Excuse me while I get very, very book geeky on you all…
In the house where I grew up we had a library. It held floor-to-ceiling built-in shelves installed sometime after the wood stove had been removed. Beneath the far window—four panes that looked out at our neighbor’s front yard, though I do not remember if I could see the river—was my desk. From that desk I wrote letters to the twenty or so pen pals I had accumulated, tended baby spider plants, and played library. I loved to organize my books, to run my hand along their spines, or just to look at them. One entire shelf was filled with the yellow spines of Nancy Drew mysteries. Another with the works of R.L. Stein. If you can call them works.
I don’t remember when I first read The Earthsea Trilogy by Urusla Le Guin or where I had heard about it. A gift perhaps? I do know that I read it sometime around the age of 10, and that the boxed set has traveled with me from that built-in book shelf to the shelves of my purple Wagen caravan home. Holding it now in my hand I wonder if children of the ebook generation will be able to enjoy the same experience—the revisiting of their favorite childhood tomes—or whether their children’s books will fall into obscurity as new devices appear that can longer read the older data formats.
The trilogy consists of three books: A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore. Though I found the first volume mildly boring (perhaps because I could still remember exactly what happened), though well-written and interesting, the second book grabbed me fully, and I enjoyed the third book almost as much. They are wonderful books featuring interesting, complex characters who face complex, challenging, morally ambiguous situations (reality amidst a wizard-fantasy backdrop). Each book is a complete story in and of itself, which struck me as being quite different to the series I have read recently. Modern fantasy series tend to be very long stories that editors chop into separate books for the sake of reader’s attention spans and sales. But each Earthsea book could be read completely on its own, though all are deeply linked and all feature, however briefly, the character Ged.
Ged is a wizard. He grew up in a small village, never knowing that he had powers. One day he accidentally performs some magic, which eventually leads to his being sent to a school for wizards. Does this sound familiar? It should if you’ve ever read Harry Potter.
hogwarts versus roke
The Earthsea school of magic is on an island called Roke, Earthsea being a region made up of many islands, an island often referred to as “Island of the Wise.” As in Harry Potter, the students on Roke learn magic and the Archmage—the Dumbledore of the school—plays an elevated if not as extensive role. But their similarities do not extend much beyond these details.
In the world of Earthsea, wizards live openly and are often sent to work in a town or village or castle to help the residents with little problems, healing, and weather. In the world of Harry Potter, magical folk live in hiding from non-magical folk (called muggles, in case you’ve been living in a dark cave for the past decade), a detail that brings the Harry Potter world closer to our own, making it feel all the more possible—an effect that I often appreciate in fantasy writing. However it is the magic of Earthsea that strikes me as the most realistic. Bear with me.
In Harry Potter certain folks can do magic. They learn some special words and get a wand to channel their power, and then they use spells for everything from cooking to cleaning to dueling to changing themselves into animals. In Earthsea it is just a mite more complicated, and the wizards there are constantly talking about “the balance.” Though they learn magic—all of which is based upon knowing the real name of a person or animal or plant or object—they also learn a rather contradictory lesson: that they might want to use it as little as possible. In The Farthest Shore, the main character is often frustrated by his wizard companion’s refusal to use magic. His explanation is an excellent, articulate example of what doing magic and even simply acting in the world mean in the world of Earthsea:
Do you see, Arren, how an act is not, as young men think, like a rock that one picks up and throws, and it hits or misses, and that’s the end of it. When that rock is lifted, the earth is lighter; the hand that bears it heavier. When it is thrown, the circuits of the stars respond, and where it strikes or falls the universe is changed. On every act the balance of the whole depends. The winds and seas, the powers of water and earth and light, all that these do, and all the the beasts and the green things do, is well done, and rightly done. All these act within the Equilibrium. From the hurricane and the great whale’s sounding to the fall of a dry leaf and the gnat’s flight, all they do is done within the balance of the whole. But we, insofar as we have power over the world and one another, we must learn to do what the leaf and the whale and the wind do of their own nature. We must learn to keep the balance. Having intelligence, we must not act in ignorance. Having choice, we must not act without responsibility. (66)
Though this philosophy does not hinder the wizard from acting, it gives his actions and particularly his use of magic, a context in the world. Magic does not come from nowhere, as our actions do not exist in a vacuum. Though the themes of responsibility and choice do come up multiple times throughout the Harry Potter books, the Earthsea Trilogy displays them in a far complexer light. And all packed into a trilogy you can read in day or two of solid reading. And did you catch that last line, about choice, that is freedom, being inextricably bound with responsibility? That was your big clue: Ursula Le Guin is an anarchist. In fact, it is her fault that I ever heard much about anarchism at all. Thanks Ursula.
harry versus ged
The obvious parallels between the story lines in The Earthsea Trilogy and the Harry Potters prodded me to compare them often, as I read, and I found a comparison of their leading characters particularly telling. Harry, who I will not describe in much detail as I am sure that the majority of my readers have met him themselves, or at least begrudgingly heard tell of him, strikes me as being a classic hero type. He is, like the leaders we are meant to love in so many books, a famous person who has not sought fame, but has had it thrust upon him. He does not seek to be a leader but is called out to lead. And he has a very rigid set of morals and ethics by which he lives.
Ged, who is not quite the main character in every book but who plays the leading role in A Wizard of Earthsea and who takes up a significant part of all of them, is quite different. When he is at Earthsea‘s school for witchcraft and wizardry, he is arrogant and a bit of a jerk (a little bit like Harry’s father is often portrayed, now that I think about it). He is very powerful and he knows it, as well as being hot-headed and impatient. Though teachers tell him again and again about the balance, he does not listen and finally unleashes a monster on the world that he then finds himself bound to fight. I believe the word hubris might apply.
While Harry spends every book in the series fighting Evil and doing things for Good, it is Ged himself who engenders both the villain and the hero in his story. The Harry Potter series does attempt to tackle the subject of moral ambiguity, particularly through Harry’s connection to the books’ villain Voldemort, the book’s moral landscape remains black and white. We know who is good and we know who is bad and we know who we want to win and we have no further questions. In The Earthsea Trilogy we find both the hero and the villain in the character that Le Guin presents to us, and we are not asked to take sides. While Harry can only live once Voldemort is destroyed, Ged can only live once he has accepted and again internalized that irrevocable part of himself.
In short: if you like fantasy books or are looking for something to buy for a ten-or-so-year-old cousin of yours, go out and get a hold of The Earthsea Trilogy immediately. After this reread I decided that I would buy them for every one of my friend’s children for their eighth birthday. Some rereads leave you wondering why you ever liked that book in the first place. This one made them even dearer to my heart.