Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Ursula K. Le Guin

A Wizard of Earthsea
by Ursula K. Le Guin
Recommended Age: 12+

This celebrated 1968 book is the first in a series of at least five novels and one book of short stories set in the fantasy world of Earthsea, which some have compared favorably to C. S. Lewis’ Narnia and J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. It tells of a world somewhat like Earth, except that mankind is confined to a scattering of islands—some of them quite large, most of them almost too small to show up on a map—making up a vast archipelago and several outlying “reaches.” It is a world of feudal lords and peasants, sailing boats and galleys, conquering hordes and pirates. It is a world where memory takes the form of songs and legends, and where witches, sorcerers, and wizards are abroad.

And it tells the beginning of the adventures of a great wizard whose name was Ged. But since, in his lifetime, like other men, Ged was very careful to share his true name only with the few that he implicitly trusted (because to know the true name of a thing is to hold power over it), he mostly went by the use-name of Sparrowhawk. His adventures began in a tiny mountain village, where the yet-unnamed 12-year-old drove off a band of marauders with the aid of his raw, unformed magical gift. Soon he is apprenticed to a silent, gentle mage named Ogion, but not for long. Spurred by his ambition, Ged goes off to the School of the Wise at Roke, where he quickly becomes a talent to watch. And, unfortunately, to envy.

The envy of another student, and Ged’s reckless pride, and the malice of a witch who serves the Dark Powers, lead to a great tragedy. Ged foolishly turns loose on the world a thing of shadow that must either hunt him, or be hunted by him, until either one or both are destroyed. Haunted by shame, fear, and self-doubt, Ged tries to solve the mystery of how to do away with the darkness he has summoned, before it possesses him and uses him to do even worse things. Meanwhile, he talks with dragons, sails the seas of his richly varied world, defies the Old Powers of the Earth, experiences the loneliness of the desert isle and the warmth of true friendship, and sails through unknown waters to the realm of death to face the thing he dreads most of all.

Accompanied by helpful maps, this book introduces us to a brilliantly imagined fantasy world, where a vast battle between light and darkness is telescoped into the intimate story of a youthful hero. Certainly it is on nothing like the scale of The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, but with a staggering economy of words (less than 200 pages) this book conjures a vivid picture of a vast, complex world, a deeply stirring adventure, and a hero whose deeds we will gladly follow into the sequel, The Tombs of Atuan.

EDIT: I loathed the 2004 TV movie based on this book.

The Tombs of Atuan
by Ursula K. Le Guin
Recommended Age: 12+

This second book in the Earthsea Cycle does feature the heroic young wizard Ged (a.k.a. Sparrowhawk) who is dear to all who have read A Wizard of Earthsea. Don’t worry. But also, don’t be surprised when he doesn’t turn up in the first half of the book. For this tale is told from the point of view of Arha (“the Eaten One”), the current reincarnation of the First Priestess of the Tombs of the Nameless Ones, a.k.a. the Dark Powers.

Arha is a young girl, still in her teens, but she was taken from her family at a young age and raised to perform the cruel rites of the worship of those nasty, ancient spirits. Few worshipers come to their temple any more, since the lands of Kargad fell under the sway of a line of so-called God-Kings. But the unbroken line of priestesses, who are supposedly the same nameless woman reborn time after time, continues to splash blood on the tombs, and dance before the vast empty throne under the crumbling portico, and sacrifice the bodies of traitors and criminals who are sent by the God-King for punishment.

Honestly, I wouldn’t blame you for having trouble sympathizing with the high priestess of such an evil, monstrous cult. But poor Arha doesn’t know any better, and more to the point, all choice has been taken from her, since as a small child her soul was given to the Nameless Ones. Nevertheless, there is a streak of gentleness and decency in this Arha, who has forgotten that her born name was Tenar.

She takes her business very seriously, fiercely believing in and trying to uphold the dignity of the gods she serves—to the point of wishing death and destruction on the infidel. But she also shudders and has nightmares over the slaughter of the criminals sent to her for sacrifice. And finally, when the wizard Ged sneaks into the Undertomb, attempting to steal the lost half of an ancient talisman, Arha cannot bring herself to destroy him—even when he is in her power. Indeed, she risks everything, including the wrath of the God-King’s high priestess Kossil, to spare Ged’s life. Until finally, the two of them must escape together, or not at all.

Like the book that went before it, The Tombs of Atuan is a hair-raising story of light fighting to overcome darkness, in a fantasy-land of islands scattered across a great sea, and warring armies, and vast powers, and magic, and dragons, and a civilization whose memories live in songs and legends. Vividly detailed, vastly conceived, it is also so trim & compact that it achieves the impact of a 500-page book in less than 200 pages. A noteworthy achievement! The saga continues in The Farthest Shore.

EDIT: (1) Later books in the series, so far, include Tehanu, Tales from Earthsea (a collection of short stories), and The Other Wind. Although these later books have won significant awards, scuttlebutt has it they represent a departure from the original concept of the series, and may therefore disappoint Ged's fans. (2) The Wiki on this series suggests that it was influenced by Taoism and, later, feminism, FWIW. (3) Finally, Le Guin has more recently embarked on a young adult series called Annals of the Western Shore. The books in this series are Gifts, Voices, and Powers, and they are also on my "When I Get Around To It" list.

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