2. Religion

1

Arha/Tenar is a high priestess of the Nameless Ones. How does her social role as priestess affect her story? How does religion fit into Kargish society?

The Kargs have religion, but use no sorcery. The Inner Lands use sorcery, but have no religion. How are they related?

Comments

  • 0

    One of the great sub-plots of this book is the way - at least to Arha's perception - her religion has been marginalised by the much more overtly political movement of the God-Kings. To me, there's a sense in which her faith is authentic both personally and in terms of its object (notwithstanding Ged's comments about how the Old Powers ought not to be worshipped by humans), whereas the replacement one appears rather nakedly self-serving. As she comes to realise, her position is actually quite precarious in Kargish society, for all its ancientry and such like.
    I'm not sure that it's fair to say that the Inner Lands have no religion - in the background to be sure, but in Wizard of Earthsea we met the lady Serret of Osskil, whose relationship with a certain stone there was not appreciably different from Arha's with the Old Ones. And certainly outside of the Roke wizard school there is a whole spectrum of more casual superstitions and practices. I do totally agree that there is a foreground / background issue but I'm not sure they are in total contrast.

  • 1

    We never really see Kargish society, so I guess that says something about how religion fits in: most Kargish don't particularly worship, or at least done worship the Nameless Ones. That's apparent from both the lack of outsiders in the story and the general decrepitude of the temple complex. This is definitely a dying aspect of that society. Despite that, I don't think it's too much to say that Tenar's life is utterly dominated by the religion she was inserted into.

    As for the lack of sorcery, the Kargish obviously have some power that can offset the advantage of sorcery, or else they wouldn't even be nuisance raiders of the Inner Sea. But we never see what that is, and that's fine: this is the story of Tenar's understanding of religion and sorcery, and it's not much concerned with the wider world.

  • 2

    Arha's role as a priestess seems to be a trap. Expectations and rules are laid upon her - she's not really free to break those. Is that intended as a comment on religion? I'm not so sure. Arha's faith is tested in the novel, but it doesn't take all that much to break it. Everyone else seems to be quite cynical about the gods. The Kargish are obviously using religion as a tool to promote the god-king to ultimate power.

    That said, Arha does seem to draw strength from her faith. She uses it to deny Ged's magic as trickery.

  • 1

    I think a theme running through a lot of LeGuin's work is an idea that growing up is taken as putting aside religion, and it is used here to drive the plot (Sorry @Apocryphal ). The Kargish are grown up in that they have put aside religion, and Arha herself is childish, and only grows up when she too has done so. Ged seems to suggest by omission that there might be a 'good' devotion when he says that the Nameless Ones are not worthy of human worship, but that said, the idea that the missing rune will make peace possible is nothing deeper than a superstitious confidence in technology. I don't think LeGuin has really got the religion / technology / magic arrows into her quiver yet. Conceptually I find this book more interesting as a stepping stone along her path to her later work, than as a worked out contemplation of religion.

  • 1

    Why are you sorry to me? This seems like a more clearly conceived version of what I was fumbing for.

  • 1

    @BarnerCobblewood said:
    I think a theme running through a lot of LeGuin's work is an idea that growing up is taken as putting aside religion, and it is used here to drive the plot ... Conceptually I find this book more interesting as a stepping stone along her path to her later work, than as a worked out contemplation of religion.

    I guess one can see her Taoist inclinations coming out - what she typically opposes is not religious sentiment but religious organisational structure. Acts of personal or communal faith are typically celebrated, so long as they do not turn into a compulsion to act in ways which are repetitive and forced rather than spontaneous. I realise it's from the next book, but her descriptions of the Long Dance (midsummer) are essentially affirmations of religious spontaneity. The event itself is astronomical and repetitive, but the human enactment is new every time.

    Here in Atuan, any sense of spontaneity is swallowed up but the complete dominance of repetitive ritual, and Arha's friend Penthe represents (I think) the inevitable trend that this ritual crushes individuality.

  • 2

    @RichardAbbott said:
    I guess one can see her Taoist inclinations coming out - what she typically opposes is not religious sentiment but religious organisational structure. Acts of personal or communal faith are typically celebrated, so long as they do not turn into a compulsion to act in ways which are repetitive and forced rather than spontaneous. I realise it's from the next book, but her descriptions of the Long Dance (midsummer) are essentially affirmations of religious spontaneity. The event itself is astronomical and repetitive, but the human enactment is new every time.

    Here in Atuan, any sense of spontaneity is swallowed up but the complete dominance of repetitive ritual, and Arha's friend Penthe represents (I think) the inevitable trend that this ritual crushes individuality.

    Thank you for your comments. A counter-point: There is dance and so forth in the Nameless One's religion, and Arha enjoys it. It is in her interactions with the God-king religion and its practitioners, the religion of politics, where difficulty arises. Arha is unskilled in the dance of competition, and winning and losing, which her 'religion' does not provide.

    There is something about the relation between a 'new' political power and 'old' forgotten power underneath the story here, but I think LeGuin has not yet mastered this material directly. She seems to be proceeding intuitively and through a feeling rather than being grounded in a systematic understanding. The tensions of religion are left aside by both the author and the characters to deal with individual freedom through rebellion against church, skilfully combined with an erotic love which must be repressed. That is straight-forward Protestant theology, 'natural' to her readers, and presumably sells better.

    There is a lot more to be said about dance, and play: the relation they articulate between rules, aims, and happenstance, but maybe someone else has something to contribute.

  • 2

    Well, it's interesting that we see the Kargs both use religion as a justification for political power (the God-Brothers overshadow the worship of the Nameless Ones, and are, in turn, overshadowed by the cult of the God-King), but they also compartmentalize it by having their priestesses and their high temple in the desert where nobody goes. That's kind of weird. If the God-King is holding onto power by proclaiming himself divine, then you'd expect he would want hosts of worshipers singing his praises.

    It's also interesting how we have this succession of beliefs piled one atop the other. The cult of the Nameless Ones venerate forces that are real, and supernatural, but utterly inhuman. The cult of the God-Brothers are a sort of ancestor-worship, and then the God-King is that merging of political and religious authority into one still-living man. It's interesting that none of these successor faiths goes so far as to completely wipe out the faiths that came before, but do whittle down their importance until the Nameless Ones are only worshiped by a single priestess and a single eunuch.

    Also interesting how the God-Brothers and the God-King are male, but all the priestesses are female.

  • 1

    @Michael_S_Miller said:
    ... If the God-King is holding onto power by proclaiming himself divine, then you'd expect he would want hosts of worshipers singing his praises.
    ...

    I think he does :smile: "His temple is painted fresh every year, there's a hundred-weight of gold on the altar, the lamps burn attar of roses"
    Like many other new or reformed religions, the God-Kings set up their place near enough the ancient one to, as it were, appropriate its sacredness, but far enough away that it can function and be built up separately.

  • 1
    edited March 19

    Does it matter that the gods here are provably real? I feel like OUR ideas about religion are somewhat grounded in the concept that whether God exists or not is unprovable. Thus it requires faith for us to believe in a higher being. In this case we have essentially demons - old powers of the Earth - that are real within the confines of this fictional world. Is Tenar a priestess or a servant? Is she one of the faithful or a bound slave?

  • 1
    @Ray_Otus That's an interesting question. Are the Nameless Ones "real" in a way that you or I would perceive? Are they "provable"? Kossil doesn't think so. What do they do that objectively proves their existence?

    Well, they cause an earthquake. But, earthquakes happen in their own, too. Maybe it was time for the tectonic plates to shift. Ged says he held back the earthquake, but he also says he called a rabbit over by saying "Kebbo". Maybe he's crazy.

    I think Le Guin does a great job of skating that edge between objects of faith and real presences.
  • 1
    edited March 19

    Ged actively fights an old power, the stone of Terenon, in book 1. Here they sap his strength don't they?* Or is his magic just weak because of being so far from his homeland (where he knows the names of things better)? In any case, there are people who don't believe in the nameless ones, but mages certainly interact with them as if they are real.

    • I'm going to shamefully admit here that I didn't have time to re-read the book, but I've read it multiple times before.
  • 1
    I was playing a bit of devil's advocate. I totally think the Old Powers are real. But they are subtle. I think it's entirely reasonable for Kossil, the priestess of the GodKing, to be an atheist. We really only see any of them interact with wizards, not normal people.

    I agree that there's a lot of fantasy where the supernatural works in a way that a modern person would consider "provable." D&D type sounds, in particular. In those, the question between faith and pragmatism can get weird.

    I just don't think Earthsea is one of them.
  • 2

    I think there are several approaches to religious thought and feeling. The idea that it might be provable is, IMHO, very much a Protestant / nonConformist one, and is the basis behind a lot of contemporary missionary and such like work.
    But other branches of religion (both inside and outside Christianity) have a different approach. Catholicism, for example, is built heavily around community and the idea of belonging, rather than the idea of knowing. So are large parts of Judaism. (Both of these examples certainly apply in the UK, and others will have to comment about other countries).
    Other religions put experience at the centre, and it seems to me that this is where The Old Ones can be found. The worship described is focused on sacred acts (eg ritual dances and particular uses of drugs), in a way we often associate with shamanism. I find (once again) that Arha's friend Penthe reveals something of the core of the Old Ones when she says simply "I am afraid of the dark". Arha is not afraid of it, and is the priestess - she learns to be afraid of it when she emerges as Tenar.

  • 2
    edited March 19

    @RichardAbbott Those are good thoughts but the point I was trying to make is this:

    Talking about this in terms of religion may not really be a "good reading" at all, in the sense that we are applying Earth notions of religion to Earthsea worship of (actual) demons/powers. I don't think the Nameless Ones are "gods" let alone "God" in the Western sense of that word, so I think using the word religion is even a little off base*. It may surprise you to find out that the word "religion" does not appear anywhere in the text. (Though "worship" does 13 times and "Priest"/"Priestess" 119 times.)

  • 1

    (* at least using it the way people have used it in this thread.)

  • 0

    Hmmm. I may be talking in circles. But if could say "God exists" and we all accept that statement, then religion becomes a different thing - more along the lines of obedience to the law than faith in a higher power. Tenar is a slave. Her freedom isn't really freedom from religion. It's freedom from real demonic powers that controlled her.

  • 1

    @Ray_Otus I agree (though had not done the statistical analysis that you did :smile: ) - I think Ursula LeGuin was deliberately avoiding the possibility of people saying "aha, the Old Ones are _really _XYZ religion and the wizards are _really _the ABC believers". By stressing the experience of people rather than trying to expound their theology she ends up with something much more powerful, I think.

  • 3
    edited March 19

    Yeah. It's a confusing issue to talk about a little bit. Because there is a religious side to it - the order, the trappings, the impact on the culture. Then there is the supernatural powers side of it. But I 100% agree with you that the focus is on the experience, and in that sense you could absolutely read her breakthrough ("I am afraid of the dark") as a really subtle and interesting form of religious freedom. She stopped believing in the religion and started believing in herself as a thing apart from (enemy of) the powers she served. Up until that point I'm not sure that Tenar even believed in The Nameless Ones. They were her inherited belief system. She didn't question them. The super scary answer she got was - they are real and they are fucking evil! :) LOL. Even so, she doesn't run to a "good" God of any kind. She is divorcing herself from both her (any/all) religion and the destructive/malicious old powers of the Earth. She loses her religion and her safety at once, and she almost (if it weren't for Ged there to help her through) lost her sense of self.

  • 1

    If you are frustrated with me because it seems like I just argued both sides of this, I don't blame you. I need to ruminate more on this. :smile: Time to actually re-read it.

  • 1

    @Ray_Otus said:
    If you are frustrated with me because it seems like I just argued both sides of this, I don't blame you. I need to ruminate more on this. :smile: Time to actually re-read it.

    Not at all frustrated - it's great to be dealing with a book that encourages all of us to see multiple sides of the issue.

  • 2

    This one's complex and hard to answer, even from a personal point of view. The religion is real and a discarded political relic, working according to tradition, and placating genuine supernatural forces. And it does seem to be placating them rather than venerating them. There's a love of tradition and artistry, and artifice, but no love in the worship.

    It's empty apart from the ceremony. The forces worshipped are real, but they're malevolent, with no love even for their worshippers.

    And the relic is not just not a part of society, but actively cruel. Okay, from what we see of Kargish society, that's cruel too. And maybe the cruel society gave rise to a cruel religion- though it's hard to tell which came first, even though the relationship between rule and religion has changed, and the religion is ancient.

    As for Tenar, once she's left the Tombs, the religion is something that's completely irrelevant to her. It's of that place, and that place only.

  • 1

    Should we make anything of the fact that the Kargad empire is a bunch of cruel, white bullies, while Ged's people are brown-skinned seafarers and goat herders who venerate nature to some extent? I mean, I'm half-joking, but I do think LeGuin intentionally made Ged brown and the Kargs white, and I know she has been annoyed with adaptations and book covers that mess that up.

  • 2
    To give a half serious answer, I see the Kargs as barbarian raiders, initially based loosely on Vikings, and therefore white, blonde, and absolute brutes. But like everything else in the Earthsea there are other cultural influences to make something unique. In this case, the god kings make me think of both divine monarchy in Medieval Europe, and divine rulers in East Asia. But they're raiders more than imperialists.

    The skin colour of the islanders in civilised Earthsea and many small islands setting first put me in mind of Polynesia, but the culture isn't the same at all- for one thing it is more technologically advanced, and then there's the network of wizards etc. Another mix of influences, with non-white people to distance the setting a bit further from "standard fantasy not Europe", and to do something different.

    It's perhaps relevant that there are sympathetic Karg characters (Tenar, one of the wizards of Roke) who are separated from their culture.
  • 1

    I saw Kargs as Klingons, and we all know what colour they are.

  • 3

    @dr_mitch said:

    As for Tenar, once she's left the Tombs, the religion is something that's completely irrelevant to her. It's of that place, and that place only.

    Yes! That totally captures a lot of this - it's not a 'portable' religion but bound to the physicality of that part of the land. From memory that also holds true of other significant places for the Old Ones. The stone at Osskil was the same sort of thing, in that you had to be there and touch it to access its power.

  • 1

    So, I just came back to this and re-read it this week. Oh my God what a great book! I especially loved the afterward by LeGuin which I don't believe I've ever read before. (It was written after the 6th book because she mentions that.) Anyway ... yes ... it's clear to me that the old powers are "real" to Ged but it's less clear that they are real than I thought it was. You could possibly chalk up everything they attribute to the old powers to pure fear/imagination -- e.g. the clouding of their wits. But I have to ask why? Clearly magic is real in the setting and if Ged says the old powers are real and that they interfere with his magic, I guess I have no reason to disbelieve him on that score. But it's an interesting point of discussion. The cave-in would need to be explained, but that could have happened from Ged "pushing" up on the ceiling with his power to prevent a cave-in that he imagined was happening.

Sign In or Register to comment.