Wednesday, 13 April 2011

2011/04 Best reads 1/2 A Wizard of Earthsea by le Guin

It's Wednesday again...

In this kind of blog entry I'll write about the best novel or novels I've read or re-read in a past month, usually the month immediately previous, although sometimes I'll go back some months or a year or two, to highlight something really good that for whatever reason I haven't wanted to re-read. Or if it is a really long work, like the May's Pliocene Exile or Turtledove's Tosev timeline series.

In any month I might write one, two, three or zero such entries (often zero, I'd expect). If it's a series novel, just one long story told in multiple volumes, it'll get one entry although it may be longer.

This first is about the 1968 YA fantasy, "A Wizard of Earthsea" by Ursula K. le Guin. The second April 2011 entry, to be posted later, is about "The Dawn Palace: The Story of Medea" by Helen M. Hoover.
A Wizard of Earthsea (The Earthsea Cycle, Book 1)I've linked to this novel before, and quite likely I will link to it again and again and again and again and again ... ..... in later blog entries, because it does a lot of things right, in spite of the story being permeated by the author's bothersome Taoism.

On one or two occasions, elsewhere, I've made a claim about the first page of this novel that is not actually true. The scene I've talked about does not occur on the first page, but rather many pages into the novel. It's also not a scene but just a couple of sentences.

It is nevertheless still a very worthwhile, valuable and admirable scene. It depicts a cloud moving back and forth across an island (one island among many, in this earth-sea archipelago) because each of the many mages and sorcerers and wizards don't want to get rained on, and so they use their magic to move the cloud away from their respective homes. Eventually it gets spelled out over the sea where it can rain in peace.

That's how it would actually be, if there was magic in the world and if that magic was available for the world-denizens to use. That's realistic magic.

That's what fantasy ought to be like. If magic is possible within the setting and is available for a subset of the population to use, then they have to utilize that magic according to basic and obvious tenets of psychological realism, including such things as the desire not to be rained on (excepting some times of the year when the needs of the many peasants outweigh the needs of those few who work magic). This is not optional for fantasy authors: Define how magic works (not why, but how) and what it can do, and then from this premise deduce how psychologically realistic human individuals and societies would choose to make use of it.

Fantasy is a genre with little intellectual legitimacy, and this is exactly why. Because so few fantasy authors are able to think the consequences of the availability of magic through, and have it affect the world in a realistic fashion, so that delta-W becomes nonzero.

Magic available to the character to use as they see fit, rather than as a plot device that can do that - and only that - which the author needs it to do at any given moment.

All the annoying and offensive Taoist cowshit aside, le Guin can and does think. (Or perhaps the cowshitty Taosm is the reason she did this very-rare-for-its-day-and-still-rare-today thinking? A very disturbing thought!)

She's also much of a worldbuilder. Contrasting Earthsea with Lord of the Rings is worthwhile. Tolkien's late-Third-Age setting has one city and no towns. Le Guin's Earthsea has many towns and/or cities - the distinction is less clear and is not very important. Her world also has at least three (Vetch's culture might count as a fourth) clearly painted cultures, whereas Tolkien's has one "high" culture and a bunch of barbarians who ought to become like the "high culture" dudes (including a northern remnant of the high culture which has degraded). I think what's appealing to me is the lack of a clear center in Earthsea. You have Roke as a sort of center, but the Kargs and the Oskillians don't give a damn about that. They don't look to Roke, nor do we as readers have any rational reason to say that they ought to. Unlike in Middle-earth in which not looking to Gondor is obviously wrong.

Middle-earth is a rich world, but in many ways Earthsea is as rich, if not richer. There's less conlang, and less depth of history, but instead more variety; more breadth. (Also, of course, Ged isn't a hobbit - more on hobbits in this blog entry.)

Earthsea is a setting with potential for multiple stories. In this way it's much better for RPGs than Middle-earth is. Once the Ring gets dunked in the lava, it's over. Tolkien's plans for writing a sequel with the barrow-wight as the central villain (and yes, this is true, he did at one time have such plans, to the best of my knowledge) are lame. Howlingly lame! Middle-earth, in the late Third Age, and by this I mean the last third of the Third Age or thereabouts, is a one-story setting. It's unsurprising that Middle-earth RPGs tend to focus on the Second Age, or even earlier.

There's a lot of good in Lord of the Rings, don't get me wrong, I've read it many times, and I do think you should read it too. Or re-read it if it's been more than, say, seven years.

Of course le Guin has her limitations too. As I've said numerous times, I find her Taoist cowshit annoying. To le Guin's defence, her characters often hypocritically go against that "wisdom", making this novel readable.

Depressingly, women are treated even worse in Earthsea than in Lord of the Rings, to the point where le Guin decades later - painfully - tried to change her and our minds about the setting. No! You're not allowed to do that! You can't take back what you've once published. The only legitimate way out is to start over from scratch and build a new world. There ought to be a law against deliberately contradicting facts established in prior fiction. The fourth novel was written long after the original trilogy, and reading it was very traumatic (who does this remind us of?). Not that I find the portrayal of women in the original trilogy pleasant, but that's how it is and le Guin coped very badly with it in the fourth novel.

Also note that I'm only linking to the very first novel, A Wizard of Earthsea. I've read the second novel three or four times, but have never re-read the third, and both are markedly inferior to the first (UPDATE: I have now re-read the third, and it indeed not worthwhile).

Earthsea is a really good world in that it takes magic seriously, and treats it as an in-world phenomenon available to the characters to use as they will according to psychological realism, instead of the magic being used as a plot device according to the needs of the author.

It's a world rich in magic, and rich in magic users. It also has more than one magical tradition. I really like that Roke isn't the only source of magical learning. At one point Ged needs passage on an Oskillian galley, but the Oskillian (i.e. non-archipelagan) captain doesn't need the service of a wizard because he can work weather himself, in spite of not being Roke-trained at all.

It's much easier for the author if things are kept in tight rein, if there is only one source of magic (if all delta-W has just one cause). The extrapolative burden is greatly reduced. Many fantasy authors are tempted. Thinking is hard; let's try to make things easier for ourselves. Le Guin does not do this.

The writing is also 100% in-world, all references and metaphors and so forth are to in-world phenomena rather than to terrestrial phenomea. For its time that's very impressive.

The zoology and botany is very terrestrial, with most animals and plants having terrestrial names and seeming to actually be terrestrial species. And then you got a few made-up ones like the otak, and some plants that might or might not be made up (I'm not able to tell). This is a clear limitation of the author (and an issue that any author of fantasy or science fiction stories not set on Earth have to struggle with), and I believe le Guin opted for using (almost exclusively) terrestrial creatures because she knew that she didn't have sufficient theoretical biological knowledge to do a good job at inventing her own. That's fair enough since it's fantasy, not science fiction, and beyond being fair it is also legitimized by genre tradition.

The bio-details seem very convincing. The agriculture, and especially the sailing. On a planet with very little land, there's inevitably a lot of sailing.

The protagonist
Ged starts out as a preteen, intelligent and clearly gifted with magical potential (it's not clear to what extent magical potential does or does not correlate with intelligence) and is taught first by a semi-wicked village witch (who is not actually Wiccan) and then by a much kinder and wiser male wizard (who isn't Wiccan either), before eventually leaving for Roke island.

Ged is realistically ambitious and proud, and at least I can't fault le Guin for being a White Christ-user and thus holding that against Ged on principles. Instead, she merely shows us the realistic (and this-worldly) consequences of Ged's excessive pride.

Ged recovers from his tragic blunder, completes the curriculum and becomes a full wizard, in his late teens and then has various adventures. Eventually his shadow, brought to the mortal plane by the earlier incident, begins haunting him, and Ged tries to flee from it. He ends up back at his old wizard teacher on Gont, and there receives good advice. At this point it has been well established that Ged is a competent, clever and skilled wizard, and one morning he's gone from his old teacher's home, having left a note behind saying: "Master, I go hunting".

Ged is the kind of character I'm very inclined to want to read more about. It just so happens that what I want to read more of is very far from what le Guin was in the mood to write, and the sequels were and still are a disappointment.

The Plot
I have a couple of issues here. There's a lot of fate and prophecy and other contra-realistic crap. I'd much rather have had less of that; the story would still have worked. fine. Also the bow stave that Ogion the Silent just happens to have lying around so he can enchant it into a replacement wizard's staff for Ged. Helloooo????

Other than that it's good; it's a short novel, but packs in a lot of characterization and even more world (and the dear reader knows, by now, that I really get off on world) into those 180-or-so pages.

The Verdict
10 stars out of 10. I don't know if I should always use stars, but in this case I will, just to make it absolutely clear that yes, you should read it. It has its flaws, and they bother me, but you should read it anyway. The first novel, I mean. The second is not bad, but it's very far from 10 stars.

Skip the mini-series, and skip the anime too, but skip the mini-series harder. Both are crap, but the mini-series is more more vile than the anime. If you want Earthsea, you have to read it.

Peter Knutsen typed these letters

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