Friday, September 8, 2017

Books that Shaped Me, Part 5: A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. Le Guin

This is going to be the last of these books where my memories of being read to are as vivid and extensive as memories of reading for myself. I got A Wizard of Earthsea early, long before I could understand or even notice all the things it was about. That is one of the wonderful things about A Wizard of Earthsea: it is a perfect adventure story for children, as well as a thoughtful and complex fantasy for adults.

I would like to stake out a position here and say that I have wanted to be a wizard for as long as I can remember wanting to be anything, pretty much for as long as I can remember anything. I still want to be a wizard. I am just finding compromises until I get there. When I wanted to be a wizard as a child, this book is the one I took my template from. I hear Wizard of Earthsea long before Harry Potter appeared, long before I found and read So You Want to be a Wizard. Ged was the wizard I admired, the one I imagined being.

Ged’s magic, the magic of Wizard of Earthsea is, in my mind, the perfect magic for a studious child. I loved words as a child, I loved poetry and puns and playing with language. Here was a story where just that, knowing the right words and saying them at the right time could change the world, and there were secret words that would let you turn into a bird or a dragon, or call fire out of nothing.  It is a book where knowledge is fantastic power, just perfect for a curious little boy.

More than that attraction, the magic of Wizard of Earthsea feels right in the bones. I like to think I recognized that even as a child. It follows rules, but they are shaped by the logic of story as much as anything, not pinned to an appendix that cannot be violated. The power of wizardry is properly fantastic, capable of shows and flights of fancy, of real change and terrible violence and subtle mischief. It can do almost anything, but wizards in the book do not, as a rule, do much of what they could by magic, because it costs and it is dangerous. I have become somewhat obsessed with the costs of magic as the most important part of fantasy worlbuilding lately, and I think the perfect rightness I felt in Le Guin’s exploration of that, especially in The Farthest Shore and Upon the Other Wind is a big part of that. Something feels right about Earthsea’s magic and the heavy price for that kind of power. This theme is, of course, also very welcoming to return to as an adult who writes. It’s quite affirming to read again about the awesome power words can have and the care one must take wielding them.

The world of Earthsea is of course wonderful for more than just magic. Le Guin’s world building is like a perfect ink painting, with each brushstroke suggesting a wealth of details that appear without ever being fully drawn. The Archipelago feels like a living place, and the trades and lives of the ordinary people are full and real, and the magic is folded tightly into the weft of them. The place makes sense, and you can feel it breathing, hear it chattering all around you as you read, even as the grand wizards carve their own path and only occasionally dip a toe into the lives of ordinary people. It is also inventive and grandly unlike so many other fantasy worlds. The Archipelago may not be a utopia, but its vision of society not oriented primarily around war, conquest, and monarchy sets it apart. It has the power and the realism of a society built from the bottom up, with more concern for the people of little villages and merchant crews than for warriors and kings.

If Tolkien’s world was mythic, Le Guin’s prose is the same. Her language is spare enough to make each scene iconic, close enough to make us feel the chill of rain and the warmth of a welcome fire. A Wizard of Earthsea is not a mythic story, not quite, but it makes us sure that Ged deserves myths, that he is such a hero, but still human. Le Guin gives us a giant among ordinary people, but still makes him relatable. Ged has none of the Austere distance Gandalf and Aragorn enjoy. He is flawed and uncertain and close enough to touch.

A Wizard of Earthsea and its sequels are full of thoughts and questions about so many things: language, gender, religion, politics, death, property and freedom and so many more. It is possible to read them and notice none of this and still enjoy wonderful tales of adventure. They are books you can return to throughout your life, and they will grow with you, and each time they will show you something new, as much as you are ready to understand. I love them, without caveat or equivocation.

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