Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Earthsea Series, 52-55/100

I kind of love this cover art for the first book. It reminds me of Fuseli's The Nightmare. Only one problem: the main character isn't white! Oh, book publishers. Forever whitewashing the world.

When I first started reading Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea series about a year ago, I decided to wait and do a blog post when I finished all the books. Now I wish I hadn't, not realizing quite how many there were. I"ll be stretching my brain trying to remember everything.

These are the books in the series:

A Wizard of Earthsea (1968)
The Tombs of Atuan (1971)
The Farthest Shore (1972)
Tehnau (1990)
Tales from Earthsea (2001)
The Other Wind (2001)

Only the last four were read this calendar year.

The Earthsea series is fantasy aimed towards young adults. It molds itself after Tolkien and preludes Rowling. At the beginning of each book is a lovely, sprawling map of the fictional world of Earthsea, drawn by Le Guin herself.

Don't hurt your eyes. Click the pic to make it much, much larger.

Don't you love big maps like that? I could look at them all day. Earthsea is an archipelago of islands that necessitates all travel be made by boat; or flight if you happen to be a dragon. Oh yes! There are dragons. You can't go wrong with wizards and dragons.

Most of the stories revolve around the wizard Ged, who as a young boy travels to a wizarding school to learn magic. His school adventures don't span 7 books, however, and by the third book Ged is middle-aged. It's nice to come across a YA book that isn't so obsessed with youth. I think more literary fiction should feature young adults and vice-versa.

One of my favorite aspects of Earthsea is how the magic system works. Le Guin explains fully how the magic works in this world, instead of just claiming some things to be magic and some not. Here magic is performed by learning and using the "one true language": the language that existed before men created their own. Every rock, tree, person and animal has its own "true name" that allows any wizard or witch who knows it to have complete control over it.

But there is a downside to this system. It's knowledge based. Wizards learn the true words through memorization, which means that the knowledge can be withheld from anyone who isn't deemed worthy.

In the first 3 books, written between 1968-1972 (The Farthest Shore was originally subtitled "The Last Book of Earthsea"), Le Guin was criticized for making this wizarding world almost exclusively male. There are village witches, but they are considered lowly, working mostly as mid-wives and healers. "Weak as women's magic, wicked as women's magic."

Tehanu, written 18 years later, was her response to the outcries of sexism from critics and concerned fans. The novel focuses on the gender discrimination and segregation within Earthsea. She reveals that both sexes hold the talent to perform magic, but only one is privileged enough to be taught how.

Le Guin has apologized before for the supposed sexism in the earlier novels:

What happened in the 17 years between Farthest Shore and Tehanu was that feminism was reborn, and I became 17 years older, and learned a good deal. One of the things I learned was how to write as a woman, not as an honorary, or imitation, man.

From a woman's point of view, Earthsea looked quite different than it did from a man's point of view. All I had to do was describe it from the point of view of the powerless, the disempowered - women, children, a wizard who has spent his gift and must live as an "ordinary" man.

But reading the first three, I kind of "got it." I understood the sexism at play; that it was the work of the characters, not the author. Tehanu addresses the issue nicely, although perhaps a bit too thoroughly, sacrificing story for preachiness. And it's a bit sad that the big "feminist" book in the collection is basically 300 pages of two women trying to fend off a rapist until a prince comes and saves them. An over simplification, but that's what it boils down to.

From Tehanu:
She felt as she had felt in Havnor as a girl; a barbarian, uncouth among their smoothnesses. But because she was not a girl now, she was not awed, but only wondered at how men ordered their world into this dance of masks, and how easily a woman might learn to dance it.

You've probably noticed some similarities between this series and Harry Potter. Both feature schools for young wizards. The prejudice against women resembles the discrimination against mudbloods (the founders of the school on Roke debated over accepting women, declined, and kicked out the founders who WERE women. At Hogwarts it goes the other way, with the anti-mudblood Salazaar Slytherin renouncing his position).

Another aspect both series share is their focus on immortality vs. death. In Harry Potter, the entire story springs from an evil wizard's desire to be immortal. The Philosopher's Stone, horcruxes, the Deathly Hallows--all attempts to cheat death. Dumbledore, ever the voice of reason, reminds us that death should not be feared, but looked to as "the next great adventure." In Earthsea the moral is much the same: cheating death, destroying the balance, will have dire consequences.

From The Farthest Shore:
You will die. You will not live forever. Nor will any man nor any thing. Nothing is immortal. But only to us is it given to know that we must die. And that is a great gift: the gift of selfhood. For we have only what we know we must lose, what we are willing to lose....That selfhood which is our torment, and our treasure, and our humanity, does not endure. It changes; it is gone, a wave on the sea. Would you have the sea grow still and the tides cease, to save one wave, to save yourself? Would you give up the craft of your hands, and the passion of your heart, and the light of sunrise and sunset, to buy safety for yourself—safety forever?

In the first book, Ged summons a dead spirit, unleashing a shadow into the world that seeks to destroy him. In The Farthest Shore, Ged must travel into the afterlife to defeat an evil wizard who, in his quest for immortality, has taken magic from the world. We return to the afterlife in The Other Wind, when it's discovered that a decision made thousands of years ago to create life after death has sentenced generations of people to purgatory.

Moral of the stories: You're gonna die. Just deal with it.

From The Other Wind:
"I think...that when I die, I can breathe back the breath that made me live. I can give back to the world all that I didn't do. All that I might have been and couldn't be. All the choices I didn't make. All the things I lost and spent and wasted. I can give them back to the world. To the lives that haven't been lived yet. That will be my gift back to the world that gave me that life I did live, the love I loved, the breath I breathed."

I've always loved how works of fantasy draw on each other, and can take tropes of the genre and will them into a new creation. No work exists that wasn't inspired or adapted from something else. Earthsea is very much tied to Middle-earth. And Rowling's creation was undeniably influenced by the works of several fantasy authors. I don't think she has ever tried to hide the fact. But I've read a few interviews with Le Guin where she expresses a bit of animosity towards Rowling that I find deeply unfortunate. There's nothing grosser than rivalries between authors.

Example: The 50 Best Author Put Down of All Time. It's kind of funny, but it's also really sad and pathetic. Like some kind of nerd rap battle. You don't have any microphone to drop, Mark Twain, so just stop. Leave the insulting to the critics and your fans.

Thinking every piece of fiction that comes along is going to be sublimely original is ridiculous. It's all about what you do with your inspiration. Just take a look at Lev Grossman's The Magicians. It very actively and openly drew from the world of Harry Potter, Narnia, and Middle-earth. But no one's complaining, because he ran with the idea of merging these worlds, creating something new that celebrates the entire fantasy genre. I love it.

So get over it, jealous fantasy authors. You're not the first person who's ever written about a dragon.


  1. for some reason it took me a long while to realize the x/100 was for the 100 books thing and not just extremely harsh ratings that for some reason grew at a regular incline, like you were becoming a 'less harsh' reviewer at a steady rate. apparently i'm stupid

  2. Haha! Wow, yeah that would make me extremely harsh. "Kate Chopin's 'The Awakening'? Pssht. I give it 1/100!"

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