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!

Threshold by Ursula Le Guin

I think one of the reasons I may have gone away from fantasy literature after my initial love of it when I was a young teen reading and re-reading David Eddings’s The Belgariad, was it was so hard to find fantasy that matured as I did. After that early enthusiasm for fairy-tale-ish adventure, what came next, where were the works of deeper power, or greater complexity? There were some, but they seemed as rare as they were wonderful: Holdstock’s Mythago Wood and Lavondyss, Peake’s Gormenghast books, Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea.

Threshold, Gollancz edition. Cover by Alan Cracknell

Threshold, Gollancz edition. Cover by Alan Cracknell

At my first reading, I found Le Guin’s 1980 novel Threshold (The Beginning Place in the US) a little dour, I think, but a recent re-read made me realise it was certainly one of those books that were taking existing fantasy ideas and adding much greater depth and weight, exploring the implications, adding complexity to the characters and ideas. Taking the Narnia-like premise of people from this world going into another, magical world, the difference with Threshold is that, unlike the children of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, who go to another world to essentially become fairy-tale versions of themselves (children in this world, adventurers then kings & queens in that world), the protagonists of Le Guin’s novel very much take the preoccupations and problems of their this-world lives with them. Initially using this other world as a refuge from difficult relationships and worldly hardships, the novel’s two protagonists (who, at first, are deeply resentful of each other’s presence in what they thought was their own personal hideaway) are drawn into the troubles of this other world in which they must play a key role.

Hugh Rogers (“Run-and-hide Rogers” as he calls himself) is twenty years old, working on the checkout of a local Thrift-E-Mart, and stifled by his over-controlling mother. Recently moved to the area, he discovers the very edge of the “twilight world” as he calls it (because its light is in a perpetual edge-of-day state) and finds in it the only real place where he can be himself. Irena Pannis, a little younger, has known the “ain country” (which she names after a line in a folk song she once heard) longer, having spent time in its mountain town of Tembreabrezi, where she has learned the language. For her it’s a refuge from a starkly unloving world, a world in which “Everybody I know just hurts each other. All the time”, and “Love is just a fancy word for how to hurt somebody worse.”

threshold_pbTembreabrezi is a way-station for travellers on the roads that pass through it, but recently something has changed: the town-dwellers themselves cannot walk the roads, cannot leave their town, and nobody is coming to them anymore. Something has to be done, something that was done, once, long before — a confrontation on a nearby mountain which left a previous lord of the town with a withered hand — something that Irena, with her basic grasp of the language, can’t quite translate or understand, something that the townspeople believe Hugh has come here to do.

A monster has to be faced. Like the worm in William Mayne’s A Game of Dark, it’s a pale, stinking, disgusting thing, almost too horrible to face, something that strips Irena and Hugh of all pretensions that they might, like the Narnia children, be in some way destined, blessed heroes in this realm — but also it’s a thing of pain and suffering, a thing that cries, “howling and sobbing”, an embodiment of something “horrible and desolate, enormous, craving”.

Quite what the monster is, why the roads are closed, and what the very palpable fear the townspeople feel is, is never stated, but I felt it was, in some way, tied deeply to Irena and Hugh’s own need for this escape-world that they find themselves in — as if, by leaving behind the fears and difficulties of the outside world when they come to the “ain country”, it in fact separates from them, into a sort of intensified, separate and monstrous form. The horror they face in this sad beast is real and loathsome and genuinely dangerous. But what happens changes Irena and Hugh, as though facing any fearful thing, if horrific and dangerous enough, can wash them clean of the lesser fears they deal with in their normal, daily lives.

Threshold is certainly a book worth not just reading but re-reading, one that feels it’s saying something new about the traditional ideas behind fantasy fiction, more than thirty years after its first publication.

Who cares what characters in books look like?

There must be a word for that sense of dislocation you feel when you see a different cover on a much-loved book and it just seems wrong. I remember what a shock it was, for instance, to come across the US covers for David Eddings’ Belgariad series, which I’d read and re-read when I was thirteen, and whose UK covers (by Geoff Taylor, who seemed to have a monopoly on fantasy covers in the UK at the time), perfectly summed up the epic scale of the books while leaving their main characters either unrepresented, or distant enough to keep their details blurred — something I thought showed a proper respect for the reader’s interpretation of what the characters looked like. When I saw the US covers, with the main characters up-front and in detail, it seemed wrong, almost slightly indecent.

It wasn’t that I’d formed my own idea of what the characters looked like, I just knew they didn’t look like that. And this is true of how I picture characters in fiction generally. I don’t form a full, photographic representation in my head. I tend not to like it when the author provides a detailed summary of a character’s features — this sort of nose, that sort of mouth, that sort of chin — because I usually end up just juggling the elements in my head trying to make them stick, and it all gets a little cubist. When confronted by such a physiognomical checklist, I opt for one feature and stick to that. Forget the beetling brow and cleft chin, if he’s got a big nose, that’s enough for me. (When in doubt, always pick the nose… That could have been better phrased…)

Far more important to me is getting a idea of what the characters sound like. After all, in fiction, you don’t get much description of what a character’s nose is up to, but you do get a lot of dialogue. If a big-nosed character fails to detect a particularly subtle odour in one scene, I’m not going to complain; but if a previously laconic character suddenly starts spouting paragraphs, or a well-spoken chap drops into the demotic, it’s more likely to jar. (Unless, of course, there’s a reason for the change — such as the laconic man revealing a hidden passion for what he’s talking about, or the well-spoken chap’s well-spokenness being just an act, soon dropped under pressure.)

I think it comes down to my just wanting one simple peg to hang the character’s later actions and internal development on. With those US covers for The Belgariad, though, it’s just that the characters seemed too damned heroic — all the flowing hair, Constructivist-style poses, and, for god’s sake, body-builder’s muscles on the boy Garion! In my mind they were a bumbling, ordinary-looking lot, and that was part of their charm.

But how’s that ever going to sell books?

On Re-Reading Books

farnsworthIn the words of Futurama’s dithery Professor Farnsworth, “Good news, everyone!” — apparently, I am incredible. At least, I am according to this rather fatuous report, “Oops — I Read It Again!” (link from Neil Gaiman’s blog).

Why am I incredible? (You read my blog, yet have to ask?!) Because, it seems, I’m part of a rare 13% of the reading population — not just that 77% of it who admit to having “enjoyed a book* so much that they’ve gone back to read it again” (I’m not sure why “book” gets an asterisk — perhaps it’s a term that needs a more precise definition for the sort of people who read a site with a name like, but I’m part of the 17% who “have re-read a favourite tome more than five times” (surely not all of them were tomes, you lazy journalist, you — try scratching your head a few times before reaching for the thesaurus!)

Alright, so maybe reading a book — or several, I’ll not get into specifics yet — five times or more is odd, but surely it’s not “incredible”? But that’s just the word-geek in me getting picky. (To show how picky I can get, I also wonder why the report gives “C. S. Lewis” a full-stop after each initial, “J. K Rowling” only one, and “JRR Tolkien” none.) What makes this all the more distressing is that this is a report, I assume, from some sector of the book trade itself — as if the trade were so assured the wares it sells are so deeply worthless that reading them even once, after buying them, were to take things a bit far. (Certainly true in the case of sleb biographies and their like — maybe that’s the special meaning of book-with-an-asterisk I was looking for.)

Now that my incredible nature is out in the open, I might as well be frank about it. Not only do I habitually re-read books, I tend to regard reading a book for the first time as merely an opportunity to decide whether it’s worth re-reading — the re-reading bit being, for me, where the fun really starts. I tend to only keep books if I plan to re-read them at some time.

fantasy_100_bestI haven’t always been like this. I used to be un-incredible, at least most of the time. (Except as a kid. All kids demand re-reading of the books they like. They’re not stupid.) I can’t actually pinpoint when my incredible, perhaps even mythical, status kicked in, but aside from re-reading favourite Doctor Who novelisations (which, at one point in my life, were all I read), I tended to read books only once. What happened was something like this: I kept buying new books and finding they were bad. After a while, getting distressed that I hadn’t read anything good for a while, and worried that it was me that had gone wrong rather than the hallowed publishing industry, I decided to revisit a book I had enjoyed, just to make sure. To my relief, I found I enjoyed it even more. And then, perhaps, other new approaches to this whole business of “reading books” (that’s books-without-asterisks) started to suggest themselves. Such as the idea that books which have been around for a long time, and which have continually been published and read for decades, if not centuries, might actually be better than new books. Classics, as they’re sometimes called, even by people without thesauruses. This was when I started reading (and re-reading) books like Moorcock and Cawthorne’s Fantasy: 100 Best Books and Horror: The 100 Best Books edited by Stephen Jones and Kim Newman, and doing bizarre things like frequenting secondhand bookshops.

I know I’m probably still in a minority to re-read at least as much as I first-time read, but I do genuinely find it more pleasurable to re-read a book. Perhaps this is in part because I am, by nature, rather untrusting and over-critical as a reader. I want to know a book is worth investing in before I really go for it 100% in the reading — but if I am untrusting, it’s only because I’ve read so many bad and disappointing books that I’ve ended up that way.

murakami_sputniksweetheartThe main objection to re-reading a book is that there’s no point because you know what’s going to happen. But, to me, knowing what’s going to happen not only doesn’t matter, it actually makes it better. Exposed to stories as much as we are, we’ve all developed enough of a “story sense” to second-guess where a story is going anyway, and the real pleasure of a twist-in-the-tale is not so much the twist itself, as how skilfully it’s handled. My two most recent re-reads are both minor books by favourite authors — Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami, and The Violet Apple by David Lindsay. The first time I read Sputnik Sweetheart was when I’d just discovered Murakami. At the time, I’d only read his massive (genuinely tome-like) The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and in comparison found the slim Sputnik Sweetheart a bit disappointing, though with a strikingly weird bit in the middle (where a young woman gets stuck at the top of a Ferris wheel for the night and has an experience that turns her hair completely white), mainly because I wasn’t sure how to understand the end. Re-reading it, knowing how it ended, everything fell into place and made sense, and I had time to relax and understand other things about the book, like how each of the three main characters faces the same sort of strange crisis, but one evades it, one falls before it, and one — maybe — triumphs. With The Violet Apple, I found that knowing what was going to happen at the end only made the build-up much more poignant and emotionally powerful. (That’s how tragedy always works. Macbeth’s downfall was only a surprise for Macbeth himself.)

Another possible peculiarity of mine comes into play here, and this is to do with re-reading books by certain authors. The more you read of an author’s work, the more you get to understand them, and the more you get out of reading them. The first time I read the David Lindsay book, The Violet Apple, I was still under the spell of his most famous and impressive book, A Voyage to Arcturus, and so I read The Violet Apple with that other book in mind. But The Violet Apple is a very different book. It’s very un-fantastic, whereas A Voyage to Arcturus is almost nothing but fantastic; it’s also very human, whereas A Voyage to Arcturus is starkly inhuman. A Voyage to Arcturus could never contain a sentence such as “She could not bear that awful family loneliness and unsympathy”, but The Violet Apple does and, knowing Lindsay to be capable of writing such a sentence, I will in future re-read A Voyage to Arcturus slightly differently.

You don’t listen to a favourite song only once, do you? Why should books be any different, just because they take more time to re-experience? Human beings are memory-loving creatures. We treasure our experiences and go back over them, in our heads, again and again. Sometimes we do this to understand the experiences better, sometimes it’s just because revisiting them is so enjoyable. The reading of a book is an experience just like any other, and the reasons for doing it can be just the same.

fourtimesbooksTo end off, a not-necessarily-complete list of books I’ve read four times or more (with no explanations or apologies — though, to intensify my weirdness, I’ll say that at least two in this list are books I’ve re-read straightaway after reading them for the first time): Moving Zen by C W Nicol, The Belgariad by David Eddings, A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay, The Outsider by Colin Wilson, The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula Le Guin, Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse, The Influence by Ramsey Campbell, The Drowned World by J G Ballard, V for Vendetta by Alan Moore & David Lloyd… Not to mention the countless short stories I’ve re-read many more times than four or five. Short stories are, after all, so much more re-readable. But simply reading short stories nowadays is enough to commit you to a very dark and dingy corner of the asylum reserved for book-readers. Catch you re-reading the things, and they throw away the key. Before you eat it, or do yourself an injury with it or something.

Comment imported from the old version of Mewsings:
Gavin Burrows

Hi Murray, My response here!