The Atrocity Exhibition by J G Ballard

AtrocityExhibitionIt’s oddly comforting to know that J G Ballard’s most experimental, challenging, and controversial pieces of fiction, the ‘condensed novels’ that make up The Atrocity Exhibition, were written between, on the one hand, a children’s story for the much-loved BBC series Jackanory (‘Gulliver in Space’, broadcast 11th Feb 1966) and a treatment for one of Hammer Films’ fur bikini efforts, When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970). In contrast, The Atrocity Exhibition stories are deliberately difficult, intentionally obsessive, and wilfully confrontational. As much experiments in form as they are in content, they were Ballard’s attempt to break away from his early, more conventional (though still firmly ‘New Wave’) science fiction, to something that felt more relevant both to himself and to the time in which he was writing. As he states in a 1973 interview with Peter Linnet (included in Extreme Metaphors: Collected Interviews):

‘I wanted to write directly about the present day, and this peculiar psychological climate that existed in the middle sixties… It seemed to me that the only way to write about all this was to meet the landscape on its own terms. Useless to try to impose the conventions of the nineteenth-century realistic novel on this incredible five-dimensional fiction moving around us all the time at high speed.’

AtrocityExhibition02As much as they were a response to the ‘peculiar psychological climate’ of the mid-1960s, the Atrocity Exhibition stories were also a response to Ballard’s own psychological ecosystem. The protagonists of these fragmented stories, variously called Trabert, Traven, Talbert, Tallis, Travers, or left unnamed, usually start their stories working in some sort of institute (a hospital or a university), but leave to pursue their increasingly obsessive private projects. Similarly, Ballard gave up his medical training when the urge to write became too strong. The Atrocity Exhibition protagonists’ private projects are often artistic, but always, like the Atrocity Exhibition stories themselves, highly experimental, and more often than not entirely conceptual. In the story called ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’, Travis plans to make himself the first victim in an entirely imaginary, though very real to him, World War III; in ‘Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown’, Trabert wants to somehow resurrect the Apollo 1 astronauts. These men are usually trying to somehow recreate the decade’s most celebrated tragedies — those which most challenged the post-war optimism of the 1950s — but do so in a way that somehow, this time, makes sense. Their key working method, it seems, is to collect disparate photographs, scientific images, artworks, and other ‘terminal documents’, while somehow insisting that ‘all these make up one picture’:

‘(1) a thick-set man in an Air Force jacket, unshaven face half hidden by the dented hat-peak; (2) a transverse section through the spinal level T-12; (3) a crayon self-portrait by David Feary, seven-year-old schizophrenic at the Belmont Asylum, Sutton; (4) radio-spectra from the quasar CTA 102; (5) an antero-posterior radiograph of a skull, estimated capacity 1500cc; (6) spectro-heliogram of the sun taken with the K line of calcium; (7) left and right handprints showing massive scarring between second and third metacarpal bones…’

Wilson_TheOutsider_2001When writing about Colin Wilson’s The Outsider, I mentioned The Atrocity Exhibition as an example of what I called ‘crisis literature’ — books written on the edge of, or just past, a traumatic, and often psychologically destabilising crisis, which forced their writers into new, experimental, and often difficult narrative forms to capture and somehow master that crisis. Alan Garner’s Red Shift was perhaps the first example of this kind of book I really stuck with, and T S Eliot’s The Waste Land is perhaps the most well-known. Such books, I said, present themselves as highly intellectualised puzzles, but are really about deep emotional trauma. They take the form of fractured narratives (the multiple time strands of Garner’s Red Shift) or a barrage of seemingly unrelated fragments (the many styles and images of The Waste Land), that, like the Atrocity Exhibition protagonists’s ‘terminal documents’, the authors insist belong together as a single statement. (One such disparate list of peculiar photostats — ‘(1) Front elevation of a multi-storey car park; (2) mean intra-patellar distances (estimated during funeral services) of Coretta King and Ethel M. Kennedy…’ and so on — is titled ‘Fusing Devices’, making their function in an attempt at self-integration clear.) This is something Jung has said is a general characteristic of psychological healing: the search to resolve highly polarised, conflicting internal forces (a thesis and an antithesis) into a new synthesis, a new unity. The Atrocity Exhibition is fragmented in form (all those short paragraph-long chapters with their wonderful Ballardian titles), narrative sequence (Ballard says you don’t have to read the chapters in the order presented, but can pick and choose at random), and images. ‘At times it was almost as if he were trying to put himself together out of some bizarre jigsaw,’ as someone says of the protagonist of ‘You and Me and the Continuum’.

What may be another characteristic of ‘crisis literature’ is the way that violence, or violent images, are always waiting to burst through any apparently normal facade. Dr Nathan, one of the recurring figures in the ‘condensed novels’, who Ballard calls, in his later footnotes to the stories, ‘the safe and sane voice of the sciences’ — though with a hint that it’s not necessarily safety or sanity that are needed to solve these post-traumatic conundrums — provides a key to understanding this element of the Atrocity Exhibition:

‘The only way we can make contact with each other is in terms of conceptualisations. Violence is the conceptualisation of pain. By the same token psychopathology is the conceptual system of sex.’

TAtrocityExhibition03he many violent images in The Atrocity Exhibition stories — car crashes, assassinations, murders — are, then, attempts to externalise a deeply repressed or dissociated pain, a pain so intense it destabilises the very landscape around the protagonists, disconnecting them from a sense of reality, and from normal contact with their fellow human beings. Half of what happens in each of the stories is probably hallucinated — certainly, some of the characters are, including that mostly-silent recurring trinity of Kline, Coma, and Xero — while the other half is overwritten by a fictionalisation of reality which is, nevertheless, more real, or at least more meaningful, to the protagonists than reality itself.

I’m not a great one for experimental fiction. The Ballard I like is mostly the writer of weird disaster novels (The Drowned World, The Crystal World), dream-like psychological short stories, and a few of the mid-period novels (High-Rise, The Unlimited Dream Company). But after a while, reading interviews and articles about Ballard, you have to admit that, at some point, you’re going to have to read The Atrocity Exhibition, just to find out if it can really live up to all he said about it.

jg_ballardIn a way, what we have here is Ballard’s own commedia dell’arte taken to max — reusing the same stock figures (the mentally exhausted doctor/lecturer protagonist, the psychologist colleague who wryly, calmly comments and explains, the rather passive abandoned wife, the rather passive younger girlfriend), stock props (a torn flying jacket, a helicopter, a crashed car), stock images (the angle between two walls, cubicular screens or mirrors, vastly blown-up fragmented images of a woman’s face and body), and stock situations (car crashes, bizarre artistic exhibits) and landscapes (abandoned military testing sights, abandoned motorways, and other concrete wastelands), played and replayed, re-imagined and re-fit, in an attempt to find the combination that will unlock this particular meaning, solve this particular riddle. (The exception that proves this rule is, perhaps, ‘The Summer Cannibals’, which reads as though Ballard were deliberately trying not to use any of his standard tropes, and finds there’s nothing worth writing about. It’s the least interesting of the Atrocity Exhibition stories.)

Having read them, I have to say I didn’t find the whole as powerful as I’d hoped. The shock of the fragmented form works at first, but after a while the repetition doesn’t quite gain power through accumulation. What’s undeniable — as always — is the strength and integrity with which Ballard follows his obsessions. This is something you get, though, even in his more conventional narratives, the early novels and short stories. Here, in condensed form, sometimes the effect is of shocking juxtaposition, but sometimes it’s tired repetition. Undoubtedly, The Atrocity Exhibition was important for Ballard to write; it revitalised his novel-writing and set him on a new direction for a new decade. It’s almost as though he had to go to such experimental, obsessive lengths to break free of all the generic and standard novelistic conventions he’d been following, so as to return to them (with Crash, Concrete Island, and High-Rise) with a new strength. And I think the condensed novel form can really work, and it would be great to read other writers attempting it — if, that is, they don’t just take it as an excuse to throw together a bunch of random paragraphs. (It would work well, I think, with cosmic horror.)

If, as I say, The Atrocity Exhibition was important for Ballard to write — so as to confront, and perhaps master, the dehumanising forces of trauma, despair, and the ‘death of affect’ in his own life in the mid-60s — then his final book, Miracles of Life, was the equally important answer to it, as that book is about the humanising forces that saw him through life, mostly notably being his children.

Living Alone by Stella Benson

Stella BensonLike David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, Stella Benson’s Living Alone (1919) was published in the aftermath of the First World War. Both books set out to attack the conventional world, but if their attack was kicked off by a disgust with the horrors of war, the anti-conventional impulse was deep within these writers already. The main difference between the books is in their method of attack: Lindsay’s approach is to tear the conventional world to shreds to prove there’s nothing worth saving, while Benson satirises, using her ‘magic people’ — her witches and wizards — as exemplars of unconventionality, to show the world what it has lost. The odd thing is that, though a comedy, Benson’s book contains almost as much of a tragic note as Lindsay’s.

Living Alone starts with a woman bursting in on a charity committee. She’s just stolen a bun and needs to hide from the police. The committee, whose job is to sort the worthy from the unworthy, immediately starts trying to find excuses not to help her. But she doesn’t want help. The woman is a witch. She has packets of magic in her pockets.

‘Now witches and wizards, as you perhaps know, are people who are born for the first time. I suppose we have all passed through this fair experience, we must all have had our chance of making magic. But to most of us it came in the boring beginning of time, and we wasted our best spells on plesiosauri, and protoplasms, and angels with flaming swords, all of whom knew magic too, and were not impressed.’

One of the committee members, a woman called Sarah Brown, goes to the witch’s home, a shop-and-boarding house at ‘Number 100 Beautiful Way, Mitten Island, London’. This house is called Living Alone:

‘It is meant to provide for the needs of those who dislike hotels, clubs, settlements, hostels, boarding-houses, and lodgings only less than their own homes; who detest landladies, waiters, husbands and wives, charwomen, and all forms of lookers after. This house is a monastery and a convent for monks and nuns dedicated to unknown gods. Men and women who are tired of being laboriously kind to their bodies, who like to be a little uncomfortable and quite uncared for, who love to live from week to week without speaking, except to confide their destinations to ’bus-conductors, who are weary of woolly decorations, aspidistras, and the eternal two generations of roses which riot among blue ribbons on hireling wall-papers, who are ignorant of the science of tipping and thanking, who do not know how to cook yet hate to be cooked for, will here find the thing they have desired, and something else as well.’

There are three types of alone-ness in Benson’s novel. The first is the natural lack of need for company — a self-sufficiency born from a rather childlike self-absorption and self-centredness — exemplified by the witch. In comparison to the conventional-minded — as typified by those who sit on committees (‘and a committee, of course, exists for the purpose of damping enthusiasms’) — these are the un-fallen innocents of the world, who ‘are not blinded by having a Point of View. They just look, and are very much surprised and interested.’ But, as much as they’re childlike and innocent, they’re also not fully formed as human beings:

‘A heart is a sort of degree conferred by Providence on those who have passed a certain examination. Magic people are only freshmen in our college, and it is useless for us—secure in the possession of many learned letters after our names—to despise them. They will become sophisticated in due course.’

Being ‘sophisticated’ is the second type of alone-ness — not separation from other people, but from one’s deeper self. Those who are ‘sophisticated’ are the sort to sit on judgemental charitable committees, and are isolated from others not by childlike innocence, but by the assumption of an inauthentic, self-blinding maturity:

‘Mr. Darnby Frere was the editor of an advanced religious paper called I Wonder, but he never wondered really. He knew almost everything, and therefore, while despising the public for knowing so little, he encouraged it to continue wondering, so that he might continue despising and instructing it.’

This is the social self divorced from the truer, deeper self:

‘Religion which has forgotten ecstasy…. Law which has forgotten justice…. Charity which has forgotten love….’

Stella-Benson2The tragedy of Benson’s novel lies in the third type of alone-ness. This belongs to one character only, Sarah Brown. Sarah Brown (who’s always given both names, as if in an attempt to make her a distanced, comic everywoman figure, though it seems to me she’s the closest to an authorial self-portrait in the book) is not so mired in the conventional world that she refuses to acknowledge the existence of magic (unlike the increasingly red-faced policeman, who insists on interpreting everything in mundane terms, even while wanting to arrest the witch for ‘being in possession of an armed flying machine’ — her broom), while also knowing she herself isn’t magical. Sarah Brown, then, can see both the innocent paradise of the magical and the cynical worldliness of the conventional, but can fit into neither. She knows, for instance, she’s not the ‘True Love’ of the dashingly unconventional wizard Richard; she also knows that, even as she leaves London for New York, it will no more be her true home (‘America, you know, would be entirely magic, if it weren’t for the Americans’) than London was. Sarah Brown has something within her that makes her unfit both for civilised company and her own solitude:

‘She could not bear touch. She had no pleasure in seeing or feeling the skin and homespun that encloses men and women. She hated to watch people feeding themselves, or to see her own thin body in the mirror. She ought really to have been born a poplar tree; a human body was a gift wasted on her.’

And, having set foot in the house — having admitted her alone-ness — it’s as though she can never leave it, and can never be anything but alone:

‘How can you ever be far from home, you, a dweller in the greatest home of all. Did you think you had destroyed the House of Living Alone? Did you think you could escape from it?’

But for most of it, the book is lightly magical and nonsensical, not so much a story as a series of skits. Some of the chapters could be extracted as short stories, such as chapter VI, ‘An Air Raid Seen From Above’, where the witch of the House of Living Alone, flying over London, gets into a fight with a German counterpart, who, though magical, has somehow been co-opted into the cynical world’s endeavours:

“We are Crusaders,” said the German. “Crusaders at War with Evil.”

“Why, how funny—so are we,” said our witch. “But then how very peculiar that two Crusaders should apparently be fighting each other. Where then is the Evil? In No Man’s Land?”

Despite being set in wartime, Benson’s book is a self-declared ‘book of fine weather’, ostensibly written for frivolity and fun. Magic and the war are entangled, but not in the way you’d expect:

“I suppose the War was made by black magic,” suggested Sarah Brown, trying to talk intelligently and to be faithful to her own thoughts at the same time.

“Good Lord, no,” replied Richard. “The worst of this war is that it has nothing whatever to do with magic of any sort. It was made and is supported by men who had forgotten magic…”

To me, Living Alone meanders over the fine line between being satirically funny and wilfully twee, though there were enough little gems to keep me going. For instance:

‘Fairies are never ill. They have immortal bodies, but no souls. If they see you in pain, they simply think you are flaunting your superiority and your immortal soul in their faces.’

Or, the moment when Sarah Brown and the Witch set eyes on America:

“Here we are,” said the witch to Sarah Brown. “At least, I suppose this City on its Tiptoes is New York. Do you think I ought to call the attention of the Captain to that largish lady on our left, who seems to be marooned upon a rock, and signalling to us for help?”

Or:

“I could of course cure you of the nerve-storms you speak of. Or rather I could help you to have nerve-storms all the time, without any stagnant grown-upness in between. Then you wouldn’t notice the nerve-storms.”

At times, I found myself thinking that Living Alone could never be published today, it is so wilfully eccentric, but at other times I couldn’t help feeling it might fit easily into the world of the Harry Potter books.

Night Visitors by Julia Briggs

Night Visitors, Julia Briggs’s 1977 study of ‘The rise and fall of the English ghost story’, employs a bit of (potentially fatal) boundary-blurring early on, first as regards the term ‘ghost story’:

‘It may be apparent that the term ‘ghost story’ is being employed with something of the latitude that characterises the general usage, since it can denote not only stories about ghosts, but about possession and demonic bargains, spirits other than those of the dead, including ghouls, vampires, werewolves, the ‘swarths’ of living men and the ‘ghost-soul’ or Doppelgänger.’

NightVisitorsThe second bit of boundary-blurring regards the term ‘English’, as she includes Irish (Sheridan Le Fanu and Oscar Wilde), Welsh (Arthur Machen), Scottish (Robert Louis Stevenson), American (Henry James and Vernon Lee), and French (Guy de Maupassant) writers in her study. (And if Henry James is excused because he was living in England, what of Kipling, who was living in India?) What makes this so potentially fatal is that her thesis — that the ghost story, as a form, is dead, indeed ‘has become a vehicle for nostalgia, a formulaic exercise content merely to recreate a Dickensian or Monty Jamesian atmosphere. It no longer has any capacity for growth or adaption.’ — and her reasons for it, can perhaps only be taken to apply to the strictly defined ghost story, and perhaps only the English version of it, certainly not the breadth of weird fiction she covers in this study. After all, when the book was published, a horror boom was in full swing, with not only countless anthologies of old ghost and horror stories being published (driven, no doubt, by Hammer’s popularity in the 60s), but also horror novels hitting the bestseller charts for perhaps the first time since Dracula, thanks mostly to Stephen King, but helped by a Brit or two (James Herbert, Ramsey Campbell). So it seems Briggs’s argument should be that the purely English, purely literary, purely ghostly, purely short story may have become moribund, but that the rest of what was taken in by the boundary-blurred remit of her survey was booming.

There is another way to look at it, perhaps only possible now the book is over four decades old. This is that the ghost story achieved a brief and uncharacteristic literary relevance to the fin-de-siècle and Edwardian eras, then stepped back into the crypt of popular, generic fiction where it had always lurked, and where it remains to this day. And what, I’d say, Night Visitors is good for is its look at this brief foray into literary respectability, and why this phase came to an end. (Which perhaps also answers why it came about in the first place.)

So, why did it end?

In short, Freud and the Great War:

‘The Great War had not only trivialised invented horrors by comparison, it had also catalysed changes in society which affected the ghost story less directly but no less fundamentally. Atheism and agnosticism were now more widely tolerated, and totally materialistic philosophies were far commoner than heretofore. The rigid conventions of sexual behaviour which had influenced middle and upper class attitudes, began to be flouted more openly… Now the unconscious itself had become the subject of close scientific scrutiny rather than the more philosophic, often more amateur speculation of the previous century.’

NightVisitors_backSupernatural stories, at the end of the Victorian Age and into the Edwardian, achieved a new relevance and richness thanks to their exploration of the darker areas of human psychology that, after the World Wars, were more explicitly addressed using the newly-accepted scientific terminology of psychoanalysis. (Though some, between the two World Wars, like Blackwood, went to the opposite extreme and used the technical language of the occult.) The ‘psychic doctors’ of Le Fanu, Blackwood and Hodgson had been replaced by psychoanalysts, and the only recourse for the popular ghost story was a retreat into formal conventions, achieving a sort of final perfection in the hands of M R James, who:

‘…did not share the concern shown by other writers (Blackwood or Le Fanu, for instance) with the significance of spirits, the state of mind in which ghosts are seen, or the condition of a universe that permits the maleficent returning dead.’

But Briggs nevertheless finds certain writers who continued to make meaningful use of the ghost, each in their individual way. Elizabeth Bowen, for instance, whose 1945 collection The Demon Lover ‘reveals her ghosts as somehow necessary to their victims, occupying spiritual voids left by the shock of war.’ Or Walter de la Mare, in whose work ‘death has taken over the role which love traditionally plays in fiction, as the most central and significant experience of life…’ She doesn’t mention Robert Aickman, but he’s an author, I’d say, whose ‘strange stories’ — the closest thing the ghost story came to a reinvention in the 20th century — were enabled, not negated, by Freud.

Meanwhile, the 1970s, when Night Visitors appeared, had a definite tendency to render its horrors in gaudy, gory, sensationalistic cinema, often rendered as fleshily physical as the censors (and the special effects) would allow. The psychological subtlety of the ghostly tale, as championed by Briggs, was perhaps not so much dead but drowned out.

Julia Briggs, interviewed for a 1995 documentary, A Pleasant Terror: The Life & Ghosts of M.R. James

Julia Briggs, interviewed for a 1995 documentary, A Pleasant Terror: The Life & Ghosts of M.R. James

The fundamental human experiences that ghosts, as literary devices, were used to explore, though — secrets, repressions, guilt, loss — remain, and always will. Those dark, cobwebby corners of the psyche can’t have been entirely exorcised. So how were they addressed when the ghost story was superseded?

Modern psychological thrillers, whose killers are too often endowed with near-supernatural abilities, provide similar grounds for exploring the darker regions of the psyche. People may not be haunted, but they are stalked. Detectives and criminal profilers try to get into the minds of the killers they’re tracking, as though working on the assumption that these psychos are their own, personal Doppelgängers. The wrenching twists and revelations of a story like Gone Girl — a ghostly title, surely — may not be spiritual, but they tick the other boxes in the formula Briggs provides for what the ghost in the ghost story represents:

‘…the eruption of the tip of the spiritual iceberg, the sudden sense of the existence of previously unknown modes of being that undermined and ultimately invalidated a comfortable confidence in the world of appearances.’

All of these are ghostly tropes, remade for a disbelieving age. (A pity they don’t work as well, for me. I need that hint of the weird, it seems.)

Briggs finishes her study by saying:

‘That bulging, cobwebby box which had so long been clamped down to prevent its terrors escaping has at last been opened, to reveal nothing at all…’

And it’s true, nothing’s there. But that’s probably because he’s standing behind you, with a knife.

The Other Wind by Ursula Le Guin

The Other WindAlder, a sorcerer whose talent is fixing broken things, arrives on Gont to seek help from the former (and still unreplaced) Archmage, Ged. Every night in dreams, Alder finds himself standing by the wall that borders the land of the dead, whose occupants gather before him, clamouring for release. His own dead wife begs to be set free, but when Alder uses her true name, it has no effect. Meanwhile in Havnor, King Lebannen hears of dragons harrying the lands of men, attacking villages and burning forests, where previously they had been content to keep to their own lands far to the west.

As I said in my review of Tehanu, Le Guin seems to have progressed through the Earthsea series by answering, in each new book, a question implied by her previous work. Tehanu finished with (and “Dragonfly” in Tales from Earthsea underlined) a question about the relationship between humans and dragons, how some humans can, somehow, also be dragons. And, though Earthsea’s version of the land of the dead was present in the first book, it was The Farthest Shore that brought that limbo-like land into full, desperate detail. Surely a place like that is wrong, in a world like Earthsea? In The Other Wind, Le Guin embodies these two issues in two characters: Alder, who, thanks to his dreams, carries around with him the problem of the land of the dead being such a place of ‘suffering where suffering is past’, and Tehanu, now 15 years older than in the book named after her, who literally embodies the question of people-as-dragons.

ModernScholarOf the two, I hadn’t expected the question about the land of the dead to need answering, though I said in my review of The Farthest Shore that that book’s vision of a dull and unpleasant afterlife seemed out of keeping with the series’s general affirmation of the natural course of things. In his lecture series The Modern Scholar: Rings, Swords and Monsters, Professor Michael D C Drout says that one of the things Le Guin does as the Earthsea series progresses is to correct what he calls the ‘buried Christianity’ it began with (the assumptions taken on wholesale from Western Christian culture — or ‘the heroic fantasy tradition’ as Le Guin put it — which don’t fit her own Taoist/Buddhistic beliefs). Drout says The Other Wind performs the final fix, correcting the hellish afterlife of trapped, tormented souls into one in which the souls of the dead are free to rejoin the world, either through reincarnation, or by being reabsorbed into the life of the whole.

(Another way of looking at it is that, while the first two books dealt with the coming-into-selfhood of young people — Ged in A Wizard of Earthsea, Tenar in The Tombs of Atuan — later books deal with the necessary letting go of self that comes with a preparation for death. Cob, in The Farthest Shore, refuses to die and thereby unbalances the world. Ged defeats him by relinquishing his own power, then has to learn to deal with his new powerlessness in Tehanu. In The Other Wind, we find him fully reconciled and at peace.)

As I say, I wasn’t expecting the problem of the land of the dead to be dealt with in this last book of Earthsea. What I was expecting were two questions raised by both Tehanu and Tales from Earthsea: ‘Why can’t women study at Roke?’ and ‘Who will be the new Archmage?’ The first question isn’t dealt with explicitly, but its answer may perhaps be found in Alder’s marriage to Mevre, a witch with a similar talent to his. Their relationship was one of equals, both emotionally and in terms of magical ability:

‘So rather than his teaching her, they put their skills together and taught each other more than either had ever known.’

Here, then, Le Guin seems to be saying that, whatever the rule of Roke is, women and men are equals in magic-use, and their talents can only be improved by their joining together.

OtherWindThe other question, about what will happen at Roke now Ged is no longer Archmage, isn’t answered. In its place, The Other Wind seems to raise a whole host of other questions to do with the future of magic. The Earthsea mode of wizardry — using the true names of things to control or change them — is, in The Other Wind, linked with the wrongness represented by the land of the dead. It’s implied that what to me is the founding notion of the whole Earthsea series — that people have a true name as well as a use-name, and that it gives access to both the power and the vulnerability that derives from selfhood — is part of the imbalance and wrongness of the world. The Other Wind fixes the problem of the land of the dead, but what does this do to Earthsea wizardry, and to Roke? Is magic itself finished?

It’s obvious Le Guin likes those of her wizards who seek knowledge and understanding, or who work directly with the Balance — the Master Doorkeeper, the Master Patterner, the Master Namer — but has grown to distrust those who use magic as an active, wilful power — the Master Summoner in particular, whose speciality is conjuring the spirits of the dead. Ged, her ultimate wizard, has found his own ultimate in the renunciation of power, and the destiny of Earthsea — and its story — has passed into the hands of Lebannen, a king and a non-wizard. (Who, here, has the makings of a screwball romance with a Kargish princess. If only Le Guin could do screwball romance! David Eddings did the whole awkward arranged marriage thing a lot better in The Belgariad, but The Other Wind doesn’t really have room for that degree of humour.) As in Tolkien, whose Elves in The Lord of the Rings are departing from Middle Earth to leave it un-magical and in the hands of men, here Le Guin’s dragons are also departing — are her wizards going to lose power, too? It’s a question I felt was raised but never answered.

The Farthest Shore, cover by David Smee

The Farthest Shore, cover by David Smee

My reaction to The Other Wind is similar to my reaction to The Farthest Shore. In both books, the central character is Earthsea itself, and as a result I found myself intellectually drawn by the themes of these novels, but not emotionally drawn, as I would have been by a more character-centred story. Fantasy, I think, works best when it interweaves the personal and the epic as one — Frodo’s journey to Mount Doom is a small-scale personal story that leads to an epic-scale result — and the books I love most in the Earthsea series (A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, Tehanu) are those which are primarily character stories, only tangentially touching wider events.

I’m glad, though, that I finally got round to reading the whole series. I’ll certainly come back and re-read the first two books. I don’t think I ever needed the world presented in A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan to be expanded, but I’m certainly glad Le Guin wrote Tehanu (though it took me a few years to come back to it and fully appreciate it). Maybe the same is true of the series as a whole? The books I’ve liked most are those I’ve re-read, rather than read for the first time. Maybe I’ll come to a fuller appreciation if I ever go through the whole sequence again. But, that’s not something I’ll be doing for a few years yet!