A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin

A Wizard of Earthsea, cover by David Smee

A Wizard of Earthsea, cover by David Smee

I love a well-done wizard. Just as much, I hate a badly-done one. For me, ‘badly-done’ means the wizard is exactly like any other person, she or he just happens to be able to fling bolts of magic. (Usually, such fling-around-bolts-of-magic wizards are also kick-ass and cool, and I hate kick-ass and cool, too.) A wizard, as far as I’m concerned, must have been changed by their path to wizardhood, and changed deeply. I want to read about that change — about its depth, not its surface glitz. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by A Wizard of Earthsea, which must be one of the earliest fantasy books I read (so long ago, I can’t remember a time when I hadn’t read it — in fact, my earliest memory relating to the book is going into a library, wanting to read it again, and being thrilled to find there were two more in the series). It’s one I keep coming back to, and it’s one that repays every re-read by constantly deepening its truths. It’s that rare, rare thing: a childhood read that remains as relevant to the adult as it was to the child.

The book came about when Le Guin was asked to write something for ‘older children’ (what would now be called YA, but which didn’t exist as a separate category back then). Wondering ‘How did kids get to be old wizards?’, she wrote a tale about ‘a child gifted with an essentially unlimited power who needs — urgently needs — to learn how to know and control such power’. The child is Duny, later to be named Ged, but mostly known as Sparrowhawk. Names in Earthsea are important, for to know the true name of a thing is to have power over it. (And so it’s a world in which wizards must hide their true names, telling them only to those they most trust; and it’s a world in which only dragons, to whom it’s a native tongue, can lie or deceive in the Old Speech of magic.)

illustration by Ruth Robbins

illustration by Ruth Robbins

After showing early magical ability (summoning a fog to help defeat raiders), Ged is taken under the wing of just the sort of over-wise wizard designed to test a young would-be-mage to breaking point. Ogion is more interested in teaching Ged the names of useless herbs than any of the flashy, impressive magic the boy wants to learn (and, let’s face it, the reader wants to see). One day, having been sent to gather more useless herbs, Ged meets a young, somewhat sorcerous temptress, who beguiles him into boasting about abilities he doesn’t have. Returning to Ogion’s house, Ged sneaks a look in his master’s books of magic so he’ll have something to impress the lady:

‘He looked for a spell of self-transformation, but being slow to read the runes yet and understanding little of what he read, he could not find what he sought. These books were very ancient, Ogion having them from his own master Heleth Farseer, and Heleth from his master the Mage of Perregal, and so back into the times of myth. Small and strange was the writing, overwritten and interlined by many hands, and all those hands were dust now.’

Earthsea_Robbins_02

illustration by Ruth Robbins

One spell draws his eyes, and soon he’s not so much speaking it, as it is speaking through him. It summons a shadow, a nameless, baleful thing beyond his, or any other mage’s ability to understand or control. And so begins Ged’s true lesson in wizardry. For this shadow-thing wants nothing more than to make him a ‘gebbeth’, a puppet-man whose sorcerous power will be its own to use. And it’s a very personal battle: this shadow-thing is born from Ged’s weakness — his pride, his boastfulness, his need to demonstrate his power — and so is rooted in the very facility with magic that makes him who he is. But because the shadow is, being nameless, beyond the power of magic, the only way to defeat it is to go beyond magic, beyond spells, to forge an entirely new path, and thus learn wisdom the only way wisdom can be learned — from experience, not rote learning, a process that’s inseparable from Ged’s own coming of age, his becoming a man:

‘…who, knowing his whole true self, cannot be used or possessed by any power other than himself, and whose life therefore is lived for life’s sake and never in the service of ruin, or pain, or hatred, or the dark.’

The story is similar to the Hans Christian Andersen story Le Guin outlines in her essay, ‘The Child and the Shadow’ (in The Language of the Night), about a young man who, afraid to cross the road to speak to a young woman he sees in the garden opposite, jokingly sends his shadow instead — and it goes. Le Guin reads the story in Jungian terms, with the shadow as the repressed, ignored or feared aspects of oneself, which must be mastered and absorbed before one can become a whole human being. This, to me, has always seemed like a good reading of A Wizard of Earthsea, too (the main difference being that, in Andersen’s tale, the shadow wins the eventual power struggle, and the young man fails to individuate). As an example, at one point in Ged’s story, the young wizard realises that ‘the shadow had tricked him with his own trick’; in Four Archetypes, Jung writes: ‘A man who is possessed by his shadow is always standing in his own light and falling into his own traps.’

illustration by David Smee

illustration by David Smee

Elsewhere in The Language of the Night, Le Guin says that fantasy gets its power by speaking ‘from the unconscious to the unconscious, in the language of the unconscious’, and I have to say that the fantasy books that have most affected me have usually done so through the power of their stories first of all, not how I later come to understand those stories. The initial impact is unconscious. A Wizard of Earthsea is a primal tale, of coming into selfhood, of the battle with one’s darker side, but it works without you having to know that’s what it is. The reason the book repays every re-read is, I think, not that I understand it more each time, but that I understand my understanding more — I find myself nodding at what, before, I was completely carried away by. But the wisdom it contains is right there in the story — delivered whole and intact like a jewel — which is how it should be, with fantasy.

Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse

steppenwolf_penguinHermann Hesse says in his 1961 Author’s Note to Steppenwolf (the book itself was first published in 1927), that this is the book of his that is ‘more often and more violently misunderstood than any other’, whose readers ‘perceived only half of what I intended’. And it’s easy to see why. A novel about the passage through the extremes of personal darkness to a renewed interest in life, it does the darkness so well, you can be inclined to think that’s all it’s about.

On a first reading, the thing that lingers most in the memory is the opening sections, where we’re introduced to Harry Haller, the middle-aged ‘Steppenwolf’ dragging himself through a weary, self-conflicted and exhausted life. A highly-cultured writer of independent means, he lives a transient existence, settling in boarding houses for a few months at a time, reading, walking, drinking, and wallowing in a constantly alternating self-disgust and a disgust with the modern world he lives in. Harry, we’re told, is ‘a genius of suffering’, seeing himself at times as a refined, poetic, cultured man, at others, a wild, dark-souled ‘wolf of the Steppes that had lost its way and strayed into the towns…’, constantly tearing at himself with his own too-sharp teeth:

‘For example, if Harry, as man, had a beautiful thought, felt a fine and noble emotion, or performed a so-called good act, then the wolf bared his teeth at him and laughed and showed him with bitter scorn how laughable this whole noble show was in the eyes of a beast…’

But then a little magic starts to seep into Harry’s life. Walking down a darkened street one night, he sees a door where there had not been one before, and above it a flickering neon sign:

MAGIC THEATRE
ENTRANCE NOT FOR EVERYBODY
FOR MADMEN ONLY!

Something in his weary soul stirs, but the door is locked, and when he returns to try it again, it has disappeared entirely. He finds a man with a sign-board apparently advertising the event (now an ‘ANARCHIST EVENING ENTERTAINMENT’), but in response to his queries, all he gets is a pamphlet. Entitled ‘TREATISE ON THE STEPPENWOLF’, this pamphlet lays bare Harry’s deepest recesses, itemising his beliefs, his poses and psychological defences, while lightly mocking them as the self-delusions of a man who only thinks he’s drunk life to the dregs.

Bantam books edition, 1969

Bantam books edition, 1969

Up to this point, Harry seems the archetypal Outsider (as Colin Wilson defined the type): a sort of unfulfilled genius unable to accept bourgeois life, or perhaps any human life, growling behind the bars of some societal cage he’s seeking to escape or destroy, whatever the cost. This is the version of Steppenwolf that appears in the song that brought me to the book in the first place, Robert Calvert’s brooding incantation on Hawkwind’s 1976 album, Astounding Sounds, Amazing Music: ‘a wolf-man who despises the strivings of common men’, ‘half in love with dark and despair’. (Hawkwind’s “Steppenwolf” is, along with Queen’s “Fairy Feller’s Masterstroke” and Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit“, one of the few works inspired by a novel that equal it in power, in my opinion.)

But after this evocation of a dark, self-devouring and suicidal soul at utter odds with the world he lives in, there comes salvation, though it’s not an easy one. After deciding to end his life, but unwilling to actually go back to his lodgings and face the task, Harry lingers in a late-night tavern, where he’s taken in hand by someone who seems his exact opposite, Hermine, a young woman of the hedonistic flapper generation. She gets Harry to eat a little, and drink a little, then makes him promise to do whatever she tells him to do, as a cure for his desperation. And what is her key commandment? Harry Haller, the ageing set-in-his-ways Steppenwolf, has to learn to dance — and not just dance, but dance to a form of music he despises, the jazz-dances of the age: the fox-trot, the Boston, and the Tango.

steppenwolf_penguin2Of course, this is just a symbol for the real process Harry and his Steppenwolf alter-ego must undergo. Harry and the Steppenwolf fight because they despise each other, but they are one person. The only way to find peace is for Harry to overcome his disgust at the Steppenwolf’s more earthy appetites for drink, for women, for anger, for destruction, for life. He has to learn to be whole, however ‘uncultured’ or ‘unrefined’ that whole is. For Harry is a man with ‘a profusion of gifts and powers which had not achieved harmony’, ‘always recognising and affirming with one half of himself, in thought and act, what, with the other half he fought against and denied’, suffering ‘the unendurable tension between inability to live and inability to die’. But, as Hermine says:

‘You have always done the difficult and complicated things and the simple ones you haven’t even learned.’

(Or, as he’s later told: ‘You are willing to die, you coward, but not to live.’)

Steppenwolf is based on Hesse’s own spiritual crisis of the 1920s. Just like his hero, Hesse spoke out against the growing fascistic elements in his post-war homeland, and was both reviled and exiled by the German elite of the day. Hesse applied to C G Jung for help, and some of what happens to Harry can be read in Jungian terms. Hermine is his anima, an imaginative embodiment of all he aspires to, all he needs in order to grow and live. As she herself says:

‘Doesn’t your learning reveal to you that the reason why I please you and mean so much to you is because I am a kind of looking-glass for you, because there’s something in me that answers you and understands you.’

But also she’s his Jungian shadow, the symbol for all he has repressed, despised or disowned: ‘Why, you’re my opposite,’ he tells her. ‘You have all that I lack.’

Hermann Hesse, image from The Dutch National Archives, via Wikipedia.

Hermann Hesse, image from The Dutch National Archives, via Wikipedia.

If this is so, then the final section of the book, when Harry finally gains entrance to the Magic Theatre, could be Jung’s idea of ‘Active Imagination’, a sort of self-healing through indulging in vivid waking daydreams and fantasies. For Harry, the Magic Theatre is a corridor with an infinite number of doors, each of which leads to a whole new world, a whole new existence, but always one that seeks to explore some unfulfilled aspect of himself. In one, his loathing for modernity is allowed free range in a war between men and machines, where he perches in a tree and takes potshots at passing automobiles; in another, he’s taught to break his personality into a thousand fragments and play with them like chess pieces; in another, he sees, acted out, the utter degradation of his inner wolf by his civilised man-self — then its equally degrading reversal… Only through living every aspect of himself to its fullest potential, through giving every despised and belittled and forgotten and dismissed part its full value, can Harry achieve unity and new life. As Pablo, dance-band saxophonist and proprietor of this Magic Theatre, tells him:

‘You have often been sorely weary of your life. You were striving, were you not, for escape? You have a longing to forsake this world and its reality and to penetrate to a reality more native to you, to a world beyond time. Now I invite you to do so. You know, of course, where this other world lies hidden. It is the world of your own soul that you seek. Only within yourself exists that other reality for which you long. I can give you nothing that has not already its being within yourself. I can throw open to you no picture-gallery but your own soul…’

Steppenwolf is about a man breaking free of a lifetime self-locked in inner conflict. Harry Haller achieves this by stepping out of reality itself — or, at least, reality as he has come, through disenchanted, weary and cynical eyes, to see it — to something that is magical, dangerous, but also healing and re-humanising. And behind it he glimpses another reality — a world of the Immortals, those greats such as Mozart and Goethe whom Harry venerates, but a world which, he’s at first distressed to learn, is infused not with seriousness and poetry and lofty ideals, but with an all-encompassing, all-accepting laughter. Laughter and fantasy, then, are the cure for Hesse’s Steppenwolf:

‘…the laughter of the immortals. It was a laughter without an object. It was simply light and lucidity. It was that which is left over when a true man has passed through all the sufferings, vices, mistakes, passions and misunderstandings of men and got through to eternity…’

Max von Sydow in Steppenwolf

Steppenwolf was filmed in 1974, with Max von Sydow in the lead — a perfect piece of casting. It remains faithful to the book, though perhaps too faithful for anyone who hasn’t read it to understand what’s going on at the end, I can’t help feeling. But it has some inspired moments — visualising the ‘Treatise on the Steppenwolf’ as a sort of Terry Gilliam-esque animation, for instance, really works. But the then-cutting edge video effects that dominate the Magic Theatre sequences now seem so dated as to make the whole thing feel like a bad 80s pop video wed to a 70s euro-arthouse film, all driven by a 60s sensibility. (Plus some truly awful dubbing.) For madmen only, perhaps.

The Language of the Night by Ursula K Le Guin

Le Guin, The Language Of The NightFollowing my mewsings on Michael Moorcock’s Wizardry & Wild Romance, I thought I’d take a look at another book on imaginative fiction (fantasy and science fiction, in this case) which I came across early on — in one of those wonderful bookshop sales where a single table would be crammed with all sorts, from academic obscurities to battered, failed bestsellers, and where you really could make discoveries, back before the internet neatly ordered everything — Ursula Le Guin’s collection of essays, introductions and talks, The Language of the Night (or the revised edition, anyway, issued by The Women’s Press in 1989). This book contains some touchstones of writing about fantasy that have stayed with me ever since.

In ‘The Child and the Shadow’, Le Guin retells a Hans Anderson fable and relates it to Jung’s ideas on archetypes (particularly the one he calls the Shadow) and the process of individuation. Fantasy, she says, ‘is the natural, the appropriate language for the recounting of the spiritual journey and the struggle of good and evil in the soul… Fantasy is the language of the inner self.’ This led to me making several attempts on Jung’s own tangled thickets of prose — books about his ideas are usually better than those he wrote himself, with Man and His Symbols being perhaps the best (it has pictures!). And, whether Jung’s ideas are ‘true’ or not — whether they’re the roots of a very peculiar science or (far more likely) an extended, imaginative metaphor for the inner life — I’ve always found them useful.

TheLanguageoftheNightIn ‘Myth and Archetype in Science Fiction’, Le Guin talks about what a myth is, in terms of what a writer is trying to do when they write fantasy or science fiction, and how it comes not purely from the unconscious, or the conscious, but from an equal meeting of the two, a forging of something somehow universal from the deeply personal — something another favourite writer of mine, Alan Garner, has said, too (‘A writer has to live an insoluble paradox. He requires a public, and can achieve it only by becoming most private.’ To which Le Guin would no doubt have said, ‘Less of the “he”, please.’).

The essential essay, from a fantasy reader’s point of view, is ‘From Elfland to Poughkeepsie’. Here, Le Guin provides an almost cruelly neat test to tell the would-be fantasy that just mimics the proper use of faraway never-never lands, dragons, wizards and magic, from a genuine emanation of Elfland. For Le Guin, it’s style that makes something fantasy. She praises Dunsany, E R Eddison, Kenneth Morris and James Branch Cabell, and says Leiber and Zelazny could do better (‘When humour is intended the characters talk colloquial American English, or even slang, and at earnest moments they revert to old formal usages.’). The test is simple: take any passage, change the names from mock-fantasy ones to mundane ones, and see if it still reads as fantasy. She uses as an example a passage from Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni series, which neatly summed up my own feelings the one time I tried to read it — it’s not fantasy, it’s fancy dress.

Elsewhere, there are good short essays on Philip K Dick, James Tiptree Jr., and Tolkien. Moorcock, of course, hated Tolkien with a profound hatred, but for Le Guin, he’s the high point of the genre, a writer she’s glad she didn’t read too early, because that might have skewed her own writing:

‘Those who fault Tolkien on the Problem of Evil are usually those who have an answer to the Problem of Evil — which he did not. What kind of answer, after all, is it to drop a magic ring into an imaginary volcano?’

Wizardry & Wild Romance cover

Wizardry and Wild Romance, Gollancz (1987), cover by Les Edwards

But here, Le Guin is doing a very different job from Moorcock. She is, mostly, defending fantasy and science fiction for their own sakes — often, defending imagination for its own sake — rather than sifting out the good from the bad. (She does have the occasional go at a specific author — not as frothingly vitriolic as Moorcock, but just as damning: ‘The recent fantasy best-seller Jonathan Livingstone Seagull is a serious book, unmistakably sincere. It is also intellectually, ethically and emotionally trivial. The author has not thought things through. He is pushing one of the beautifully packaged Instant Answers we specialise in in this country.’)

Like Wizardry and Wild Romance, The Language of the Night is very much of its time, as a lot of the essays chart the early stages of SF’s emergence from the ghettoes of the past:

‘SF is pretty well grown up now. We’ve been through our illiterate stage, our latent nonsexual stage, and the stage when you can’t think of anything but sex, and the other stages, and we really do seem to be on the verge of maturity now.’

But some of Le Guin’s exhortations are just as relevant. In ‘Stalin in the Soul’ — a wonderfully-argued piece about the art of art — Le Guin holds up Zamyatin’s We as an example of what she thinks is the best of all SF novels, yet one that was written under a repressive regime, and only ever published outside its author’s home country. She compares this to the sort of art most often produced in her own, free country, which is all too often self-enslaved to the market.

Threshold, Gollancz edition. Cover by Alan Cracknell

Threshold, Gollancz edition. Cover by Alan Cracknell

Perhaps the problem nowadays is that fantasy and SF — in certain forms — are too easily accepted, so much so that we fail to remember what they can do, what they can be. ‘Fantasy,’ Le Guin says, ‘is nearer to poetry, to mysticism, and to insanity than naturalistic fiction is.’ It’s a jolt to read this, in a culture swamped with fantastic imagery, in novels, films, and games. It reminds you there are really profound, great, even dangerous things to be found in works of the imagination, and that they are, perhaps, just as rare today, even when fantasy and SF are so much more culturally acceptable.

‘The great fantasies, myths and tales are indeed like dreams: they speak from the unconscious to the unconscious, in the language of the unconscious — symbol and archetype. Though they use words, they work the way music does: they short-circuit verbal reasoning, and go straight to the thoughts that lie too deep to utter.’

Star Trek

Borag Thung, Earthlets! Sometime in the early, early eighties, the BBC showed what seemed like an endless rerun of the original Star Trek series. I watched every episode (they seemed to be on each weekday, at an appropriately post-school hour), but if you’d asked me at the time whether I liked Star Trek, I’d have replied with a definite no.

Why? Because I was a Doctor Who fan, of course! In my near-teens, it was a question of Catholic/Protestant proportions. If nothing else, Star Trek was US, Doctor Who was Brit. (And there was a general US invasion of British TV at the time, most of it rubbish — probably slightly better rubbish than our rubbish, but that wasn’t the point.) On a more practical level, BBC2 were showing whole weekdays-worth of original Star Trek, but no Doctor Who! And this was at a time when, thanks to collecting the Target novelisations and faithfully buying every issue of Doctor Who Weekly (then Monthly), I was desperate to see some of the old Doctor Who’s that I’d read so much about, and seen so many tantalising photos of — actually, in those pre-video days, I’d have been just as happy to see repeats of stories I’d already seen. Anything for more Doctor Who! Instead, what I got was endless Star Trek.

But, really, I enjoyed them, and it only occurred to me a few weeks ago that I’d never seen any of the original Star Trek episodes since those early eighties repeats — and certainly I’d never watched any of them while actually allowing myself to like them. So I bought the first season on DVD, and have started watching it. (I never got into the spinoffs. They seemed a bit too self-conscious of the weight of the tradition they were following; they lacked the sheer wackiness and innocence of the original series. Perhaps TV SF will never be as free again, simply because it’s become successful.)

I was at first disappointed to find that, as well as being remastered, the original show had had as many effects shots as possible replaced by computer-generated digital sequences. I was prepared to be outraged. But, having watched a few — and though I do miss those endless shots of the Enterprise orbiting a different-coloured but otherwise identical swirly-atmosphered planet each episode — I have to admit the new effects don’t at all stand out like the fistful of sore thumbs I was expecting. They fit right in. (The important thing is that those studio-bound planet sets are still there — so much a part of the feel of the original series, just as the studio-bound alien landscapes of Doctor Who’s like “The Brain of Morbius” or “Planet of Evil” are. I don’t care about their lack of realism, I even quite like their obvious theatricality.)

It’s been strange seeing the show after a gap of — eek! — almost thirty years. No doubt because of the age I was when I first watched it, I remembered the show begin quite different. I thought it was all action and sci-fi fantasy, but now I’m seeing a lot more character stuff than I ever was aware of at ten or eleven. Also, genuine SF-style ideas! Not every episode, but the one I’ve just watched (“The Enemy Within”) does present its theory of what makes a hero a hero, a captain a captain, with its story of Kirk’s tussle with his darker side. (An episode written by Richard Matheson, I note. That’s one thing I was never aware of when I saw the series originally: the fact that there were some big SF names involved. But then again, I’d never heard of Harlan Ellison or Richard Matheson when I saw Star Trek the first time.)

One question I had to answer was what order to watch the episodes. There seem to be so many options — by stardate (internal chronology), by production date, or by original broadcast date. I went with original broadcast date, and my initial reaction, on watching the first, “The Man Trap”, was to wonder how anyone watching it could have understood it. There was no effort at introducing the characters, let alone the SF ideas — transporters, phasers — that the show relied on. But obviously it worked.

The next thing that struck me was how every one of the five episodes I’ve watched so far — the first five to be broadcast — were about some sort of enemy within, or an enemy masquerading as a human. The Enterprise may have had its mission to explore strange new worlds, seek out new life and new civilisations, but its first five stories are really all about the invasion of the Enterprise itself. (Well, as Nietzsche said, “if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you”.) We have a shape-changing alien, two lots of humans transformed into monsters by the acquisition of super powers, and then two lots of strange influences that cause the crew of the Enterprise to become a danger to itself. Just when I thought this had to end, episode five was entitled “The Enemy Within”! Was this all post-McCarthy communist witch-hunt aftershocks? Or pre-shocks of the coming flower-power revolution? (The show seems to have one foot planted in the fifties — in Forbidden Planet rocket-power and spaceward-ho optimism — and another in sixties introspection, self-exploration and far-out-ness. The episode “Charlie X”, for instance, gives us a teen very much in the bryl-haired fifties mould, still innocent enough at the age of 17 to have some respect for authority, while the crew’s women are, generally, very much of the hive-hairdoed, cone-bra’d fifties type; while “The Naked Time” seems almost explicitly to be about the coming drop-out generation’s “let it all hang out” philosophy — and its use of LSD — alongside fears of society’s fragmentation as a result. The Enterprise is on a five-year trip, man.)

One obvious difference between Star Trek and Doctor Who is that the main characters in Star Trek all wear uniforms. They’re integrated parts of an established (and admirably inclusive) society. The Doctor, on the other hand, is not just an individual, he’s an outcast, an outsider, one who has rejected his originating society. This isn’t by any means a criticism of Star Trek, but it is something that makes these “enemy within” style stories possible, perhaps even necessary. Doctor Who has done something similar (right near the beginning, with the TARDIS-bound paranoia-fest, “The Edge of Destruction”), but certainly not on the scale of Star Trek. Star Trek is about a society venturing into space, facing the unknown; Doctor Who is about an individual (or a small, disparate gang) bumming around, turning up at random, doing good on principle rather than by mandate. Star Trek, which really seems more rooted in Forbidden Planet than merely its use of Commander John J Adam and crew’s mission to other planets, is much more about facing “the Monster from the Id”, and that whole Freudian idea that man can never truly live as himself in a well-ordered society, but must suppress his wilder, weirder, more alien, impulses. Doctor Who (which, if it has a single story-seed, would of course be The Time Machine, with the Thals and Daleks as its Eloi and Morlocks), though it has of course battled with its own “Monsters from the Id” (in “Planet of Evil”, it’s own Forbidden Planet rip-off), is less Freudian and perhaps more Jungian, with the Doctor’s impulse to explore the universe more along the lines of the sort of quest for individuation Jung saw as the prime psychological motive for us doing what we do.

But enough amateur psychology, I’m off to enjoy another episode.

Live long and prosper!

(Oh, and talking of Forbidden Planet, I’m really looking forward to this coming out.)