Sunday, January 8, 2017
Published by: Houghton Mifflin
Publication Date: 1968
Format: Hardcover, 422 Pages
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)
On the island of Gont a young boy nicknamed Sparrowhawk is born with innate magical abilities. Motherless, his Aunt sees his potential and teaches him what she knows of magic and the words of power. When Kargish invaders threaten his small village of Ten Alders he is able to protect it by summoning a fog, concealing it from the enemy. The great mage Ogion who lives on the other side of Gont in Re Albi hears of the young boy's gift and journeys to Ten Alders to bestow the boys true name Ged on him and offer him an apprenticeship. Ged is grateful for all that Ogion does for him but is impatient. In his impatience he releases a shadow from one of Ogion's spell-books and Ogion realizes that he is not the teacher for Ged and he sends him to the island of the wise, Roke, to attend the school for wizardry there. On Roke Ged's power is apparent to all, but he is headstrong and aloof, making enemies easily. One enemy is Jasper who Ged challenges to a duel. The duel will release a shadow creature into the world and almost destroy Ged. Taking months to recover he is a far changed man. He is more circumspect and willingly takes a humble posting in the Ninety Islands once he earns his staff. There he does much good but is still hunted by the shadow. He knows now that it will chase him to the ends of the earth, so perhaps it's time he started chasing it. The battle will go one of two ways, but so it will be. As Ged sees it, this is his burden to bear.
As a kid I of course had heard of Ursula K. Le Guin, not so much because of her Earthsea books, but because of her Catwings series. They were released through Scholastic in the late eighties and seriously, it's about flying cats, there's no way I wouldn't have fallen for these books. They were basically marketed just for me, as evidenced when I laboriously filled out the Scholastic order forms to return to school. But as for delving into Earthsea? It's been something I've always meant to do for years but just never got around to. When the Sci-Fi channel adapted the first two books into a major television event I finally bought myself a copy of A Wizard of Earthsea. And like most books I buy, it just sat on my shelf all alone, until it was joined by the omnibus edition I bought from the Science Fiction Book Club containing the first three books, it was then eventually joined by The Lathe of Heaven for book club, but still the languishing continued. As I have mentioned before a joy of book club, with my group of friends all having similar tastes though vastly different opinions I've been getting around to a lot of these long neglected books. Ender's Game, Middlesex, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, The Island of Dr. Moreau, Misfortune, Catch-22, The Shadow of the Wind, American Psycho, The Family Fang, The Magicians, and finally, A Wizard of Earthsea, these are ALL books that have been sitting on my shelves for years unread until book club. And once I started A Wizard of Earthsea, it was the work of a moment until I knew I had to read the whole cycle as soon as I could.
What amazed me so much about this book is that you can see how Le Guin's writing influenced everyone from Terry Pratchett to Patrick Rothfuss. This book was written in 1968 and feels like the origin of all origin stories for modern science fiction and fantasy with the young boy's journey into manhood. This prototype is Ged! He can be seen in everyone from Keladry to Harry Potter to Kvothe to Kell. While many of you might be objecting and saying what about Tolkien? What about Lewis? What about White? What about her only choosing "K" protagonists? Yes, you do have a point, but they are the authors that broke the mold, they helped create this fledgling new genre and it was Le Guin who struck this new mold. She built on what they had created and made a blueprint for all the authors that came after. Yes, after accepting this you might start to shake your fist at her that she's the one who brought about the callow youth who needs a good smack down, a trope that sometimes can be too much, but at least here, well, Ged sure does get smacked down. But what happens to us readers who experience this smack down of Ged is that in his growing up we begin to like him. The truth is kids can be bastards. There's a reason none of us had the best of childhoods with bullying and regimented schooling, but we outgrew that. Perhaps that's why we hate Ged so much in the beginning? He reminds us too much of the untested swagger we all possessed about our beliefs. He is perhaps painfully relatable, and that's why he has become a trope. Because we get it. We get the journey because we've been through it ourselves.
Though it's the success of the magic system that for me makes this book not only so readable by so relatable. Let's look to Harry Potter. I adore Harry Potter but the magic isn't exactly logical. I mean, they just magic food together? Why? And yes, I was just rewatching Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find them so this is obviously the first example to pop into my head. I mean, can you make bad food as a wizard? I seriously want to know. They can mend that which is broken, they can kill with the swish and flick of a wrist, but what are the consequences? Where is the balance? Here magic is balanced. As Ogion shows, it is sometimes easier to just let the rain fall on your head than to magic the weather away. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, hence dark magic summoning a dark force. Magic is never just used for it's own ends, it's used only when needed for the betterment of life, for helping to control goats, or making a ship sail true, or maintaining the balance of the universe. Everything is about equilibrium. Nothing should be attempted without knowing the full consequences of those actions. If you think about this the way magic is approached should be the way we approach all things in life. The whole do onto others but with a magical backlash. A Wizard of Earthsea through magic shows us how to properly live with the world around us, and that is indeed magic.
There's one thing I want to talk about though that is a little controversial, and that's the color question. My first real image of Ged was the marketing for the miniseries staring Shawn Ashmore, a whiter white boy you could not get. So imagine my surprise when I realized that everyone in Earthsea is dark skinned. So yes, the miniseries was whitewashed. And the thing is, I just don't get why. Maybe I was just raised right, believing everyone is equal no matter what gender, skin color, or sexual orientation. Therefore changing this makes no sense to me. Especially when this miniseries was made so recently. I applaud this book for making a strong fantasy series outside the trope of the skinny white boy who will pull some magical feat and become king therefore subverting the genre. In fact, I think I would have read this series earlier had I know that it was so progressive. On many levels. But I'm also writing this from a place of privilege. Seriously think about how you picture the characters of a book when you read it. If you're white your just going to assume they are like you because they usually are written as such. But if you're colored, it's rare that you're actually going to see an accurate depiction of those who people your life. Therefore I think this book needs to be talked about more. Look what it did and when it did it. Seriously, admire it.
If this book has a flaw, moving beyond the color question, because that's the reader forcing the issue, also going past Ged being so callow because over the course of the book he does move beyond that, it's that the ending is rather abrupt. We've grown up with Ged, on Gont, on Roke, when he took a lowly possession but did real good, when he negotiated with a dragon and chose the people he cared for over his own chance of survival, so many adventures, and yet the ending is bam, done. For the hundreds of pages leading up to him confronting the shadow and giving it a name we journey the width and breadth of Earthsea, we are on his little boat Lookfar, we have travelled to the very end of the world, and then he just stands there, gives the nameless a name, and bam, over. And yes, I'm sorry for repeatedly saying bam, but the ending is just so abrupt that it felt like a door was slammed in my face. I kept re-reading that section thinking to myself that that couldn't be all. Ged couldn't just solve all that plagued him in an instant. The resolution is too fast to be satisfying, and perhaps that is why I so quickly picked up The Tombs of Atuan. I thought that this story had to go on somehow. But it didn't. That was the end. And while it was the ending that was always in sight, could we perhaps have admired the view before being thrown overboard?