Tuesday, May 22, 2012

A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. Le Guin (1968)

Ursula K. Le Guin uses her fantasy to tackle real themes with real depth. This is not to say her story, A Wizard of Earthsea, is pedantic and boring. In fact, it is an exciting fantasy adventure, but one with meaning and purpose. For Le Guin, it isn't the action that's important, but the human element. The wizard Ged may be destined to be the most powerful wizard in the realm, but that doesn't mean he isn't without real feeling: fear, sorrow, alienation, love. Too often fantasy stories, in the form of novels, superhero movies, and anime shows, present a powerful character for the sole purpose of creating awesome spectacles of action. To be sure, a movie like The Avengers is exciting and fun, but can one truly fall in love with its characters as anything greater than arbiters of awesome power? In A Wizard of Earthsea, Ged is loved not because he is all-powerful, but because he is human.

Born on the island of Gont, a young boy soon to be named Ged lives with his father, a blacksmith. None realize Ged's true power except his aunt, a witch, who begins teaching him charms and spells, which he learns and casts with ease and skill. When barbarians invade the nearby isles and mount an attack on Ged's small village, he casts a thick fog around the area, and his father and the villagers are able to chase them away. This draws the attention of a powerful wizard named Ogion the Silent, who gives Ged his name, his true name, and takes him on as an apprentice. To others Ged is known as Sparrowhawk; if somebody knows your true name they have power over you, if they choose to use it.

However, Ged grows bored with his master's slow-paced teaching. Ged is hot-headed and arrogant, not very well-suited for patience. When Ogion gives him the option of going to school on the island of Roke, Ged doesn't hesitate to accept, though he realizes he has come to love his master. At the school Ged meets a rival in Jasper and a close friend in Vetch. Ged's rivalry is inflamed, perhaps, because he is so gifted. Jasper seems inspired by jealousy and looks down at Ged with contempt. Ged is determined to show that he's Jasper's superior. He attempts to summon a spirit from the dead, but instead summons a powerful shadow being, which would have destroyed Ged had the Archmage not sacrificed his own life to save him. Ged's face is scarred, as is his mind. He realizes what everyone had been trying to warn him about all along, about the balance of the universe. Now he is afraid of his power, though he still continues his schooling and graduates to become a wizard, earning his staff. But the shadow is out there in the world, waiting for him to leave the island so it can destroy him.

The novel doesn't read as you might expect. Le Guin does not follow any conventions or formulas, and you might be surprised how its conflicts resolve. The final showdown is not an awesome display of power, but it is much more moving because it has meaning. It displays growth of character in Ged, not growth of power. This is what makes the novel unique. Other fantasy and action stories may pretend they are about growth of character, but this growth is usually trumped by the increased physical power of the hero. Le Guin shows how a fantasy story should be written.

The novel takes place in a world created entirely by Le Guin's imagination. Earthsea is populated by many isles, both large and small, and each isle has its own distinct characteristics. Le Guin helpfully provides several maps of her world, and one of the joys of reading the book is to glance at the map and find where Ged is located. Le Guin also makes interesting use of magic; it is more scientific than fantastic, though of course the fantastic is important. The bulk of magical power lies on knowledge of a thing's true name. On his way to becoming a wizard, Ged had to take a class under the master of naming. Here he was isolated from the rest of the school and had to memorize as many true names as possible. This quest to learn names is reminiscent of the quest of science to gain knowledge about all things in the world and give everything a name. All living things that we know have a common name and a scientific name. In Earthsea, all things have a common name and a true name. To know a thing's true name means a magic user can manipulate it to his or her will. Similarly, in science, and even in the rest of society, the ability to name something is a display of power over that thing or person. Le Guin's magic seems to serve as a warning about the abuse of scientific power, but she also shows how it can be put to good, when used correctly.

If A Wizard of Earthsea has trouble finding an audience today (and I'm not saying it does), this is probably because Le Guin's writing style is a little dry. Don't get me wrong, I find her writing to be very engaging, but her narrator merely describes. The novel has lengthy descriptive passages, sprinkled with sparse dialogue. I only mention this because young adults familiar with the style of J.K. Rowling may not so readily jump into Le Guin's Earthsea series. Though Harry Potter has a lot of similarities to A Wizard of Earthsea in terms of conten, Rowling writes with playful language that is more accessible and inviting. Her narrator does describe things, yes, but often has fun with these descriptions. This seems to be a difference in writing style between the British and Americans. The British seem to have a little more fun. Rowling and Neil Gaiman come to mind, and they have historical precedent in the likes of Charles Dickens. Most American writers seem to take the more serious route: Le Guin, Suzanne Collins, Stephanie Meyer, Cormac McCarthy, and others, both popular and canonical. Stephen King may be an exception. I take this to be the powerful influence of Ernest Hemingway on American literature. I don't mean this as a criticism, just an observation. There are pros and cons to each style of writing, and Le Guin's novel may have lost some of its magic with a more playful narrator.

A Wizard of Earthsea is the first of a four book series by Le Guin featuring the wizard, Ged. This novel is about Ged's growing up to become the powerful wizard he is destined to be. It is like putting the entire seven books of the Harry Potter series into this small 180-page novel. Harry Potter lovers should definitely give this novel a chance. In fact, everybody should read it; it isn't your usual fantasy novel.

1 comment:

  1. That sounds quite similar to some of the books from the Saga of Recluce. Will have to check it out.