This Saturday was a beautiful day where I live, so I decided to take a walk down to the end of our street. It was about 75 F outside, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. There’s a big osprey nest on one of the docks near our house, and as I was walking the female took wing; I had my camera, and was able to snap a shot of the bird as she flew across the sky.
The picture reminded me of the lines from one of my favorite fantasy novels, A Wizard of Earthsea. For my readers who haven’t read this book, read it! It’s the first book in a trilogy: it centers around a young wizard, Ged, who goes to a magic school and… If it sounds familiar, remember it was written twenty-four years before the first Harry Potter novel. It’s better than the Potter series in a number of ways; for someone like me, the fact that Ursula Le Guin created consistent rules of magic and stuck to them in the series enhances the enjoyment tremendously.
The lines are from the “Creation of Ea”, which is the creation story among the inhabitants of the Archipelago, the loosely-bound confederation of islands in which the stories are mainly set. These lines begin the epic:
“Only in silence the word,
Only in dark the light,
Only in dying life;
Bright the hawk’s flight
On the empty sky”
They frame the book, and indeed the series, as they are a succinct expression of the philosophy of the Equilibrium which pervades the books. One problem, though: look at the picture. The flight of the hawk is dark across the empty sky!
Why is it dark? The osprey has brown wings with some gray and white feathers, and a white breast. If anything, one would expect it to be light when seen from below. However, this isn’t how our eyes work. Vision is complicated – it’s not just the optics of the eye. Yes, the eye focuses images from the outside world onto the retina, and the retinal cells sense the light and transmit the information to the brain, but how the information is transmitted is very complicated. The cells don’t simply send the “pixel levels”, so to speak, to the brain directly. There’s a lot of processing, much of it taking place in the nerves in the eye. They are all linked together in a complex manner.
The optical system of the brain is hooked together in such as way as to enhance contrasts. Dark areas appear darker when adjacent to lighter ones. This takes place at a very low level: each ganglion which transmits light level information to the brain is hooked up to the ganglia surrounding it in such a way that if the cells around it are illuminated, its own response decreases, but the reverse is true if the cells around it are dark. The net effect is that our eyes enhance contrasts. The wonderful book “Seeing the Light” explains this in more detail, plus much more on how the visual system works. (It’s interesting that photographic film enhances contrast as well because of how film is developed. Digital cameras are built so that their images are usually processed to imitate film and the eye.)
This is why the osprey looks dark. Even though the osprey is mostly light colored, the brightness of the skylight around it makes it appear dark by contrast, not on an absolute scale. This makes me wonder about the creators of the epic. The epic itself is about contrasts: light against dark, silence against the word, life against death. However, the brightness contrast against the sky makes the hawk’s flight dark in a quite literal sense.
Le Guin meant the lines metaphorically, of course, but it is strange that the metaphoric sense is diametrically opposite the literal one. Epic poetry can often be read on both levels: Dante’s Divine Comedy, for example, has a number of places where Dante deliberately invokes the cosmology as known in his day, or other scientific tidbits, to explain or complement his theology. (There is some optics: he discusses with Beatrice the fact that a candle seen in a distant mirror looks smaller but not darker than the original.) I still enjoy the lines, of course, and find them deeply moving, but if I ever write a book on optics in literature, those are going straight into it.