Monday, September 21, 2015

Before There Was Harry Potter, There Was...

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 58
Ursula K. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea

Sparrowhawk, an arrogant young wizardry student, wanted to impress his classmates by conjuring a beautiful spirit from myth. Instead, a shadow, a nameless thing black with destruction, answered Sparrowhawk’s call, and escaped his dominion. Now scarred and barely made a journeyman wizard, Sparrowhawk has one quest, spanning the vast archipelago of Éa and beyond: find his shadow, before it absorbs his power and destroys the world.

Ursula Le Guin was already somewhat famous in 1968 when this novel debuted, targeted at the then-nascent Young Adult market. She envisioned a tale of wizards not grizzled and grey, but young, untempered, and hopeful. In some ways, Sparrowhawk presages characters like Harry Potter and Percy Jackson, but with one notable difference: Le Guin posits no external villains, no Voldemort, no Sauron. Evil emerges, seeping and destructive, from within.

Born gifted on an island famous for its wizards, Sparrowhawk grew up hearing successive mentors predicting his eventual greatness. So many teachers prophesied he’d become the grandest wizard of his age, that Sparrowhawk eventually believed them. He thought himself immune to consequences. Once he learns otherwise, he spends the remaining chapters attempting to restore the balance he disturbed, learning self-control on the way.

Le Guin’s story shows clear influence from writers like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein, writers whose conscious mythmaking had, by her time, made fantasy into a mainstream, if disrespected, genre. However, where the authors who colored her visions were Christian, Le Guin’s story reflects humanist, existential values. Good and evil are man-made categories, not eternal verities; we’re defined, Le Guin implies, not by our beliefs, but by our actions.

Ursula K. Le Guin
This places Sparrowhawk in an unusual position. He knows the myths of gods who raised the islands from the sea, but cannot rely upon them for salvation. He controls magic, and has inadvertently glimpsed the hereafter, but this offers him little comfort. Sparrowhawk’s world isn’t truly atheistic, Nature has its spirit and volition, but humans save or damn themselves. Perhaps even the gods wait upon humans for their salvation.

Proceeding episodically, Le Guin recounts the processes that nurtured Sparrowhawk’s arrogance, then the counterforces which urged him to rediscover humility. Sparrowhawk is no Harry Potter, no prophesied child of deliverance; his ethics aren’t innate. Though he first attracts mentors through deeds of bravery and self-sacrifice, he increasingly believes himself separate from humanity. He becomes more interested in burnishing his image. He proves painfully good at attracting powerful new enemies.

If one word describes young Sparrowhawk, it’d be: willful. He defies his first patient master because he desires to rush headlong into deeds of power. He studies tomes beyond his capability, perilously inviting evil into his house, to impress a pretty girl. He argues with teachers, disregards caution, and attempts to outshine more experienced students. His willfulness only increases, until it nearly costs him and his friends their lives.

Then he reverses himself. Only through suffering does he discover the far-reaching ripples his actions started, and he spends years attempting to mend what he once broke. Piece by piece, Sparrowhawk finds the wounds his shadow once opened, and strives to heal them. He knows, though, he’s approaching a catastrophic confrontation, since only blood makes true recompense for sin—"So at least his death would put an end to the evil he had loosed by living."

Nobody would mistake this novel for new. Besides Le Guin’s episodic storytelling, now frowned upon by professional writing texts and market-savvy editors, her constructed, Homeric narrative voice seems markedly dated. Nobody would write this story today, certainly not in this way, which covers nine years of Sparrowhawk’s life in ten fairly long chapters. Considering J.K. Rowling needed twice this many pages for one school year, times have certainly changed.

Yet arguably, this dated quality reflects what dedicated readers want. Publishers mass-produce paperback fantasy today, carefully designed to offer audiences minimal challenge, to pass lightly under their gaze with virtually no friction. Le Guin’s classical style, like Tolkein’s Saxon bardic voice or Homer’s long, spun rhythms force readers outside themselves. We cannot read this book lightly. She casts a spell and, using nothing more than words, we find ourselves transported, transformed.

This story of a wizard learning power first, and wisdom only latterly, arguably has greater significance now, amid our nigh-magical technological do-funnies, than when Le Guin first wrote. To understand our present, and ourselves, we sometimes must travel outside reality and glimpse ourselves only slantwise. This book offers important lessons, but it also offers engaging characters having adventures. That’s why both youth and adults can enjoy this masterpiece equally.

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