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In chapter 5 fo A Wizard of Earthsea, which states the following:

[The dragon] spoke, as did Ged, in the Old Speech, for that is the tongue of dragons still. Although the use of Old Speech binds a man to truth, it is not so with dragons. It is their own language, and they can lie in it, twisting the true words to false ends, catching the unwary hearer in a maze of mirrorwords each of which reflects the truth and none of which leads anywhere.

Why could Dragons lie in Old Speech? Are they essentially telling half-truths, technically true but misleading statements, etc., or can they actually tell a "direct" lie?

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  • It's been a long time since I read Earthsea. Is this written from Ged's point of view, so that statements like this may reflect only his belief, or is ther an omniscient narrator, so that this can be taken as certain information about the fictional world? (Important question for evaluating Christophe's answer below.)
    – Rand al'Thor
    May 17, 2018 at 16:13

2 Answers 2

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A Wizard of Earthsea has a third-person narrator who is "omniscient" in the sense that the narration dips into the thoughts of multiple characters. But the narration is also limited in the sense that it purports to be a story told within the fictional world, and so the narrator doesn't know everything, for example:

If Estarriol of Iffish kept his promise and made a song of that first great deed of Ged's, it has been lost.

So I think you can read the quoted passage about dragons and the Old Speech either way. The phrase "twisting the true words to false ends" might indicate that dragons are limited to prevarication, misdirection and ambiguity, but it could also be the case that dragons can tell a bald lie. Or it could be that the narrator does not know for sure.

Looking at the role of the passage in the story, I can see some further points of interest:

  1. The passage emphasises the magical nature of the Old Speech. Languages are normally productive: if you can say the sky is blue and the grass is green then you can say the sky is green (a lie) by simple interpolation. So it is surprising to learn that the Old Speech is different in this respect.

  2. It establishes the power of dragons (even the most powerful mage is constrained when speaking the Old Speech, but dragons are less so, or not at all), and thus emphasises the threat facing Ged at this point in the story.

  3. The ambiguity over whether dragons can lie or not adds to their mysterious nature.

  4. The passage reminds the reader of the power of true names (which are words the Old Speech), which will be the means by which Ged defeats the dragon.

  5. It suggests that the dragon's offer to tell Ged the name of the shadow is not to be trusted, and so leaves open the possibility that the shadow is nameless, as previously claimed by Archmage Gensher, maintaining the suspense on this point.

  6. The last sentence of the dragon's offer is particularly tricky, in line with the "misdirection and ambiguity" interpretation:

    "I know what you want, wizard. I, too, can offer you safety, for I know what alone can save you. There is a horror follows you. I will tell you its name."

    (Spoilers for A Wizard of Earthsea.)

    The way that I interpret Yevaud's offer is that he doesn't know the name of the shadow (because the name of the shadow is also "Ged", and if he knew that, then he could bind and defeat Ged, which he doesn't). Nonetheless, Yevaud can tell Ged the name of the shadow, because he can say, "You and your shadow have the same name."

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The Old Speech is not like other languages in the world of Earthsea. In "A Description of Earthsea", the last chapter of Tales from Earthsea (2001), Ursula Le Guin also calls it the True Speech and the Language of the Making ("with which Segoy created the islands of Earthsea at the beginning of time").

Here are a few other comments on the Old Speech from "A Description of Earthsea":

Dragons are born knowing the True Speech, or, as Ged put it, "the dragon and the speech of the dragon are one."

Sorcerers and witches learn a few words of it; wizards learn many, and some come to speak it almost as fluently as dragons do.

Old Speech is also the language of spells; none of the other languages (Hardic, Kargish and Osskili) serve for the making of spells.

The Old Speech is written using True Runes (at least by humans; dragons have no writing). About lying, Le Guin write (my emphasis):

Human beings cannot lie in that language. Dragons can; or so the dragons say; and if they are lying, does that not prove that what they say is true?

So Le Guin does not really explain why humans cannot lie in True Speech, and the dragons' claim that they can has apparently not been verified by humans. This seems to be why Le Guin resorts to a variation on the liar's paradox (see the bolded text in the above quote). If a dragon were to say, "I am lying", and he/she is indeed lying, then the dragon is telling the truth, which means that it is actually lying. (The problem here is that the statement works both at the level of "object language" and at the level of "meta language"; one might argue that the two levels should be kept apart.)

Le Guin plays a logical game with the claim instead of explaining whether the dragons can lie or not.

Update in response to a comment: The quote from A Wizard of Earthsea, may look like a direct statement that the dragons can lie, but I consider that as written from the point of view that is inside the Earthsea universe, while "A Description of Earthsea" is written by an outside observer of that same universe. This outside view can be seen in statements such as "while the Hardic runes, like Chinese characters, can accommodate widely varying pronunciations and shifts of meaning" (in the section "Literature and the Sources of History").

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  • You say that she's playing logic games "instead of explaining whether the dragons can lie or not" - which in your quote she is, but in the OP's quote she does seem to state outright that they can. I think there's more to this than just the writer dodging around the issue.
    – Rand al'Thor
    May 17, 2018 at 15:37
  • @Randal'Thor You're right, but I consider the quote from A Wizard of Earthsea as an "in-universe" statement, while "A Description of Earthsea" is written from outside that universe. I have added a note about this.
    – Tsundoku
    May 17, 2018 at 16:03

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