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…
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?
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’. Instead she was able to begin forging her own path before it crossed his.
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.’
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.’
In Always Coming Home (1985), Le Guin refers to language invention as ‘what an illustrious predecessor referred to as the Secret Vice’. 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.
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.’
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.’
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 Eä 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 Eä, 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.’
 ‘A Citizen of Mondath’ (1973), in Dreams Must Explain Themselves: The Selected Non-fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin (London: Gollancz, 2018).
 ‘From Elfland to Poughkeepsie’ (1973), in Dreams Must Explain Themselves.
 ‘Dreams Must Explain Themselves’ (1973). Thanks to Kris Swank for drawing my attention to this essay.
 Thanks go to Krzysztof Grzesik for pointing this out to me.
 ‘The Staring Eye (1974), in The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction (rev. ed. London: Women’s Press, 1989) 149.
 ‘Dreams Must Explain Themselves’.