In “The Word of Unbinding”, readers arrive, in medias res, in the story of a young wizard named Festin as he awakens in a dark room without doors or windows. Typical of a young wizard, Festin left his home on a journey across the countryside, learning how to control his magical powers. Readers meet Festin in a prison after he has been captured by a powerful wizard-like being.
Noticing that his staff is missing, Festin generates a ball of fire using his hands. With this ball of fire lighting the way, Festin searches the room for a way to escape and finds none, save a trap door that opens to a water pit. Confused, but confident in his powers, he devises a plan to escape. He plans to transform into a cloud of fine mist, and seep out of the room through a crack in the wall.
Doing this, he finds himself seconds away from freedom. Just as he is about to return to his true form, a hot gust of wind rushes towards him, threatening to scatter all of the parts of him around the hallway. This gust ends up blowing him back into his cell, a bit worse for the wear.
Now more aware of his captor’s cleverness, he decides to become a dense, cold wind rather than mist, and try again. He does this, and once out of his room, he quickly changes into a gold ring, which falls to the floor. As he does this, the breeze that thwarted him last time returns but merely chills the ring. Festin is in high spirits, thinking that his second attempt earned him his freedom, but much to his surprise, a troll marches down the hallway, scoops up the ring, and chucks it back into the room, presumably through the use of an enchantment, given that the room has neither windows nor doors.
A bit sore, Festin devises a third, more active escape plan. He transforms himself into a pleasant smell, which wafts past the troll’s nostrils. He then quickly changes into a hawk, which flies past the trolls gasp. He flies quickly, but is just as quickly pierced by an arrow. He falls to the ground and passes out.
After the last attempt, he is badly wounded and thus his magic is also weaker. Desperate, he utilizes a form of magic that is beyond his normal capabilities. He imagines himself free. He pictures himself out in the woods, beyond the confines of the prison, and his imagination makes it so. He cycles through various animal transformations while out, ending in the form of a trout. He is convinced that he is free, until a troll reaches down into the river and grabs him. He then passes out.
When he awakens, he is back in his cell, and he realizes that he had been stomped on while in his trout form. He knows that he is close to death and will likely not live to attempt another escape. It is then that he decides to use the “word of unbinding”, a word only uttered once in a person’s life. He uses it, and quickly arrives in the spirit world, where he locates his captor. Using his captor’s true name, Voll, he destroys him – and then waits by his corpse to ensure that all of him returns from the world of the living.
Before the story begins, Le Guin gives a bit of information on the function of “The Word of the Unbinding” in the context of the Earthsea series. She writes, "'The Word of Unbinding' foreshadows the end of the last book of the Earthsea trilogy, called The Farthest Shore, in its imagery of the world of the dead. It also reveals a certain obsession with trees, which, once you notice them, keep cropping up throughout my work. As a part of the Earthsea series, 'The Word of the Unbinding' is an introduction to and explanation of how death operates in this magical universe. The word of unbinding is an incantation used to end one's life and enter the world of the dead."
This is the "farthest shore" referenced in the name of the final book in the Earthsea series. Borrowing the concept of life beyond death from several religious traditions, Le Guin creates an underworld of sorts, which, although largely barren, seems to lack the horror of other famous literary depictions of the afterlife (e.g., Dante’s Inferno, The Odyssey). The way that magic is present throughout the tale makes it a normal story on the planet of Earthsea. As in “The Rule of Names”, magical elements dominate the story. In this case, most of the magic is performed by the two wizards, Festin and Voll, as the former tries to escape the latter. Also, as in “The Rule of Names”, the tale ends with the death of multiple characters.
Even the way that death operates in “The Word of the Unbinding” keeps with the magical rules of the rest of the Earthsea legend. Through the use of words, which Le Guin establishes in “The Rule of Names” as having immense power, Festin surrenders his own life. Even in the underworld, words hold power, as all Festin has to do to defeat Voll is use his true name.