Friday, January 31, 2014

A Wizard of Earthsea

I'm really not sure what to make of Ursula Le Guin's famous Wizard of Earthsea.  It's often ranked right up there with Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and Lewis's Narnia books as classics of fantasy, and as a fantasy nut, I tried to read it as a kid, I really tried.  I put it down halfway through the second page, and never picked it up again until just a few days ago.  I see why I couldn't get into it as a kid - like Tolkien, Le Guin is clearly well-schooled in medieval history and culture, and her prose seems fairly deliberately in the style of the medieval lay and epic poetry.  Her writing style is so grand that it ends up being fairly unapproachable.  Further like Tolkien, she is very concerned with world-building, but through info-dump rather than through the experience of a character who stands in as a reader-cipher.  As a result, there is an awful lot of dry description and geographical information given from the very first page (which, if I remember correctly, is why I lost interest so quickly all those many years ago.  I hated geography.)

I was expecting an epic adventure, some grand triumph of good over evil, but Le Guin seems to be working from an entirely different (non-Christian) worldview, in which the most important consideration is not to defeat evil, but maintain the balance (equilibrium, the book often calls it) between darkness and light.  As a result, though this novel focuses on the coming-of-age of Ged, who is perhaps the most powerful sorcerer in Earthsea, the book relates largely a journey of self-discovery rather than a series of adventures against physical foes.  By the end, I must confess to some disappointment that not very much had actually happened - but it was a feeling stemming from my initial expectations, and in that, Le Guin's fantasy novel is a unique one in the genre.

There are some really fascinating elements to the story Le Guin crafted.  In the world of Earthsea, names are identities, and as in Diane Duane's Young Wizards series (which, now that I think about it, was probably influenced by this one), naming a thing by its true name gives a magician power over it.  Words themselves are magic, and names are embodiments of a thing's identity - this is why each person has three different names, the one they're called as a small child, the one for everyday use, and the true name, selected at a special ritual and kept secret from all but a few trusted friends.  There is even some speculation that the true names of everything in the world "all are syllables of the great word that is very slowly spoken by the shining of the stars."  Even this philosophy of names aligns with the necessary equilibrium between good and evil, for speaking a word also requires silence.

I also thought the very makeup of Earthsea reflected a major theme of the novel: the concept of a world made up only of islands is hugely resonant with Ged's own isolation.  Reaching any new place required dangerous ship-travel, and passage may be denied by winds, or staying in a new place denied by the island's inhabitants.  Ged spends almost the entire novel in relative solitude, which gives the many sailing scenes narrative heft, but they did get a little wearying for the reader.

I understand that there are more novels in the Earthsea world, but I don't know if I'll ever visit them.  I'm quite delighted to know what all the hype is about, and be able to compare Le Guin's world and philosophies with my beloved Tolkien's, but in the end, this book just wasn't my cup of tea.  It seemed standoffish in its epic prose, and so many aspects of its worldview failed to align with mine that it was a puzzling novel to read.  What do you think?  Do you love Earthsea and its ways?  Have you read anything else by Le Guin - is this novel typical of her writing?


  1. I've read a bunch of Le Guin -- her Earthsea books (the original three, plus a few more novels / short story collections set in the same world) and the Ekumen books (sci-fi books set in the same universe but separated by large spans of time).

    Her works are always concerned with philosophical / personal issues, and very rarely have a good vs. evil dynamic, or a single 'quest'. In the second and third Earthsea books, there's definitely more of a 'quest' than in the first book, but even in those stories, it's more about the personal growth of the characters and the significance of perception and intent.

    The thing that makes Earthsea great, in my opinion, is that the stories cover the full range of Ged's life, from childhood to infirmity, from powerlessness and innocence to near-omnipotence and great wisdom / worldliness... in the fourth and fifth books (written long after the first three), Ged's no longer the main character -- he's aged, and his power has waned, and the stories center around other protagonists. How he (and we, the readers) changes, how he deals with that change, and how our perception of his world changes, really elevates these stories in terms of literary significance.

    Earthsea is a magical world, but the Earthsea books are not epic like Middle Earth or Narnia. They're more concerned with how we deal with change, with our own mortality, the realization that our perception about the world / others is incomplete, rather than being concerned about a central epic struggle. I think you said it well -- Le Guin writes from a humanistic, Daoist standpoint, not from a Christian one.

    1. Thanks very much for chiming in! I so appreciate the viewpoint of someone who has read her other novels. It can be difficult to evaluate a book that so clearly is part of a larger structure, but if you don't love the first one, it's tough to carry on. A difficulty that all authors of series have to tackle.