Friday, March 29, 2013

The Reading List: The EarthSea Trilogy

The Earthsea Trilogy
by Ursula LeGuin

I. A Wizard of Earthsea 
II. The Tombs of Atuan 
III. The Farthest Shore 

I'm not 100% sure about my reading history with The Earthsea Trilogy.  I know I read them at least once as a kid, but at what age and whether there were multiple readings is lost to me.  I have carried a generally high opinion of them with me through life, despite remembering nothing much about them save that there was a lot of travelling around a world with lots of islands.

But, it turns out that I was remembering exactly what sets Earthsea apart from the run of fantasy fiction.  Earthsea itself, the land, with its archipelago of culturally and economically diverse islands, is a completely realized fictional environment.  As our hero and his friends shuttle hither and yon on adventures, they travel over and through a world that makes sense according to its own internal logic.  Our wizard is able to hitch a ride on a boat from Point A to Point B because climatic variation leads to agricultural specialization, and thence to a brisk trading economy, and thus to regularly scheduled maritime commerce.

Magic is at the heart of fantasy fiction -- it is more or less the genre's defining characteristic -- but it is often treated with a lazy anything-goes approach that frees an author to create or resolve situations with arbitrary ease.  In Earthsea, magic is integrated into the environmental and cultural ecology of the world.  LeGuin gradually explains the principles of magic and why it works, and -- quietly, in the background of the action -- explores how a pre-industrial human society would be different, and how it wouldn't be different, if there were people running around who could use paranormal powers to perform a broad but finite range of helpful tasks.

Of course, not everyone judges fantasy fiction according to the internal consistency of its fictive universe.  But I do.  Partly, that's just my interest in how the (real) world operates at the macro scale.  But also, I think that the function of speculative fiction (besides being diverting, which is of course very important) is to engage us in thinkin' about the way things might be different if some key assumptions were changed.  To do so is to get us thinkin' about what the key assumptions are, which is a way of thinking with more imagination and precision about how the world works.  And Ursula LeGuin is very, very good at this.  She comes by it honest.  Her mother and father were both among the most influential cultural anthropologists to have ever pondered a way of life.  LeGuin, too, is a great cultural anthropologist, working the same intellectual terrain as her parents; the only difference is that she dispenses with all that time-consuming and ethically problematic participatory research and instead just makes stuff up.

The Trilogy: A young boy of obscure birth discovers that he has amazing secret gifts and is sent off to a school for wizards.  It is a well-trodden storyline, and was very familiar even in 1968.  I would not want to invite invidious comparisons between boy wizards, but I note that this one manages to graduate in only 40 pages, and then moves on to make his way in the world.

The tone of the writing is simple and calm.  It is dry, like Tolkien is dry -- which is to say, it has a certain dignified gravitas.  Either writer can depict a merry village dance in terms of chin-stroking seriousness.  It's kind of a strange choice for tales of magic and wizardry, at first blush -- why not a breathless, golly-gee-whiz tone?   The answer, I think, is that both storytellers are working in the epic mode, more or less, and they employ an approachable version of the formal, heroic mode that humans have used to tell the tales of their great heroes since Homer was strumming his collective lyres.

The structure is interesting.  The first book is centered on the boy of obscure birth who will eventually become a mighty wizard (I won't use his real name, because it's not polite on his planet).  The two subsequent books continue his tale, but each introduces a new point-of-view character.  In the second and best of the books, it is a baffled young priestess of a nearly forgotten cult.  The wizard doesn't make an appearance until the halfway point, and even then doesn't have any lines for yet a few more chapters; if you weren't able to judge a book by its cover, it would be quite some time before you realized you were reading the second book of a trilogy.  The third book introduces a young prince who is clearly destined to become a great king, although we don't ever actually see it happen.

Does the wizard keep saving the world from a menace that threatens to destroy the very fabric of civilization?  Actually, no!  In the first installment, he makes a major gaffe and spends the rest of the book trying to contain the damage.  In the second book, he is essentially on a dungeon crawl to steal a magic bracelet (it's more dignified the way LeGuin writes it).  Only in the third book does he save the world from a menace that threatens to destroy the very fabric of civilization, and even then it does not involve vast armies of bloodthirsty goblins.  It does involve a sort of wizard's duel, but it is a somber, quiet sort of wizard's duel, more of a marathon survived than a gunfight won.

This is, as should be clear, a thinking person's fantasy adventure.  Is it a thinking young person's adventure?  It is widely regarded as young adult fiction.  Its sentence structures, pacing, and complexity of situation are all kept fairly simple.  The point-of-view characters are adolescents.  Yet in vocabulary and in, shall we say, metaphysics, LeGuin writes with the expectation that the reader will meet her halfway.  So what I think we have here is the upper end of "young adult literature," which is to say a work of adult literature that is fully accessible to a developing reader.

The Plot: Young boy of obscure birth becomes mighty wizard and has many adventures.  We get to read about his first, his last, and one of many in the middle; we are told almost as an aside that there's an awful lot of daring-do that happens between books.  After the last adventure, he makes plans to retire.

The Wizard of Earthsea v. Galdalf the Grey

Well, sure.  I've mentioned that Earthsea has a similar tone to Tolkien's trilogy.  And let's face it: Lord of the Rings casts such an enormous shadow over fantasy literature that it doesn't really make sense to think about any work of fantasy written before, I dunno, 2000 or so without reference to it.  Having said that, Tolkien was still relatively new in the 1960s (his trilogy was published in the 1950s, but took a while to make its full impact), and LeGuin might have been somewhat less under its shadow than, say, Stephen Donaldson a decade later.  She certainly falls further from the tree.  There is no overarching struggle between the forces of good and evil in Earthsea, there are no colorful humanoid species or their equivalents to be found, and there are no large questing parties; the supporting cast is very, very small.

I think it is interesting that the magic item that the Wizard seeks in the Tombs of Atuan is described very ambiguously.  It's portrayed as a "ring," but its not really a ring, or is it?  It is said to be too large to be a ring but too small to be a bracelet (although it will eventually fit around the wrist of an especially petite character).  I wonder if LeGuin is being sly here, both acknowledging her debt to the Lord of Fantasy Fiction but also asserting a measure of independence.  There's a quest for ring!  But it's not really a ring!  Or is it!?  And it's a key narrative element!  Or is it!?

Am I crazy?  Nah.  We are talking about a writer who is very conscious of the position of her work relative within the vast conversation of written fiction.  This is somebody who rewrote the Aeneid from the perspective of Aenea's wife, for heaven's sake (Livinia, 2008).  I think my theory has wheels.  As usual with my theories, you may use it for a dissertation in return for a 2% cut of your salary for the first ten years of any tenure-track or equivalent academic position.

Prognosis: I liked it a lot.  I'm glad I reread 'em, and I bet I'll do it again if I get my threescore and ten.


Jennifer said...

On a different blog, I recently read a post about the evolution of children/YA fantasy protagonists, and it was suggested that Le Guin essentially invented the young-protagonist-who-has-magical-powers genre. Now, I only read the start of the comments, but people generally seemed to be agreeing that it was at least around the beginning of the genre, with the genre previously dominated by normal people who entered magical lands or spheres, or acquiring a magical artifact. You suggest that the essential structure of magic kid being sent to school was already tried-and-true by Le Guin's time. So now I'm trying to reconcile the two threads. Do you happen to have specific books in mind that were her precursors?

Michael5000 said...

Aw, man, a hardball question. I can't really defend the statement, but I can tell you why I wrote it. (1) the kid-goes-to-wizard school is certainly a very common device NOW, plus (2) when reporters try to get LeGuin to say that J.K. Rowling ripped her off, she won't do it, but instead bags on critics who called the school-for-wizards concept "original" -- sort of implying, although not saying, that they were both working an ongoing seam. (cf., for entertainment's sake, Orson Scott Card (a bit of a crackpot, true) carving Rowling a new one back in 'aught eight.)

It FEELS like a trope embedded in the folklore tradition. But then, like Earthsea, I was born in 1968. I'm probably wrong.

mrs.5000 said...

I'm terribly fond of these books. I think I was one who first nominated them for your reading list. I like that they don't rely on cartoonish notions of good v. evil--there is no unspeakably powerful baddie to set all the plots in motion--but are steeped in more intricate moral choices. You are spot on about the world's internal consistency and the writing's gravitas. There is a sly, tender, intrinsic wisdom to Earthsea, of all invented places perhaps the one I would most like to visit.

I can't think of specific literary precedents for the wizard schools of Roke and Hogwarts. Wart's (hey!) education in The Once and Future King comes to mind, but that was home-schooling BY a wizard, and not for the purpose of becoming one. But they are all part of the grand tradition of boarding-school narratives. In that sense it's a logical marriage of your basic coming-of-age story with the magical, unexplained elements of mythology and folklore.

Michael5000 said...

And let us not forget "The Sorceror's Apprentice," for that matter.

Elizabeth said...

I have always like this trilogy.

But I really liked "Lavinia" - I'm a sucker for rewriting of mythology, like Lewis' "Till We Have Faces" which, if you haven't read it, I recommend you do.

DrSchnell said...

I've always thought of this as a trilogy, but apparently she's been adding to it in recent years - have you read any of the next three volumes? I'm curious how they compare with the first three, which I have very fond memories of reading.