Goro Miyazaki’s Tales from Earthsea begins with regicide and a boy on the run. Prince Arren, overtaken by a malicious spirit, kills his father the king, and then flees from home holding a magical sword; he not only runs from justice and the deed he’s done (even if out of his control), but from expectation. As he later relates to the girl, Therru, he is not his father. Arren is physically weak, prone to depression, overly sensitive. He later explains, “I’m not worthy of my father’s sword.”
Though much derided—and it surely is a clunky film (I ranked it worst among Ghibli’s complete filmography)—Tales from Earthsea is full of thematically challenging material, not the least of which is presented by the weakness perceived in many of its characters. Therru, too, is flawed in the eyes of the world. When she first makes her entrance, it’s as a captor of the villain Cob; the evil mage’s captain calls her an ugly witch, making that judgment based on a burn mark running across much of her face. Like Arren, Therru is not the picture of the hero; she is ordinary, if not something less.
I wonder how these characters must have felt to grow up with the burden of being “an ugly witch” or a weak prince. We don’t know much about Arren’s life, but we do know his mother is overbearing, and it would not be a stretch to assume she continually made Arren feel less than for his shortcomings. We do know that Therru was abused and abandoned, scarred by the very ones who should have loved her most.
Sometimes I feel ordinary, too. Sometimes, like Arren and Therru, I feel even less than that. The world has a way of pressing us down, of showing us all that is magnificent and grand, and when compared to our little lives, it’s easy to feel that we aren’t the same. Social media only compounds the feeling, making me often wonder, “Why aren’t I living the life extraordinary?”
I could go on some adventure to avoid this feeling. A former supervisor once took a trip to Antarctica which was relatively dangerous. I remember thinking to myself, “That’s something I could do!” A trip there or to Mount Everest, or building up some business could make me feel exceptional. In fact, I’m sure it would, but only for a while.
And there’s the problem—the things I do don’t last. At the end of the day, I’m left with myself and this feeling: I’m nothing special.
But what if someone else considered me extraordinary?
In Earthsea, the wise Sparrowhawk sees something in Arren. To him, he’s not a whiny, murderous coward. Sparrowhawk lets Arren accompany him and teaches him. He also did something similar with Tenar, who in turn did the same for Therru.
When others see us as individuals with real value, there’s power there, and it doesn’t just have to be given by a great counselor or mentor-warrior. The power to bestow greatness upon someone belongs to us all, and it is not just the strength to help someone up; it can also help them reach their potential. Our love doesn’t just explain to another that they’re extraordinary—it encourages them to find that truth out themselves.
In Earthsea, the greatest surprise is not that Arren rises to the challenge and overcomes his own obstacles—it’s that another does the same. In one scene, Therru explain, “Tenar gave me my life. That’s why I have to live, so that I can give my life to someone else.” But although the Therru we initially meet understands that, she doesn’t act as if she really believes it, as if it’s true. She’s difficult and angry and bitter. But as he loves others around her and empathizes with Arren, and comes to sacrifice for him and for others, she changes, in more ways than one. She becomes a loving and heroic young woman, and tranforms, in the final scenes of Tales from Earthsea, into a dragon.
In a sense, you and I can do the same. Unfortunately, we don’t have an epic tale in a fantasy kingdom unfolding before us, nor do we always comes across a person who challenges us to change our entire notions of the world. What we do have, though, is our own epic tale of good and evil, and one far greater than Sparrowhawk and more consistent than our loves ones, one who is always with us to teach us about our worth. People come and go, but God’s eternal word tells us that now and into eternity, we hold extraordinary value: We are children and heirs to the king.
We’re more than just average. We are princesses and princesses. We are warriors and fire. We are dragons.