Thursday, January 10, 2008

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula LeGuin

I have read a few times the comment that J. K. Rowling owes a larger debt to Ursula LeGuin than she acknowledges. While I can’t comment on whether Rowling has paid that debt, I do now see what some people are talking about. Here is the original school for wizards on the island of Roke, in Earthsea, and here is the young wizard Ged who trains there. Here we also find the kindly powerful Archmage who leads the school, and Jasper, the young wizard’s high-born rival.

But there I stopped. Why? Want a list?

a) No women anywhere: no women teachers, no girl students. Why did LeGuin do this? Was it not possible in pre-feminist 1968 for a woman to write fantasy that included powerful women and girl characters? Maybe not. Without Hermione (and Tonks, Ginny, Professor McGonagall, etc.) it was really slow going.

b) No humor. This is a Serious Book. Not. One. Funny. Thing. Happens. Ever.

b) Way too much adolescent bad judgment. I stopped reading at the point where Ged does something enormously ill-advised as part of a confrontation with Jasper to prove who is the better wizard, with devastating consequences. Maybe it’s because I am the mother of two teenage boys, but I was just not in the mood for this. It made me want to take away their iPods and give them a stern lecture about how actions have consequences, and I do enough of that already, thank you.

I have no doubt that this is a good book. LeGuin’s writing is beautiful. But is it too dated for a contemporary reader? Will the lack of interesting female characters and the sober tone be stumbling blocks for other modern readers as well? I wonder.

11 comments:

Maxine said...

All good points. They may explain why this book has never appealed to me either, although people rave on about it. I even bought it ages ago for Cathy (would now be of an age for Jenny) but neither of them has read it either. Sounds as if JK is by far the better bet!

Becky said...

Maxine, I can always count on you. I was thinking of your daughters when I was writing the blog post, wondering if they had tried it. My son Miles, who is 16, found the writing style old fashioned and heavy handed, and put it aside after about 10 minutes.

Anonymous said...

Um, I loved this novel -- first read it when I was about 12 -- and went on to read the rest of the Earthsea Trilogy. A very important female appears and her life entwines with Ged's. Also, my son read it at about age 10 and liked it.

I think the lack of humor makes it more like Tolkien than J.K.R.

Oops -- gotta go; I'm at a library computer. LeGuin poses really fascinating philosophical questions in most of her books and short stories. Try "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omertas" (may have the last word wrong). It's a short story you won't ever forget (well, you may forget the last word of the title!).

heather (errantdreams) said...

Interesting. Le Guin is one of those authors whose work I'd like to read because I've heard such good things about it, but I haven't gotten around to. Partially because I've heard some quotes from her regarding writing and such that sounded quite arrogant, and they put me off a bit. Someday...

Becky said...

Anonymous, I'm glad to hear from someone who loved this. I know it is an important book, and I knew, by giving up, that I might miss the entrance of a female character. Thanks for clarifying this; I should have asked the question in my original post -- are there ever any women?

Regarding Tolkien, yes, she is much closer in tone to him than to Rowling. But even Tolkien gives us hobbits with endearing little quirks that make us smile. This was just so HEAVY.

I will look for that short story. Last year I read LeGuin's collection of short stories called Unlocking the Air and I loved it. It felt much more contemporary.

Becky said...

Heather, I felt the same way, and only "got around" to reading her last year. The short story collection Unlocking the Air is a good place to start.

Penelope Anne said...

I have never heard of this, but may have to look into it.
See I have seen other books that I felt Rowling may have borrowed from.

FYI - I am giving you some link love today, spotlighting this review on my Book Blog.

Nina said...

Earthsea is one of my all-time favourite stories ... LeGuin kept on thinking about the Earthsea world and in fact wrote a short story much later about why there are no women in the wizard school. Male chauvinism, basically - she became quite critical of her own characters.
But as has been mentioned, some very good and interesting female characters appear in the later books.

Becky said...

Nina, do you know the name of that short story? I would love to read it.

Becky said...

Nina, I found it. There's a whole volume that seeks to "redress the balance." It's Tales from Earthsea. I'm going to get that next.

Nina said...

Yes, Tales from Earthsea. Some lovely stories in that. I'm glad you are giving LeGuin another chance. :-)

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