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A Wizard of Earthsea: Islands in my Mind

[You can find a sound recording of me reading this review here.]

I’ve read this at least twice since I signed onto GoodReads, and I haven’t worked up the nerve to review it. I don’t review some of what I read, for a variety of reasons. There’s the things I abandon too fast to say I’ve even read them, like What Would Jane Austen Do?. (I’ll tell you what she’d do: she’d put her own eyes out with a damn spoon, that’s what.) There’s things I get out from the library thinking they are something else, like The Lover. (Just fyi, this was NOT the semi-autobiographical novel by Marguerite Duras. No. Not that.) There’s stuff related to my work that’s just too boring, even to someone in the trades, to work up much energy about. (I’m not even going to link to anything, but you don’t care, trust me.)

I haven’t reviewed A Wizard of Earthsea because I love it too much. I can see its failings. There are long, boring sections about sailing. The plot skips around haphazardly with too many coincidences and overtly symbolic actions. But…but…but…even now I struggle to define why this story keeps me coming back, year after year, almost always keeping me up late into the the night, the house silent but for the noise of my sleeping family breathing, the tectonic hum of the furnace, the muffled chime of the clock marking out the hours and half hours as I read and read and read. Reading is a private art. Sometimes I cultivate its craft as a shield against strangers as I move from here to there: the bus, the coffeeshop, the plane. Sometimes I read as a ward against the crush of people I love, when I visit family and need a half hour of not-family-togetherness. Sometimes I read because inside books is a blossoming world that transmits from the author’s mind to mine, and Earthsea is this kind of book for me, almost always undertaken in those odd times where I tuck in the edges of my life: too late, too early, at the hem of things.

I first read this when I spent a semester abroad, in London. I lived on the fifth floor, which the British would call the fourth floor, of a dismal walk-up run by a Fellini-esque French family presided over by a hard-nosed woman who appeared to wear clothing constructed solely out of garbage bags. I wasn’t old – only 24 – but old for the program, and the reversion to eating Ramen noodles, drinking only fluids that were comprised of lager, and not working laid me low in some serious way. I don’t remember how this book found its way into my hands, but I do remember sitting at my “desk”, my legs up on the corner, reading and subconsciously trying to find the perfect teeter on the back two legs of the chair.

Earthsea is a world with magic, and this can mean several things if you read a lot of fantasy. It can mean that the author is lazy, and needs a supernatural force to work out disastrous plotting. Magic can be a technology in disguise, a proxy for physics. At its very best, magic is language itself, one of those meta mind-jobs that spins you around and makes you rethink everything you say, because every word is stone that is thrown, falls, or sits, inert and stone-like, in its stony way. Earthsea’s magic is word-magic, based on names. Each person has a use-name, something they are called familiarly, and then a true name, something guarded and secret, because a name is power. Each thing has its thingness exposed by a sound, a word, but this reification isn’t simple. There is no Platonic word of making or unmaking, just the endless babble of the way the word-drops coalesce into puddle, puddle into river, river into a sea. So Sparrowhawk stands in the water and he is given his real name, Ged, at the cusp of his adolescence, and I read these actions, and my chair fell down, clump, onto all four legs. Oh God, oh Ged, the power of that, a true name.

There’s nothing in the plot of Earthsea that hasn’t been done before: a boy, a talented boy raised in obscurity, grows into his inevitable power. This is the basis of bazillions of young adult fictions (and regular fictions too, I guess): the Harry Potters & Bella Swans of fiction standing in for our youthful sense of exceptionalism – we are marked from youth by the smell of our blood, the stigmata of parental love. There’s all kinds of things we can blame our inevitable crushing realization that we are as common as rain – bad educations, bad luck, bad environments – but really…truly?…we are as common as rain, falling inexorably on trajectories based on the gravity of our own characters. So often, the protagonists of these fictions battle an external, caricatured evil, which always bums me out, because evil is so much less fun than this, so much more prosaic and common as the rain we are. If the bad in myself could be battled hand-to-hand; if I could vanquish my failings with kung fu, my adolescence (and my adulthood, I guess) might have looked entirely different, with fewer hurt feelings for everyone involved. So Ged, in the logic of a world with magic, creates a shadow being because of his youthful need to show-off and be right. The shadow of talent is arrogance, which is maybe not a stunning revelation, but a revelation often absent from the education of fictive heroes. (And maybe not the real life kind either, right? A hero is someone who gets other people killed, just to quote Joss Whedon.)

Lots of folk I love think fantasy is dumb, and it’s because fantasy puts its underpants on the outside of its clothes and jumps around using the roll from the paper towels as a sword yelling “high YAH”! It makes the metaphors manifest, and sure, I’ll totally grant that sometimes this just tiring in how juvenile and simplistic it is. But…but….but…sometimes the cardboard blade cuts me open and my guts fall steaming onto the ground, and then I realize that I’m not the guts, but the steam. (My metaphors have gone a little insane again, and I’m sorry.) This time through I noticed that the sequence with the dragons, which by all rights should be the culmination of the action, where the hero enacts heroics worthy of song, is just a thing that Ged does to avoid doing the harder thing, which is coming to terms with his own assholery. So here, at half-point through the book, our protagonist does the thing for which he will be famous, and then the real story begins. The plot becomes picaresque, haphazard, undirected, with blind alleys and odd moments – the old couple Ged meets on the desolate spit of land , abandoned, without language, was especially haunting for me, for example – but I admit it’s unnecessary, as is much of this wandering. But…but…but…I love that Le Guin tells the story of un-heroics, of a metaphorical growing up that doesn’t involve crushing the skull of an orc or whatever to prove you’re a Man.

I kind of want to talk about the final meeting between Ged and his shadow, because this is the first reading for me that that confrontation made complete sense, but I don’t want to hit the spoiler box and I think I’ve already blathered enough. I’ll just say that I feel like maybe…maybe…when Ged and Vetch sail off the edges of the map, and find the shifting, almost immaterial sands where Ged and the not-Ged say their final words to one another, maybe that sand is the beach of my reality, and they sailed right out of Earthsea into my mind, wherever that is. Le Guin used word-magic to create a place I keep coming back to, watching the way the islands rear up out of a place of mostly water, balancing in an equilibrium of earth and sea, movement and stillness. And her word-shadows bump up against the beaches of my mind laid squishingly over the water, and this makes me inside out, with my skin on the inside, transformed by words that find the true name of me.

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