story in The Farthest Shore (1972), Le Guin had resisted naming Cob “the necromancer”. I’m sure she was conscious of the risk of seeming derivative. There ought not to have been any real risk of that, in an ideal world, because her narratives are so much more overtly probings of metaphysical questions.

      In fact I think if Le Guin were older or Tolkien younger, she could have helpfully given him some guidance when he was floundering and foundering in metaphysical questions after the publication of The Lord of the Rings. Her method is fruitful and pragmatic: publish, enigmas and all; then write a new story probing the enigmas and opening new territory, even overturning the assumptions on which the original story had been built.

  11. lisajhaugen says:

    I am so happy to have come across this post! I’m a long-time fan of first Tolkien (beginning when I read The Hobbit at age 13) and then Le Guin (when I first read The Left Hand of Darkness in graduate school) and then as if suddenly psychically aware I’d spent most of my life starving, began reading everything by her that I could get my hands on. I’m currently working on my Master’s thesis on two of Le Guin’s novels, and actually on a sort of whim of distraction followed a little tangential thought to google search Tolkien’s influence on Le Guin and found this post. I maybe came across Tolkien and Le Guin a little early in my own budding literary career, and so completely understand Le Guin’s relief that she’d not come across Tolkien sooner. I think reading Le Guin and being delightfully overwhelmed with the magnitude of the genius and beauty in her works is part (one part) of what paralyzed me as a writer for so many years!
    But I am so happy to see the name Earthsea parsed out this way as a tribute, an “easter egg” to Tolkien. I’m enamored with the idea, and appreciate the other parallels you’ve drawn here as well. These two authors are like creative mother and father to me!

    • John Garth says:

      And I am so happy my post hit the mark for you, Lisa! I’m sure Le Guin would approve of your wandering briefly away from your Master’s thesis to find a bit of tolk-ien. I wish you a fair wind for your thesis and wherever else you steer.

  12. lisajhaugen says:

    “Actually, I believe have made one error in my original assertion. When the Master Namer derives sukien from suk and inien, he is illustrating to how the words of the Old Speech ‘lie hidden and changed among our Hardic words’. Hardic is the chief daily language of the archipelago, descended from but distinct from the Old Speech of creation and magic. Sukien is Hardic, and probably Le Guin meant the elision from suk+inien as an example of how the Old Speech is changed in Hardic. By that logic, Tolkien could be ‘Earthsea’ in Hardic, but probably not in the Old Speech.”

    I think though, as one person above suggested in the comments, that Le Guin absorbed Tolkien’s work and then worked with it in conversation with her own. I think the sensitivity to the proximity of the sounds and words is meaningful, whether intentionally done or not. And Even if intentionally and playfully done (I am writing a bit about Le Guin’s playfulness with words, such as “Omelas” from The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas being derived from Salem, O (Oregon) backward, and the character Genly Ai from The Left Hand of Darkness’ name being a sort of playful reversal of the syllables in the phrase “I Le Guin.” The first instance I have read directly from Le Guin herself. The second I discovered on my own, but hardly doubt I’m the first or only person to ever notice it. 🙂
    So, it is very likely that the sounds are used intentionally, and in the exact way you describe here, even if its done proximally and loosely rather than strictly and uniformly. Bedrock underlays earth, anyway.

    • John Garth says:

      I had no idea Omelas Salem, O. Brilliant! I was going to say I’ll think about Genly Ai I, Le Guin, but actually I won’t be able to unthink it. All this makes me wonder whether there are unpublished notes on Hardic and Old Speech (or published notes I’ve missed).

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