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in and of the world

Arren, a young prince in the Earthsea books by Ursula Le Guin, is sent by his father to the Great Masters of the School of Sorcery with troubling news. The next morning, he is asked by the Archmage to jointly break fast:

‘Come, let us breakfast together,’ said the Archmage, and led them to a table set beneath the windows. There was milk and sour beer, bread, new butter, and cheese. Arren sat with them and ate.

He had been among noblemen, landholders, rich merchants, all his life. His father’s hall in Berila was full of them: men who owned much, who bought and sold much, rich in the things of the world. They ate and drank wine, and talked loud; many disputed, many flattered, most sought something for themselves. Young as he was, Arren had learned a good deal about the manners and disguises of humanity. But he had never been among such mens as these. They ate bread, and talked little, and their faces were quiet. If they sought something, it was not for themselves. Yet they were men of great power: that, too, Arren recognized.

In one short paragraph, the difference between men of the world - always seeking something for themselves - and those who are in the world, not for themselves, but serving something greater - is felt and understood.

‘if the rowan’s roots are shallow it bears no crown’

The paragraph is from Book Four: The Farthest Shore.

Arren, the prince, ‘nearly a man, but still a boy,’ a face as if ‘cast in golden bronze, so finely moulded and so still’, and the Archmage, ‘a short, straight, vigorous figure (…) his face reddish-dark, hawk-nosed, seamed on one cheek with old scars (…) eyes bright and fierce,’ first meet under the rowan tree, near the fountain at the heart of the School.

Arren’s true name is ‘Lebannan’, meaning ‘rowan tree.’

A man in the world, meets a soon-to-be-man not-quite-yet in the world….

‘… a man does not make his destiny: he accepts it, or denies it. If the rowan’s roots are shallow it bears no crown.’

Your roots are deep. You have strength, and you must have room, room to grow. Thus I offer you, instead of a safe trip home, an unsafe voyage to an unknown end. You need not come. The choice is yours. But I offer you the choice. For I am tired of safe places, and roofs, and walls around me.

These aren’t my words, of course.

But maybe read the book.


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