Dancing with the Monster
Updated: Aug 20, 2020
I found A Wizard of Earthsea seven years ago in my parents’ basement, mixed in with CS Lewis, Kit Pearson and other staples of my youth. I couldn’t remember reading it as a child, and when I asked my mom, she said she wasn’t sure where it came from. It was as if it had appeared out of thin air. The book (a 1968 fantasy novel by Ursula Leguin) is about an adolescent boy named Ged, born on a backwater island of a vast archipelago who, upon exhibiting some talent for magic, is sent to a legendary school for wizards on the central island of Roke.
Ged proves to be a promising pupil, but he is impatient and sullen, developing a fierce rivalry with a posh, older boy. In a misguided gambit to prove himself, Ged summons a long dead queen of Earthsea from beyond the veil. The spell goes awry and a demonic shadow monster is set loose, nearly killing him. Ged – who eventually adopts the alias Sparrowhawk – is dogged by the shadow for most of the novel as he assists common folk in a small village, squares off with dragons and travels to the frigid northern land of Osskil. Returning to his home island of Gont, he consults his first teacher, Ogion, who is Earthsea’s equivalent of a Buddhist monk. The pithy wizard counsels him thus:
If you go ahead, if you keep running, wherever you run you will meet danger and evil, for it drives you, it chooses the way you go. You must choose. You must seek what seeks you. You must hunt the hunter.
A year after I read A Wizard of Earthsea, I began developing an anxiety disorder that I’ve struggled with for the past six years. Sometimes, when my nervous system was flooded with cortisol and my mind was spewing up nasty thoughts, I began reciting this incantation: I am the great wizard Sparrowhawk, who defeated the dragon of Pendor, wrestled the shadow monster from the netherworld and lived to tell the tale. Much to my surprise, it helped. At first, I couldn’t understand why, but when I read the book for a second time, it clicked: Leguin’s narrative perfectly mirrors the friction that arises when we repress or make war with the parts of ourselves that we find unacceptable. Fittingly, these compartmentalized fragments of self are often referred to in psychotherapy as our shadow aspects.
I spent the fall and early winter of 2017 in a state of perpetual anxiety, sleeping three to fours hours a night on average, barely able to fulfil my day-to-day responsibilities. Despite the acute suffering, I refused to back down in the confrontation with my own personal shadow monster. In the brief windows of sleep, my unconscious was pumping out vivid dreams. I recorded them diligently in a notebook, ripping out pages to carry to therapy so that I often literally had dreams falling out of my pockets on the subway. I was also midway through a draft of a novel that had sprung from a series of cryptic dreams, and even though the process was often excruciating, I kept putting down chapters. I had never felt worse in my entire life, but my inner Sparrowhawk was urging me on as I felt my way through the darkness.
In January of 2018 – the same month, incidentally, that Leguin passed away – I signed up for a ten day meditation course near Barrie and abstained entirely from alcohol in an effort to subdue the shadow monster. When I arrived at the meditation course on May 4th, the perpetual panic had softened enough to allow for cautious optimism. I’d brought The Wizard of Earthsea with me as a talisman and flipped through it in my dorm room before heading to registration, where I was obliged to turn it over along with my phone. The book put me in an adventurous state of mind and that first night I dreamt of a tiger and a crocodile doing battle on a mountain in a thunderstorm.
In the days that followed, I cried several times, had a panic attack and almost left twice. The second time I mentioned leaving, the teacher, Jacob, explained that ten-day courses often bring up extremely painful feelings for beginners, that you can’t learn to meditate in isolation and apply it to your suffering after the fact. This brought to mind the scene from Empire where Luke is hanging upside-down in a frozen cave on Hoth and a yeti is about to eat him for dinner. The intensity of the situation inspires him to use the Force for the first time to summon his lightsaber, cut himself free and slay the hapless beast.
After that conversation with Jacob, I headed into the afternoon meditation session with renewed determination. As the lights went down, I focused on my breath and observed tingling rivulets coursing through my legs, neck and face. I calmly awaited the shadow monster. As the usual procession of disturbing images and self abuse crept in, I remained calm. The shadow monster, thrown off by the unfamiliar dynamic, dissolved into light. Standing outside afterwards, a patch of tall evergreens swayed in the breeze, stirring a tender sensation in my chest. By the following afternoon, the entire world was sparkling and undulating and I felt so light I thought I might float away, like a helium filled balloon.
As time went on, I grew more curious about the books of Earthsea (there are six in total). I started talking about them often, using the shadow monster as a metaphor for the inner struggles it seemed like everyone in my professional and social circles were engaged in. We’d been socialized to avoid painful, uncomfortable memories and feelings and as a result, our shadow monsters had grown unbelievably strong, locked up in the nether regions of our unconscious minds.
I’d briefly been on benzodiazepines for anxiety in 2018, and for several months the following winter (after the meditation course), I combined the antidepressant Wellbutrin with my ADHD medication to help manage emotional regulation. I had endless conversations about the pros and cons of these medications, which it seemed like everyone and their grandmas were taking. I came to the conclusion that the short-term relief these medications provide often comes at the expense of learning to process raw, meaningful emotions, of long term growth.
As I brought up Sparrowhawk more often, I discovered that he was a powerful symbol for others as well. An artist I work with told me he knew several people with Earthsea inspired tattoos; another friend told me that when she read A Wizard of Earthsea as a child, she felt like she’d been let in on a special secret she wasn’t supposed to know, as if the book had fallen into her hands by accident. I simply mentioned Leguin’s name in a busy bookstore once and the entire staff dropped whatever they were doing as we took turns gushing. Conversely, I recommended the books to a local barista – a self-proclaimed fantasy geek – and he told me he disliked A Wizard of Earthsea strongly and had thrown the book aside. I appreciated his honesty, and suppressed a strong urge to psychoanalyze him over the hiss of the milk steamer.
The second Earthsea novel, The Tombs of Atuan, mostly follows a character named Tenar, a girl living in the magic-free land of Kargad who’s recognized – Kundun style – as the reincarnation of a high priestess. The third book, The Farthest Shore, finds a mature Sparrowhawk taking a young prince under his wing as they attempt to solve a mystery and go on a bunch of dragon adventures. I took The Farthest Shore with me to a volunteering stint at the meditation centre near Barrie and read it on the sly – outside books are contraband – reasoning that Sparrowhawk’s dragon adventures were central to my spiritual advancement.
The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore depict Sparrowhawk as a self-assured wizard with a hint of melancholy – he has become himself. Returning to A Wizard of Earthsea, we are privy to the painful formation of that self. The novel serves as a prologue to these canonical adventures: it’s about the excruciating process of facing down demons, discovering who you are and taking responsibility for yourself. As Leguin writes of young Sparrowhawk in her afterword: “The discovery brings him victory, the kind of victory that isn’t the end of a battle, but the beginning of life.” There’s something about that first step, about the part of the journey where it’s just you against yourself that is so deep and juicy, that we can all relate to. Sadly, many of us never advance beyond that stage.
When I first found the language to talk about the inner struggles I was facing, when I learned that to tango with the shadow monster is the adventure of a lifetime, I noticed that most people really do want to talk about this stuff. Unfortunately, because of certain taboos in North American culture, it’s rare that folks can find a healthy opportunity – outside of drinking and drug taking, I mean – to talk about difficult feelings. Furthermore, many people have so little practice working with their feelings, they don’t even know where to begin.
Medication and various forms of talk therapy have become the standard methods of coping in our society. These tools can be helpful but they are expensive and sometimes problematic; they can also become crutches. When undertaken as therapy, activities such as dream analysis, compassion meditation, journaling, drawing, working with a tarot deck, dancing and other forms of expressive movement are marginalized as “alternative” because they are active practices and we live in a predominantly apathetic civilization. Like Ged, you have to make the decision to take responsibility for your past by actively engaging with it. Personal development demands creative thinking, it demands presence.
I often feel as though the world we live in is suffering from a fantasy trope – that our kingdom has been turned to stone. So many people are frozen, trapped inside themselves, incapable of compassionate, spontaneous action. In periods when my mind turns ferociously against itself, I cannot joke or play, or get outside of my head, out of the vicious cycle of chronic fear and thinking, thinking, thinking. Ged’s fear when he runs from the shadow monster is that he will become a Gebbeth: a being who has been possessed by evil spirits. It’s a good metaphor for those of us who are firmly stuck in our shadow patterns, deep in the labyrinth of self. In learning to dance with the shadow monster, in finding a way to express what we’re going through, we’re eventually able to thaw ourselves out, to come back to the land of the living. Like Sparrowhawk, we can turn our energies towards an engagement with the world, we can help others get unstuck and bring our kingdom back to life.