A Wizard of Earthsea: Let’s Get This Reading Party Started

A Wizard of Earthsea oval

Last week, I posted about how I was planning to do a read-through of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle. I wasn’t quite ready to start at that point, but now I am. Moreover, I’d like others to join me. Whether you’re an Earthsea newbie or an Earthsea devotee, grab a copy of The Wizard of Earthsea, put aside a bit of time every day, and let’s do this thing.

I’ve decided the rules of the read-through will be as follows:

  1. Starting tomorrow—Sunday, February 4th—I’m going to read a chapter a day, no matter what. If I have to get up at 5:30 a.m. or go to bed at 2:00 a.m. or do anything else with an a.m. in it, I will. A Wizard of Earthsea has ten chapters, so the read-through will start on the 4th and end on the 13th, whereupon I’ll probably take a day or two to regroup and write a reaction post about the book. Then I’ll announce the day on which the next read-through will begin.
  2. I do have other things to do—like mark all the papers in the world—so I’m not going to pull a Mark Reads and do a full reaction post per chapter. However, if I do have thoughts, and I suspect I will, I’ll reveal them more informally in the comments section of this post. I also encourage other people to post their thoughts, though remember that we’re doing a chapter a day. Please don’t post about Chapter 7 on Day 4. Spoilers make everyone sad.
  3. If you think you may want to participate in the read-through (if you don’t have a copy right now or are too busy to start reading this week, that’s fine; you can catch up later), leave a comment on this post and tell us who you are (you can completely fabricate this information if you like). If you aren’t planning to reread the books because you’ve memorised them all but want to live vicariously through the rest of us, please also post and let us know.
  4. If no one wants to participate, that’s all right. I’ll happily leave myself comments. Like the protagonist of my webcomic, It Never Rains, I am skilled at having conversations with myself.

That’s about it, though there’s one caveat: I have read A Wizard of Earthsea before (though not its sequels). I remember almost nothing about it beyond the name of its protagonist.

Good luck, everyone. I’ll see you on the other side.

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11 thoughts on “A Wizard of Earthsea: Let’s Get This Reading Party Started

  1. Chapter 1: Warriors in the Mist:

    I don’t remember exactly when I first read this book, but it was at least twenty years ago, and possibly more like twenty-five. At the time, I found it dragging and hard to get through, plus way too serious. I have no idea how I’m going to feel about the rest of the book, but this time around, I enjoyed the first chapter a lot. Le Guin’s poetic writing style probably isn’t for everyone, but it works well to set up the hero’s-journey feel of the story. Duny/Ged is actually a rather distant figure in this chapter, which is maybe why I didn’t connect with him last time, but the distance works to set him up as the legend Le Guin declares him to be on the first page.

    The scene in which Duny uses magic he barely understands to repel the invading Kargs is especially effective. We don’t follow Duny at all during this scene; we instead see it from the perspective of the Kargs, who are bewildered and afraid and not even slightly understanding what’s happening. We see Duny’s first great act of magic from the outside, and we consequently see him becoming a story.

    I do want to find out what happens next, but I’m going to stick to the chapter-a-day limit because I also have ten thousand other things to do today. Tomorrow, I’ll tackle Chapter 2: The Shadow.

  2. Chapter 2: The Shadow:

    We get a little closer to Ged in this chapter, but only a little. Le Guin is writing in a style that is less common now, telling the story mostly from outside her protagonist. We see into his head only occasionally. Le Guin pays only slight attention to building characterisation. Instead, she focuses on atmosphere, and oddly, this fills in the characterisation gaps. We get to know Ged and his surroundings together, and the surroundings somehow become part of who Ged is.

    It’s also nice to see Ged making mistakes and wrong decisions. He’s not particularly likeable at tis point, and this chapter could easily be called “Ged Is Impatient and Arrogant and Needs to Stop Sulking and Listen to Ogion.” We don’t see much of Ogion, who is Ged’s master for only a short time, but Ogion is clearly the best. He even injects a bit of mild humour into the chapter. I am wholly on his side. Shut up, Ged. Learn stuff about fourfoil.

    I am getting the sense that women are going to be mostly an antagonistic force in this world. So far, we’ve met Ged’s aunt (not a great witch, not a great person, introduces us to the idea that women’s magic is “weak” and “wicked”) and the daughter of the Lord of Re Albi (daughter of a foreign enchantress, obviously up to something, mother is probably also up to something, prompts Ged to read a nasty spell that is going to come back and bite him eventually). As far as I can remember from the last time I read the book, this doesn’t change. Ah well. Maybe it will in the sequels.

    Next up: we are off to Wizard School, twenty-nine years before the Boy Who Lived, in Chapter 3: The School for Wizards.

  3. Chapter 3: The School for Wizards:

    It’s hard, reading this book now, NOT to compare it to the Harry Potter novels, though it precedes them by decades. J. K. Rowling was either influenced in some way by this novel or was drawing on similar literary patterns. Both Le Guin and Rowling are using the frame of the school story and sprinkling magic on top. The most noticeable similarity is not in the magic but in the rivalry between Ged and Jasper / Harry and Draco. In both cases, we get mutual jealousy mixed with class warfare.

    Ged is at his most unlikeable here, and he’s pretty clearly on the verge of making a colossal mistake born of pride. Calm down, Ged. It takes time to learn stuff. Le Guin does a good job of painting this frustratingly arrogant boy. We get to see more of what’s going on inside him in this chapter, though there’s still a certain distance between us and him.

    Women continue to be sparkly, dangerous, childlike creatures who cause problems among men. Silly, silly women.

    Next up is Chapter 4: The Loosing of the Shadow, so brace yourself for Ged screwing up profoundly. This will not be pretty.

  4. Chapter 4: The Loosing of the Shadow:

    I wrote out this entire comment, and WordPress randomly decided it “could not be posted” and erased it forever. Thanks, WordPress. Let’s see if I can reconstruct it. Basically, I said:

    This chapter is the longest yet, but it has to be; it gets through several years’ worth of action. It’s also the “Ged grows the hell up” chapter. Ged’s beat-down has been coming on for a while, and it’s nice to see it arrive in the middle of this chapter via a spectacular mistake that ends with the Archmage dead, Ged scarred for life, and a nameless shadow loosed into the world. Le Guin gives us a balanced chapter, with Ged’s pride and arrogance coming to a head in the middle and giving way to fear and uncertainty in the second half. The bungled spell almost seems necessary to check Ged, teaching him that magic has consequences.

    By the end of the chapter, I no longer wanted to punch Ged in the face, which was nice. That may change later, but for now, he’s learned a bit of humility, and though he’s finally a wizard, he seems less likely to go all “Unliiiiiimmmmmmiiiiiiteeeeed poooooooowwwwweeeeeeeerrrrrrrr” and try to blow up the world to prove he’s better than Jasper.

    In Chapter 5: The Dragon of Pendor, Ged is off to do wizardly things. We’ll see how that goes.

  5. Chapter 5: The Dragon of Pendor:

    I have to admit that I like Humble Ged much more than Arrogant Ged, which probably isn’t surprising. The Ged who takes up his post as the wizard of Low Torning has developed a bit of common sense, and it’s interesting to see how the memory of trauma makes him cautious. If the Ged of early Chapter 4 had gone after those dragons, he would have done so in an insufferable way, sure his greatness would defeat them, and probably got himself killed horribly in the process. The new Ged’s approach is much wiser and more measured. He kills as many of the young dragons as he can, but instead of throwing himself into a futile battle against the old dragon, he contains it by using his brain, not his staff. He also makes the unselfish choice; the dragon offers him a potential solution to his own problem with the shadow hunting him, but he chooses instead to guarantee the safety of the villagers. In the course of two chapters, Ged has grown up.

    Now that Ged has demonstrated he’s ready to be an adult wizard, even if he sometimes gets a bit too enthusiastic about trying to save dying children, it’s time for Chapter 6: Hunted, which I’m suspecting is going to have a shadow in it.

  6. Chapter 6: Hunted:

    Up to this point, we’ve been swimming through familiar fantasy-genre waters, but in Chapter 6, Le Guin veers into horror. Ged’s flight from the shadow gets creepier as he moves towards Osskil. The sense of desperation as Ged is forced away from all points of safety drives the narrative, and the way the shadow surfaces from time to time—culminating in its possession of Skiorh and its use of Ged’s name—would not be out of place in a Stephen King novel. It’s interesting to note that we’re still mostly seeing all this from outside Ged; Le Guin is definitely telling the story from his perspective, but it still feels as if we’re being kept at a certain distance from the protagonist. I think this bothered me the last time I read the book. This time, I can recognise it as a way of framing the story as a legend. Taking us too much closer to Ged would make him a bit too human for this type of hero story. We’ve seen enough of his humanity (mainly via his flaws) already.

    We have now entered a mysterious…something…and will learn more about it in Chapter 7: The Hawk’s Flight.

  7. Chapter 7: The Hawk’s Flight:

    Well, that confirms it: in this book, there is no such thing as a trustworthy female character. This is one of the few elements of the book I remember from the last time I read it. From what I can recall, it bothered me a lot. Because Le Guin is Le Guin, I’m happy to wait and see if this changes in the other books, but in this one, it does get to be a bit much. In this chapter, we meet again the daughter of the Lord of Re Albi, now called Serret, and she continues to be the worst. She also dies horribly, which I guess is her punishment for being generally terrible. Granted, her husband is terrible too, but we barely see him; Serret is the character who gives Ged an “All this can be yours” speech a little too reminiscent of Satan tempting Jesus in the desert. It’s notable that Ged starts the chapter seeking the help of Serret (awful idea) and ends it seeking the help of Ogion (brilliant idea). As with Chapter 4, Chapter 7 is split between good and evil, with the cold, ominous court of the Lord of the Terrenon contrasting sharply with Ogion’s welcoming house. Both Serret and Ogion advise Ged to fight the shadow instead of fleeing from it, but Serret first wants him under the power of the dark force that also controls her and her husband, while Ogion recognises that only by becoming the hunter of what hunts him does Ged have a chance to survive. Serret represents temptation even more than the dragon did; the dragon was simply offering fair exchange, while Serret’s way out is a many-faceted trap.

    I’m still really enjoying this book, but I do have to pause and acknowledge that the “women are evil” stuff still bothers me. When you’re a kid reading one of the most revered works of fantasy ever written, by a woman known for her feminism, and every female character is either selfish, untrustworthy, childish, or downright diabolical, you may not come away from it wanting to read more. This time, I’m going to push on, but I don’t blame Past Kari for stopping after the first book.

    Next up, Ged turns the tables on the shadow in Chapter 8: Hunting.

  8. Chapter 8: Hunting:

    This chapter is all Ged in a boat chasing the shadow all over Earthsea. It parallels Chapter 6: Hunted, and it retains the atmosphere of horror, but as Ged is now the hunter and not the hunted, everything feels slightly less hopeless. This bit of the story, which takes place in the depth of winter, reminds me strongly of Old English poems such as “The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer”; it has that same aura of loneliness and cold, not to mention the idea of the man driven onward by fate. As the chapter progresses, the shadow gradually comes to feel more like a person, a frightening companion that is roughly Ged’s equal in power. It’s again, as with the chapter about the dragon, interesting to think how Ged would have handled this before his accident; he would have been too impatient to hunt the shadow, and he would have lost himself to anger and pride. In order to become capable of hunting and eventually defeating the shadow, Ged has to have made the mistake of summoning it in the first place.

    In Chapter 9: Iffish, we are nearing the end of the story. I don’t know what “Iffish” means (though the map at the beginning of the book tells me it’s an island in the East Reach, not too far from the Hands, where Ged is now) and can’t remember what happens at the end of the novel, so this should be exciting.

  9. Chapter 9: Iffish:

    Vetch is back! I missed him. We also get a brief throwaway line about Jasper, likely simply to tie up that loose end. Ged has ended up on Iffish, which just happens to be Vetch’s home island, so our hero has now picked up a sidekick for his final confrontation with the shadow. The shadow itself has been gradually coming to look more and more like Ged. The battle is clearly going to be all about the symbolism. Ged will have to overcome his own darker nature, which he’s been struggling with his whole life.

    Another female character pops up here. Vetch’s way of introducing his sister as “prettier than I am as you see, but much less clever” makes me like him rather less. Was that really necessary, Vetch? Couldn’t you just have said, “This is my sister, Yarrow”? Oddly enough, poor Yarrow thinks of herself as not very bright, though the questions she asks Ged demonstrate that she’s a lot smarter than she thinks she is and has a thirst to understand how the world works. Ah well. I’m never going to be satisfied with how the female characters in this book are treated.

    This chapter is all dotted over with foreboding and foreshadowing and information about light and darkness and power. Could Le Guin be preparing us for Chapter 10: The Open Sea? Only time will tell.

  10. Chapter 10: The Open Sea:

    In the final chapter of the novel, Ged and Vetch sail off into the open sea and have a vaguely confusing confrontation with the shadow. Le Guin chooses to give us the confrontation mainly from Vetch’s point of view, and therefore, we don’t really see what happens, beyond the important bit in which Ged calls the shadow by his own name. This chapter has, again, a feel of “The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer.” The odd setting (are they on sea? On land? Both simultaneously?) works to take us into a metaphorical space in which Ged can, literally and figuratively, come to terms with himself.

    One stray thought: what the hell, Vetch? Why would you tell Ged your sister’s true name? I thought you were cool, Vetch.

    Author’s Note:

    It’s interesting to hear Le Guin’s thoughts on her novel forty-odd years after its publication. 1967 was a very different time, publishing-wise: the fantasy genre was much sparser, there was no conception of YA as a marketing category, and wizards, as Le Guin points out, were Merlin and Gandalf, period. A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA reads to us now as a fairly standard coming-of-age story set in a fantasy world, albeit a beautifully written one, but in the late 1960s, it was something new. Le Guin also acknowledges two aspects of the book that stand out today: the treatment of women (she describes the novel as “perfectly conventional” in the way it’s set in a man’s world and involves a boy’s journey to manhood) and the treatment of race (Le Guin’s brown-skinned characters were basically unheard of at the time, and people weren’t ready for them, but she wrote the dark skin into the book matter-of-factly enough that it went largely unremarked, even–to her chagrin–by most of the cover artists).

    Brief Final Thoughts:

    I’ll be writing a full blog entry on this book (with luck, I’ll get it up tomorrow, though we’ll see), but briefly:

    1) Yes, I liked the book much better than I did last time.
    2) Yes, it is absolutely a work of art.
    3) Yes, I still have some problems with it, but I suspect Le Guin eventually did too.

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