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.’


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.


The Adventures of Alyx by Joanna Russ

Russ's The Adventures of Alyx, cover by Judith Clute

Russ’s The Adventures of Alyx, cover by Judith Clute

I bought Joanna Russ’s The Adventures of Alyx a while ago because I read somewhere of it having affiliations with Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd & Gray Mouser stories. For a long while it sat on my ever-lengthening to-read shelf, because whenever I picked it up for a shall-I-read-it skim, it seemed more SF than sword & sorcery. So I did some Wikipedia research — it turns out Alyx the Pick-lock is referred to in “The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar” and “Under the Thumbs of the Gods” — then started reading.

The first Alyx tale, “Bluestocking”, has several Leiberish resonances: a Lankhmar-like city called Ourdh, whose name recalls Leiber’s Ourph the Mingol (later stories make it clear the setting is Earth at the time of ancient Greece); most of the story has its two main characters adrift on the ocean in a small boat, reminiscent of Leiber’s “Their Mistress, the Sea” (though that story was first published in 1968; “Bluestocking” appeared in 1967); and at one point Alyx mentions having known a “big Northman with… a big red beard — God, what a beard! — Fafnir — no, Fafh — well, something ridiculous.” “Bluestocking” begins with pickpocket Alyx being hired by a slightly spoiled rich girl, Edarra, to help her flee an impending marriage. During their time together, Edarra loses her more refined, delicate edges, and Alyx gets to kill a sea-serpent and a trio of pirates. In the following story, “I Thought She Was Afeared Until She Stroked My Beard”, jumping back in the character’s timeline, Alyx leaves her abusive husband and pairs herself with a far less chauvinistic pirate — though she still has to teach him a lesson or two in true equality, when she matches his body-count in a bloody fight.

Joanna RussAs in so many sword & sorcery tales, what these initial stories are about is defining a hero. And here, unlike the usual S&S strategy of defining a hero by what he or she fights, Alyx is more often portrayed in contrast to a companion — the spoilt Edarra in “Bluestocking”, the well-meaning but still slightly prejudiced Blackbeard in “I Through She Was Afeared…” In these first two stories, I felt that was pretty much all that was happening — they were far more about defining Alyx as a character than telling a story with her, though this defining is nevertheless an important step when a writer is trying to do something new. As Russ says in her biographical note at the start of the Women’s Press collected edition: “I had turned from writing love stories about women in which women were losers, and adventure stories about men in which the men were winners, to writing adventure stories about a woman in which the woman won. It was one of the hardest things I ever did in my life.” (This was the late 1960s. As Aldiss & Wingrove say in Trillion Year Spree: “Russ’s Alyx stories were something quite new to the genre. Alyx is a female rebel. A thief and adventuress. A highly competent and aggressive woman. She was a revolutionary fictional character, challenging the competent male/wilting female syndrome that had dominated the magazine genre for forty years.”)

The first tale that really worked for me is the third, and the most sword and sorcery-like of the lot, “The Barbarian”. Here, Alyx is hired (as so many S&S heroes have been down the ages) by a sorcerer in need of a bit of thievish skill and swordly brawn. This story has some of the best writing in the series, for instance when Alyx leads her sorcerous employer through the benighted rooms of a building they’ve broken into:

“Her fingers brushed lightly alongside her, like a creeping animal: stone, stone, a gap, warm air rising… In the dark she felt wolfish, her lips skinned back over her teeth; like another species she made her way with hands and ears. Through them the villa sighed and rustled in its sleep. She put the tips of the fingers of her free hand on the back of the fat man’s neck, guiding with the faintest of touches through the turns of the corridor…”

The ending shades into science fiction, but in the well-established manner of the Unknown school — with a primitive protagonist encountering advanced technology and defeating it through uneducated but nevertheless scientific thinking. I’m not really sure if that’s cheating or not, but it works, as a story, and the goodie wins, which is the main point…

Picnic on ParadiseThe next tale, “Picnic on Paradise” marks a break in two ways: it’s much longer than the previous stories (it was initially published as a separate novel, in 1968); and in it, Alyx has been whisked into the future by the Trans-Temporal Military Authority to guide some tourists across hazardous alien terrain to the safety of a base where they can be taken off-world. Things go wrong, of course, but not before Alyx’s relationships with the leisure-softened, over-psychoanalysed tourists doped up on “stimulants and euphorics” have been stretched past their plastic limit. This short novel is, really, an expansion of that initial story where Alyx was stuck in a wilderness (the ocean) with a pampered rich girl, whom she brought into more vibrant contact with the feeling of being alive. It’s a sort of science-fictional version of Crocodile Dundee (not at all meant as an insult — Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala would be a similar comparison). Like the best sword & sorcery, the Crocodile Dundee type of story is about getting back in touch with far more real, far more meaningful and basic values through a bit of down-and-dirty, barbaric common sense. But here, the picture isn’t as clear cut as in Crocodile Dundee, as, ultimately, Alyx gets as affected by her contact with these over-civilised future civilians as they do by her. But we do get, at last, her heroic credo:

“…nobody ever let me do anything in my life before and I never let that stop me.”

Alyx doesn’t appear in the final story in the collection, “The Second Inquisition”, which seems to have been included here only because it mentions the Trans-Temporal Military Authority, unless I’m missing something. Set in 1920s Earth, where the narrator’s family are, for some reason, putting up a visitor from the future, it reads very much like Gene Wolfe at his most oblique — peppered with a stream of apparently inconsequential little details which made me feel that, if I only I knew which detail was significant and why, the whole thing would become clear, but as I know neither which nor why, I wasn’t entirely sure it was worth the effort to read it again to find out.

The_Adventures_of_AlyxI found my level, Alyx-wise, with “The Barbarian”. It’s the most sword & sorcery-like tale, though made all the more refreshing by its emancipated protagonist. Alyx constantly gibes and annoys her employer, never taking him as seriously as he thinks he ought to be taken, questioning his orders and being disobedient, then puncturing his technological/magical superiority with a bit of very non-technological/non-magical violence. Like all sword & sorcery heroes should.

Alyx, as a character, was a sort of experiment on Russ’s part, and once she’d proved herself in the old-style arena of sword and sorcery, there was nothing for it but to move onto far more of-the-times science fiction in “Picnic on Paradise” — only for her to be left out of the picture altogether by the time of “The Second Inquisition”. I’d have loved to have read more stories in the style, and the world, of “The Barbarian”, but I think that, in writing it, Russ had made her point and it was time to move on.