Thursday, January 2, 2014

A Wizard of Earthsea part 1: The Shadow is Loosed

Ursula K. Le Guin was among the first generation of feminist science fiction writers. There were women writing science fiction in the preceding era, such and Andre Norton, Liegh Brackett and C. L. Moore, but as a rule they had to use male or gender-neutral pseudonyms in order to be accepted by the male editors and predominantly male readers of the science fiction magazines.

Le Guin's Earthsea Trilogy of fantasy novels is among her best-known work. Perhaps it is not as innovative and groundbreaking as some of her science fiction novels, seeing as it deals with the traditional fantasy theme of the Boy Growing to Manhood and Achieving Greatness, but she set her hero in a unique world. Despite drawing inspiration from J.R.R. Tolkien, Le Guin managed to create a fantastic world of wizards and even dragons without copying him -- no easy task, as decades of bad fantasy series have demonstrated.

The Earthsea books are not a trilogy in the sense of many post-Tolkien fantasy works; they are not a single epic spread across three (or in the case of Robert Jordon, dozens of) books. Each novel is a complete work, a single individual story, linked together by the world of Earthsea and the central character of Ged, the young wizard who becomes the Archmage of Earthsea. Le Guin expanded the original trilogy with several short stories and two additional novels, but to my mind, the trilogy, A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore, form a thematic unit showing the wizard Ged in his youth, his adulthood, and his old age.

For this series, we'll be looking at the first book in the trilogy, A Wizard of Earthsea. Although written for a young adult audience, the Earthsea books are examples of that superior type of novel C.S. Lewis had in mind when he said, “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.”

Le Guin calls her world Earthsea for good reason. If it is true that epic fantasies always start with a map -- at least that's the way it seems -- then that map usually depicts a continent. That's how Tolkien's Middle-Earth looked, and most of the fantasy authors who have followed him have taken a similar geographic approach. Le Guin, however sets her story in an archipelago, myriad islands scattered about a wide, encircling ocean. The chief means of traveling anywhere is by boat, and wind and wave have a much greater presence throughout the entire book than in other land-locked epics.

Duny, the boy who will become the wizard Ged, is the youngest son of the local bronzesmith in a small village on the remote island of Gont. The island is noted for producing three things: pirates, goats and wizards. There are no pirates in this story. When Duny shows an early aptitude for magic, his aunt takes him on as an apprentice.

Duny's aunt is only a hedge-witch and her knowledge of magic is mixed with rubbish and humbug. The author quotes a Gontish saying, "weak as woman's magic," and another one, "wicked as woman's magic." Which seems a peculiar sentiment to come from a feminist author, but then she is describing the attitudes of a culture rather than making an endorsement of them. Still, there are few female characters in A Wizard of Earthsea, and most of them are wicked to one degree or another. Many years after writing the Earthsea Trilogy, Le Guin wrote another Earthsea book titled Tehanu looking at wizardry from the female point of view, and revealing that the assumptions about women and magic found in the original trilogy had been largely shaped by male chauvinist wizards and the magical tradition outside of the males-only formal school of wizardry has its own power and value.

Be that as it may, under his aunt's tutelage Duny takes his first steps in learning magic. He delights in spells to summon animals, and his control of the birds of prey in the Gontish hills earns him the nickname of "Sparrowhawk"

One day sea-raiders from the Kargad Islands come to Gont and attack Duny's village. The Kargs are blond-haired and viking-like with white skin, and this is a subtle but important point that I missed when I first read the book and a lot of other people (including television executives) missed as well. Le Guin wanted to differentiate her story from the bog-standard European Medieval Fantasy and one of the things she did was give her protagonist and most of the other characters reddish-brown skin. It bugged her when illustrators, and the producers of the TV miniseries adaptation, made the hero Caucasian. In fairness, though, I have to say the point is an easy one to miss; she does not come out and explicitly mention Ged's skin color until a few chapters in.

As the boy Duny stands ready to defend his village with his father and the other men, he gets an idea. He improvises a spell, based on some of the weather spells he has learned, to conceal the village in a thick, enshrouding fog. The mists confuse the raiders and under it's protection the men of the village are able to scatter them and drive them away. Duny has saved the village, but the effort of creating such a massive enchantment proves too much of a strain to the boy. When the mists clear, the villagers find him standing dazed and in a trance.

He remains that way, in a virtual coma, for several days, until Ogion the Silent, the Mage of Re Albi, arrives. Ogion is the greatest wizard on Gont and is renowned for having stopped an earthquake which once threatened the chief city of the island. "The tale of his deed with the fog has come to Re Albi, which is my home," he says. "I have come here to give him his name, if as they say he has not yet made his passage into manhood."

Part of the culture's Rite of Passage into adulthood is to give a new name which will be his True Name, one which will be known only to himself and to his closest friends. This is important because the magic of Earthsea is based on names and knowledge of the True Names of things. The name Duny, which the boy was given at birth, is only a placeholder to serve until his thirteenth birthday, when he will be given his own True Name.

Ogion heals the boy, and when Duny's thirteenth birthday comes, returns to the village to preside over the boy's Passage. He gives the boy the name Ged. Then he bids the boy come with him to be his apprentice.
At first, Ged expects to enter a whole new world of magic, but during the journey back to the wizard's hermitage in the town of Re Albi, Ogion the Silent lives up to his name. Finally Ged asks him, "When will my apprenticeship begin, Sir?"

"It has begun," Ogion replies.

"But I haven't learned anything yet!"

"Because you haven't found out what I am teaching."

Eventually, Ogion sets Ged to learning the Six Hundred Runes of Hardic and the words of the Old Speech, the language of the Creator in which things are named with their true names -- useful stuff like that -- but what Ged really needs to learn is patience. His aunt promised him that sorcery would be his key to fame and fortune, but Ogion, who's supposed to be a great mage, lives in a humble hut and doesn't even use his magic to keep the rain off it.

One spring day, while exploring the meadows near Ogion's hut, Ged meets a girl who starts to chat with him and ask to learn more about sorcery. Ged recognizes the girl as the daughter of the local lord, and although he doesn't think her very pretty, he feels the urge to impress her. He summons a falcon with a spell, although the bird does not light on his wrist as he intended and instead flies away again. The girl asks if Ged can summon the spirits of the dead to come too. Ged tries to act cool. "I might if I chose."

She goes on to ask about transformations, and again, Ged boasts that he could change himself into an animal "if I chose." She wheedles and cajoles him to prove it, but since he doesn't actually know those spells, he puts her off. She mockingly accuses him of being afraid, which shames him.

After they part, Ged returns to his master's hut and pulls down the two great lorebooks that Ogion never opened in his presence. He wants to find a spell of self-transformation, but for some reason he stops at a page containing a spell for summoning the spirits of the dead.

To his horror, he finds himself compelled to keep reading the spell, unable to turn his eyes away from the runes on the page. The girl's mother is an enchantress, and she sent her daughter with the purpose of wheedling some of Ogion's secrets out of his young apprentice. Ged notices a shadow crouching near the door, darker even than the already darkened room. It whispers to him in words he cannot understand.
Then Ogion enters the room, much as the scene from "The Sorcerer's Apprentice", driving away the shadow and breaking the charm Ged was under.

Ogion rebukes his pupil, and Ged responds in shame and anger. "How am I to know these things, when you teach me nothing? Since I lived with you I have done nothing, seen nothing--"

Ogion ponders his student gravely. Then he offers Ged a choice. Although the boy is still young, he offers to send Ged to the Island of Roke, where the great school of wizardry is. Or he can stay in Re Albi and learn what Ogion has to teach him.

Ged is torn, because he does sincerely love his master; but in the end his thirst for magic wins out. "I will go to Roke."

Roke Island is located in the middle of the Inner Sea, a large body of water sheltered by some of the larger, more populated islands of Earthsea. As the natives of Easter Island called their home 'the Navel of the World', Roke could be thought of as the navel of Earthsea, where its greatest wizards learn in quiet contemplation.

Le Guin has said that the idea for her book came from wondering where wizards came from and how they became wizards. The Roke School is perhaps the first depiction in fantasy of a School of Magic, and few writers, perhaps no writers , have done it better.

Unlike Tolkien, who was vague about how magic worked and even had one character complain about how inconsistent mortals were with the term, Le Guin worked out a largely consistent Theory of Magic which she stuck to throughout the story and which became an integral part of the plot. Magic is based on knowing the True Names of things, and by knowing something's name you can control it to a greater or lesser degree. But in doing so, you affect the Balance; changing one aspect of reality has a Butterfly Effect on the rest of it. This is why Ogion declined to alter the weather around him, or even do much obvious magic at all, to Ged's frustration.

Ogion sent a message with Ged to the Archmage of Roke, who serves as head of the school, reading: "I send you one who will be greatest of the wizards of Gont, if the wind blows true." This is certainly news to Ged, who was unaware Ogion thought he had that kind of potential.

He meets two companions: Vetch, a darker-skinned heavyset youth from the far Eastern Reach of the Archipelego, a friendly, agreeable comrade who soon becomes his friend; and Jasper, a wealthy nobleman's son to whom Ged takes an immediate dislike. Both Vetch and Jasper are a couple years older than Ged and further along in their studies, but Jasper has a smug, condescending attitude towards Ged which infuriates him.

Is Jasper really that big a jerk? It's hard to tell, because we see him through Ged's eyes and Ged is blinded by envy and a sense of inferiority. He is certain that Jasper looks down on him and Ged is determined to wipe that smug grin off his aristocratic face.

The earliest spells the students at Roke learned were spells of Illusion, which made no changes to the physical world and therefore had little effect on the Balance; from there they spent an entire year simply memorizing long lists of names in the Old Tongue. "He who would be Seamaster must know the true name of every drop of water in the sea," the Loremaster tells his students.

Ged pushes himself to excel. He graduates from the Loremaster's tower far ahead of his classmates. He studies other, more advanced forms of magic with the other masters of the school, and shows a talent for transformations, the very subject the young witch in Re Albi had teased him about. He also gains a new companion, a small, furry ferret-like creature called an otak who becomes his pet and likes to ride about on his shoulder. Still, Jasper regards him with his mocking smirk, and Ged's hatred of him burns all the hotter.

One day, their quarrel reaches a breaking point, and Ged challenges Jasper to a contest to see which can perform the greater feat of magic. Vetch tries to mediate between the two, to no avail. Jasper is dismissive of the goat-herder from Gont who only knows a few tricks and illusions.

"What would you like me to do, Jasper?" Ged asks.

Jasper shrugs. "Summon up a spirit from the dead for all I care."

A thoughtless jibe at one whom Jasper doesn't take seriously; but Ged accepts the challenge. He offers to raise the spirit of a legendary beauty, told of in one of the old songs sung by the bards. He knows he can do this; he remembers the page of Master Ogion's book that he read back in Re Albi as if it were right before him. Ged begins to conjure.

For a moment, the image of a beautiful woman, sorrowful and afraid, appears between Ged's outstretched hands. Then something opens, like a rent in the fabric of reality, and a dark creature like a living shadow, a hideous black beast the size of a child leaps out and pounces on Ged's face.

Almost immediately, the Archmage arrives, alerted by the disruption to the Balance. He drives off the Black Beast and heals the rent in reality. But like Ged's earlier deed of the fog, the effort of repairing the damage Ged recklessly caused is more strain than he can bear; the Archmage is fatally weakened and soon dies.
Ged, his face scarred by the creature's claws, lies close to death also, but he survives.

As does the creature of evil he has inadvertently summoned.

NEXT:  Ged goes forth, the Dragon of Pendor, pursuit by the Shadow and the Sparrowhawk's Flight.

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