The Year of Our War – Chronotopic Disruption

Steph Swainston’s debut novel The Year of Our War was published in 2004 and introduces readers to the Fourlands, a world inhabited by three races of humanoids: the Awaians, a winged race; the Rhydannes, a small cat-like race from the mountains, and the regular old humans. A fourth race, the Insects, has taken over the northern portion of the continent and continues to push south, destroying towns and turning them into Paperlands. The novel follows Jant Shira, a Rhydanne-Awaian hybrid whose light body and wings allow him to fly. Jant is a member of the Circle, a group of immortals ruled by Emperor San and charged with protecting the Fourlands. These immortals do not age or die from natural causes, though they can be killed in battle, extreme weather, etc. Jant is the Messenger of the Emperor, called “Comet,” and is addicted to a drug that allows him to access another world called the Shift. Jant finds himself embroiled in the internal intrigue of the Circle while the Insects sweep across the continent and the Emperor threatens to revoke his immortality if Jant can’t provide some answers.

Jant is one of the most interesting first-person narrators I’ve encountered in some time. I spent a lot of time feeling that he was really pathetic: his addiction makes him a weak link in the Circle, his desire to please leads to indecisiveness, and it’s hard to take him seriously when he tries to give orders. At the same time, he’s found himself surrounded by people who discount him due to his age (he was only inducted into the Circle around 200 years previously) or his weird tales of the Shift (which no one but an immortal can access without dying). He often finds his multiple loyalties conflicting as his personal life intersects with his official duties as Messenger. Despite his ability to fly and his status as one of the immortals, Jant has very little control over his own life, and his attempts to direct affairs are always usurped by the louder or the more insistent. This was perhaps one of the reasons I liked Jant as much as I did; he was frequently quite smart, but just as frequently not heard.

My favorite part of this novel is the way it plays with chronotopic disruption. The notion of the chronotope comes from the work of Mikhail Bakhtin and is further theorized Michael Holquist. (Honestly, most of what I know about chronotopes is from talking to my boyfriend who knows a lot.) The idea of the chronotope is a narrative time and place that we expect together. For example, for a Wild West story, you expect a particular a particular place — the American West — and a particular time — the 1800s. With that particular time/place we expect certain things: six-shooters, saloons, horses, prostitutes with hearts of gold, train barons, etc. Likewise, we expect certain things out of cyberpunk stories: a futuristic, urban setting where the lines between biology and technology blur and an evil corporation is usually behind everything. Narratives can also combine chronotopes, so we get things like Joss Whedon’s Firefly, which combines space opera and Wild West chronotopes, without necessarily disrupting our expectations and, in fact, calling our attention to the similarities between the two. Swainston disrupts the fantasy chronotopes in The Year of Our War  in less pervasive ways; in most ways, The Year of Our War seems like a fairly straightforward  fantasy world: archers, troops on horseback, ladies and lords ruling over fiefdoms and swearing fealty to a king (or not), a magical world beyond the world, and so on and so forth. At the same time, we encounter very non-straightforward things: t-shirts, newspapers, marathons, drug addiction, and the like. The affect of this is that the reader ends up noticing when characters adhere to the fantasy chronotope and when they don’t; we pay much more attention to the details of the chronotope itself.

I’m beginning to think this chronotopic disruption is a key feature of the New Weird. When I think back to the difficulties I had with both reading and discussing K. J. Bishop’s The Etched City, I think that a large part of it was that the novel didn’t fit into any chronotope, at least not for long. What starts out as a Wild West story doesn’t stay that way very long. China Miéville’s work plays with chronotopic disruption as well; for instance, The Scar seems like it will be an escape-from-a-harrowing-adventure story, but, while Bellis Coldwine does escape, it is in no way through her own skill or cleverness. I’m really excited about Swainston’s second novel, No Present Like Time; I want to see how she continues to develop the Fourlands and the chronotopic disruptions.

 

The Etched City – Magic and Metamorphosis

K. J. Bishop’s first novel, The Etched City, appeared in 2003 and is her only novel to date. I had read a couple of her short stories, most notably “The Art of Dying” from the Vandermeer’s The New Weird anthology, so I was somewhat prepared for Bishop’s world of gunslingers and duelists, artists and prostitutes. At the same time, The Etched City is a novel that I can’t get out of my head and that I have trouble explaining to others when I try.

The Plot: After years of fighting a military dictator, former compatriots Raule and Gwynn leave the desert for the exotic city of Ashamoil. There Raule is shunned from the school of doctors despite her extensive knowledge of field medicine and instead takes a post in a religious hospital in one of the poorest districts of the city. Gwynn takes work as a hired gun for a slave trader, to Raule’s disgust. As Raule and Gwynn see each other more and more rarely, Gwynn begins an affair with a young artist named Beth, and at this point, the novel starts getting weird; Gwynn’s work situation becomes increasingly unstable as his girlfriend’s mental state appears to be deteriorating as well (at one point he goes to her house to find her with a bunch of strangers sewing together different parts of dead animals to create chimeric creatures). Beth eventually leaves the city, and shortly thereafter, Gwynn and Raule both decide to do the same, though separately.

In many ways, this novel felt less like a narrative and more like a series of very striking moments; Bishop’s language was frequently visceral and vivid, but I had trouble seeing how things really fit together over time. I was even a little disappointed that we spent so little time with Raule when I found her much more interesting that Gwynn; once the two reach the city of Ashamoil, we become deeply embroiled in the goings-on of Gwynn and his employer, with occasional glimpses at what Raule is doing. One thing that I did really like, though, is the way that magic is introduced in the novel. I really like when magic isn’t normally part of a world and the characters have to come to terms with extraordinary events just as readers do. Add in the fact that several characters are also alcoholics and drug users, and it makes it hard to tell when something extraordinary is actually happening and when it’s only happening in the mind of a character. As such, the first few magical events are easily passed off as misperception or hallucination, but it slowly becomes clear that not all things are as they seem.

This unfolding of the magical world corresponds with one of the dominant themes of the novel, that of metamorphosis. A wide number of items and events in the novel are related to this theme: eggs, cocoons, fetuses, lobotomies, flowers, etc. Contrasted with this are moments of stasis, such as the poor of the city who have little to no mobility or the “primitive” people that Gwynn’s employer holds in a never-ending civil war for the sake of his slave trade. The Rev seems to be a nexus for these themes in that he finds himself able to produce many kinds of small magic, but ultimately he is stuck with his own guilt and self-doubt and romantic fantasies about young, nubile women.

Since I read The Etched City for my SLA exam, I ended up thinking a lot about how the constructed contrast between urban and rural areas works in New Weird fiction. Much of the criticism on China Miéville’s work concerns his construction of social spaces within urban environments, and after reading The Etched City, I’m increasingly interested in how urban and rural locations are related to issues of agency in these works.

 

The Mists of Avalon – Pluralism and Feminism

I’ve been spending my summer reading time working on books for my SLA (Specialized Literature Area) Exam, which is focusing on the New Weird (hence all the China Miéville reviews recently). However, I was starting to get frustrated and overwhelmed with the project and allowed myself a “real” summer reading book, something that wasn’t geared toward any project or exam I’m currently working on. I’m not sure how I picked Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, but I got my boyfriend to bring it home from the library and read the first half of the book in about two days. The second half took the rest of the week, but I can now turn back to my exam reading feeling somewhat refreshed and ready to look at the New Weird with new eyes.

I’m not going to try to summarize the plot; suffice it to say that The Mists of Avalon is a retelling of the King Arthur legends from the point of view of the various women involved, mostly Arthur’s half-sister Morgaine and his wife Gwenhwyfar. It is a work of epic proportions: 900 pages, spanning 60+ years. What the story is really about, though, is the rise of Christianity against the worship of the Goddess at Avalon. As Britain becomes a “Christian land” with a “Christian king,” the worship of the Goddess is practiced less and the isle of Avalon fades farther and farther into the mist. Much of this is represented as a power struggle between Morgaine, a priestess of Avalon, and Gwenhwyfar, the Christian queen reared by nuns and ruled by her fear of sin and guilt over her love of Lancelet. These two women hold a great deal of sway over Arthur, Morgaine as the mother of his only child and Gwenhwyfar as his lawfully wedded wife. Morgaine, however, refuses to fully exploit her power, hiding away her son, Gwydion, from Arthur until he is grown.

What I found most interesting as I was reading this book was the way my loyalties changed throughout. The characters in this novel are well-constructed; I both hated and sympathized with almost every one of them throughout the course of the narrative, which I always take as the sign of good characters (this is one of the main reasons I love Battlestar Galactica). I often perceived the women of Avalon as shrewish as they insisted Arthur maintain the status of Goddess worship alongside Christianity, like they were not acknowledging the complicated materialities of Arthur’s position, how he must manage so many people in order to keep peace. I tended to side with the Merlins, Taliesin and Kevin, who argued for plurality: that all Gods are one God no matter what name he is called by, and that the time of Avalon had passed, so the best thing to do was to infuse Christianity with as much of druidism and Goddess worship as possible. Thus, Kevin steals the Holy Regalia of the Goddess in order for it to be in the world, incorporated into Christian worship. What brought me back to the side of Avalon, over and over again, was the reminder that women were getting really and truly hosed under the brand of Christianity that was coming from Camelot (there were other groups of Christians that were finding themselves persecuted for accepting the pluralistic view that Taliesin preached; Kevin is something of a different story, I think). I think that the scene between Gwydion and Niniane toward the end of the novel is very telling, as Gwydion, who does not ascribe to Christianity seeks to police Gwenhwyfar’s sexual liasons in the same way the Christian priests would, but Niniane refuses to participate and Gwydion kills her. The new system of gender hierarchy is not strictly a Christian one, but it is pervasive and unstoppable.

Which leads to my complaints about the end of the novel. Morgaine’s discovery of the Goddess in the small chapel dedicated to Mary and the simple joy that nuns of Glastonbury experience in their lives represents for her that the Goddess lives on in the world in a new form, that her work was not in vain, and that she should have listened to Kevin all along. At the same time, I’m infuriated that Morgaine is okay with the sexual rights of women virtually disappearing, and I’m dissatisfied that the novel’s ending suggests that all has worked out for the best. A pluralist society is not really pluralist when not everyone accepts and acknowledges the pluralism, which is exactly what Morgaine and the women of Avalon argue for when they ask Arthur to protect Goddess worship in his kingdom.

All in all, The Mists of Avalon was a very fun immersion; I had forgotten what it’s like to lose myself in an epic fantasy. I think, though, that the novel’s feminism is beginning to feel a bit dated, and I’m now interested in reading some more recent feminist fantasy masterpieces.

P.S. I tried to watch the TNT movie adaptation, but only got through about 5 minutes. It was unbearably cheesy and I hated how everyone was automatically older than they were in the book.

Graceling – Evil Rhetors and Female Survivors

Kristin Cashore’s debut novel Graceling was published in 2008, about two and a half weeks after Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games. I make a point of saying this if only to remind myself that there is very, very little possibility that the novels are actually in conversation with each other, and instead they are perhaps reflecting larger cultural shifts. I read Graceling as part of the Worlds Without End Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge (henceforth the WoGF) since Cashore had been on my radar for a while, but I hadn’t actually read any of her work. I pretty much inhaled the novel; I read about half of it last night while I should have been reading for class, but no regrets.

The Plot: Katsa is the orphaned niece of King Randa and his number one thug. Possessing superhuman abilities, called her Grace, Katsa can kill pretty much anyone or anything with ease; unfortunately, she discovers her power by inadvertently killing an adult cousin when she was six years old because she did not want the man to touch her. Disgusted by her role as Randa’s enforcer throughout the seven kingdoms, Katsa organizes the Council, a group of individuals from lords down to servants who seek to protect citizens in all kingdoms from the power-hunger of their kings. Through her work for the Council, Katsa meets Po, a Graced fighting prince from the peaceful island of Lienid who searches for his kidnapped grandfather. After refusing to do Randa’s dirty work any longer, Katsa removes herself from the court and travels with Po as he seeks more information about his grandfather’s disappearance. What they discover is the underhanded work of the supposedly kind and beneficent King Leck of Monsea, who is himself Graced with the ability to fog people’s mind with his words and make them remember events as he chooses. Po and Katsa’s goal becomes saving Leck’s daughter Bitterblue from her sick, twisted, perverted, evil father.

So, a few quick notes on things that I could harp on and on about — but won’t — and then onto the things that I thought were really interesting.

  • Once again, the character who could be characterized as the Rhetor, using language to shape people’s perceptions of reality, is the villain. But not just any villain; Leck is really sick and despicable. I couldn’t help but think of Baron Harkonnen. Ugh. This, of course, makes me sad because seeing rhetoric get such a bad rap always makes me sad. I mean, Katsa uses rhetoric too, most notably in the scene when she tenders her resignation to her uncle; it is not her actual actions that persuade him; instead, her words about what her actions might be cause him to see the situation in a very different way. Rhetoric.
  • I commented on the connections I saw between Graceling and The Hunger Games earlier, the primary one being that they both feature female protagonists who are buffeted about by various physical and political forces, but who survive through being extremely good at survival skills. Now, I’m all for girls doing traditionally “boy” things, but I’m worried about what these narratives say to and about girls who like to do or are really good at doing “girl” things. Can’t cooking or sewing or organizing a community event save somebody sometime?
  • I’m going to talk more about Katsa and Po’s relationship next, but I really hated how once Katsa found the right man, all of a sudden she’s breaking into tears whenever and wherever, as long as it’s on his shoulder.

So much for that. What I thought was best and really interesting about this book was the way it constructs sex. Throughout the novel, Katsa continually claims that she never wishes to marry and she never wishes to have children. One suitor, upon hearing this, claims that of course she’ll want children eventually because all women do. I really sympathized with Katsa on this point, seeing as I’ve heard the same line a few times myself. Moreover, Katsa’s desire to not marry is culturally situated; as soon as she marries, she will have wifely obligations, and she doesn’t want to have to serve anyone but herself, and given her long tenure under Randa, the reader can understand her want of independence. (Interestingly, Katniss of The Hunger Games also claims to never want children for equally political reasons: she does not want to produce fodder for the Capitol’s games. However, SPOILER ALERT she does relinquish because of Peeta’s own desire for children, and I’m interested to see how Cashore deals with this same issue in subsequent books, given that she’s taken a much more feminist stand concerning inherent motherliness in women in Katsa’s choice than Katniss perhaps made in hers.)

So what happens is this: Po and Katsa fall in love (of course). Katsa kind of hates it because it means that she wakes up in the night afraid he won’t be there instead of being completely sufficient within herself. She wrestles with it and tells Po that it’s all futile because she will never marry and they should really just part ways so they don’t have to deal with their feelings all the time. Po tells her that they can be more than friends but less than married, and oddly enough, Katsa had never considered just taking a lover (I’m guessing because of societal constructs that discouraged women from knowing about such things so they wouldn’t do it). However, instead of being swept away in a fit of passion, Katsa dwells on it a few days, making sure of her own choice, and then, after guaranteeing that they have a form of birth control, she chooses to have sex with Po. And I loved it: the thorough forethought, the arrival at a decision, the conscious responsibility — it’s a model that I wish we saw more of.

The other thing that really struck me as I was reading was the theme of female survivorship. Katsa is extremely good at surviving, and she frequently takes it upon herself to protect other girls, especially from male predators. That her Grace manifests itself when she feels threatened by the untoward advances of her cousin is notable considering what she and Po save Bitterblue from, and Katsa is frequently appalled by the fact that women need to be most able to protect themselves but are taught nothing about fighting or surviving by those who claim to be protecting them. Her choice at the end to hold fighting schools for girls throughout the seven kingdoms suggests that this will be a theme explore in the sequels. At the same time, the novel has little to say about the trauma of abuse (Bitterblue copes quite well in her stoicism) or about structural changes that might bring about greater safety for women.

The Farthest Shore – Platonists and Sophists…again

As I have plugged away through the Earthsea novels, I have honestly become increasingly disenchanted. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why reading these novels felt like such a chore, like I was making myself work through them so I could get onto other, more interesting books. I spent a lot of time discussing my feelings about the novels with my intellectual partner Ben, who long ago got used to me talking my way around some issue before coming to some kind of conclusion, usually preceded by the phrase “I know what it is!” I couldn’t tell if it was just my perceptions of the issues with gender in the novels that were making me so grumpy about them or if I disliked them for other reasons. It wasn’t until I read blurb on the front of on of the paperbacks — “The Classic High Fantasy Series” — that I realized what was going on: I don’t like high fantasy. I never really have. I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings when I was younger and enjoyed them to a certain extent, but I only got halfway through the Silmarillion before deciding I couldn’t take it anymore. I just get impatient, and more so as I’ve gotten older. I say this now in order that readers may take my comments on the Earthsea novels with an appropriate grain of salt.

The Farthest Shore seems to mark the end of the first series of Earthsea books while Tehanu marks the beginning of a new era, at least in terms of Le Guin’s thinking about the novels. As such, it wraps up the story of Ged rather nicely with him embarking on a final quest in which he uses all of his magical power to save Earthsea from an evil sorcerer before secluding himself to a quiet retirement (though he returns in Tehanu). On this final quest, he takes young prince Arren, the boy destined to take the throne as the first king Earthsea has had in many, many years. I was upset by this book almost from the get-go: when Ged, now the Archmage of Roke, tells his fellow mages that he intends to take Arren with him on his quest, the mages ask why he takes a companion, since he went on his previous quests alone, and why his companion is this boy with no magical power instead of another mage. Rather than correcting the mages and reminding him that he always had help on his quests, Ogion on his trip to the ends of the sea and Tenar on his visit to Atuan, Ged just agrees that he did usually go on his quests alone. From that point on, I was just really annoyed with Ged, which was easy considering that Arren is the primary point of view for this novel and he often gets rather annoyed with Ged too, but when he’s not annoyed he’s preoccupied with hero worship. But, of course, Ged is a mage, is the mage, so who are we to question his methods?

What I did find really interesting about The Farthest Shore is the way it deals with the relationship between word and meaning, signifier and signified. In fact, the problem that is presented at the beginning of the book is that words, magic words, are losing their meanings. Arren’s father, a small-time wizard in his own right, says the spells for the Festival of the Lambs, but then tells his son, “I said the words, but I do not know if they had any meaning” (5). And, indeed, the lambs were being born deformed, indicating that the words had lost their meanings, their power. Notably, this loss of meaning is a geographic specific phenomenon; Ged and Arren travel to places where the words have lost their meanings while in other places the words still work fine (of course, Ged can always use the words, but what kind of Archmage would he be if he could not). In their time with the Children of the Open Sea, Ged and Arren witness the loss of meaning as the singers fail to finish singing the Long Dance because they cannot remember the words. So, there are two ways that the words are lost: when they are forgotten and when they are remembered sounds without power/meaning. What replaces the words is an extreme distrust of wizards which often manifests itself as either denial of wizardly power or a denigration of wizards are lazy or manipulative. Arren himself falls into this mindset for some time, thinking to himself, “That’s wizard’s talk, making things seem great by great words. But the meaning of the words is always somewhere else” (125). Mages, it seems, are reduced to sophistry to the islanders as the veil of illusion is lifted from their eyes.

Harkening back to my post on Anathem, I call attention to the Platonic/Sophistic debate that continues to play out in this text. I find the clear lines of the debate in this text interesting, given that Le Guin continues working in her theme of dualism: the recurring image of life and death as both sides of one’s hand emphasizes the argument that life is only recognizable because of death, light is only given meaning by darkness, etc. However, Le Guin does little to complicate the Platonic/Sophistic divide, and instead the onslaught of meaninglessness, or perhaps multiple meanings, is part of an undeniable evil.

The Tombs of Atuan – The Damsel in Distress

I waited forever for my copy of Ursula Le Guin’s The Tombs of Atuan to come in the mail, but now I can finally continue with the Earthsea novels.

The Plot: After she is determined to be the reincarnation of the Priestess of the Nameless Ones, Tenar is taken away from her family and raised in the Tombs of Atuan, the center of Karg worship. Her name is taken from her and instead she becomes Arha, the Eaten One. As Arha grows, she is initiated into the rituals and secrets of her position by the two high priestesses of the Godking and the Twin Gods, Kossil and Thar. Many of these secrets are somewhat humdrum: ritual dances, chants in words whose meanings have been forgotten, blood sacrifices, etc. At the end of her training, though, Arha is allowed to enter the Labyrinth, a maze that stretches under the tombs and temples above. Arha learns her way through the Labyrinth by memorizing directions given to her by Thar and Kossil, which were taught to them by the previous priestess, or Arha in another body. Arha continually explores the Labyrinth until one day when she sees a man there, a stranger and a mage (Ged from A Wizard of Earthsea of course). She traps him in the Labyrinth and tells Kossil of his presence (by this point Thar has died and Arha has realized that Kossil is not a true believer, only a woman in search of a little power). By law, Arha must be sure that the stranger dies, but instead she saves him from dying of thirst and brings him food and drink in his prison in the Labyrinth and talks to him. This goes on for a couple of days until Arha realizes that Kossil has been spying on them, at which point she has Manan, her eunuch servant, move Ged to another locked room, then bury a coffin in the ground. She tells Kossil that Ged has been buried alive, but soon Kossil is actually checking to see if it is true and Arha realizes that she is pretty well screwed. Meanwhile, Ged has been trying to tell her that the Nameless Ones are not gods and are instead quite evil, and that he has been using all of his magical power to keep them at bay while he is there. He calls Arha by her true name, Tenar, and convinces her to leave with him and they narrowly escape while Kossil and several others are crushed when the temple of the Nameless Ones collapses. As they travel across the island to Ged’s hidden boat, Tenar quickly realizes that she has no useful skills, that she does not even know the language of the lands to which she will be traveling with Ged. Additionally, the Nameless Ones still have some kind of hold over her, and though they try to make her kill Ged, she instead leaves the island with him and he promises that she can go live with his former master who lives quietly and simply.

On the one hand, I felt like this book continued in the same somewhat sexist train of the previous: it’s a damsel in distress story, except that in this case the damsel didn’t even know she was in trouble until the man came along to tell her so. And perhaps one of the saddest parts of the book is Ged insisting that Tenar learn the language of the islands when she wants to learn the old language of the dragons, the language of power. At the same time, I think this novel says something about the power of enculturation and predetermined roles: Tenar’s struggles with the expectations placed on her as Arha really take center stage. Additionally, the moment at which she realizes that she has no skills outside the temple is especially notable because she is female; to a certain degree we come to a similar question as the one presented in P. D. James’s The Children of Men: what happens when the roles that women have been raised to occupy no longer exist for them? This novel did not have a happy ending for me. Oh sure, Tenar gets to go to Havinor with all the cheering people, but what she’s really probably going to end up doing is cooking and cleaning and making tea for Ged’s former master. And all because the power that she had was power derived from evil in some form or fashion. I’m left feeling a little heartbroken for Tenar and ambiguous about the novel as a whole.

A Wizard of Earthsea – True Names, Wizard Schools, and Shadows

Ursula Le Guin’s 1968 young adult novel A Wizard of Earthsea and its followers are some of the most influential works in YA fantasy. These novels have seen numerous adaptations, including a Sci-Fi Channel miniseries and a Studio Ghibli iteration (both of which Le Guin was displeased with). Additionally, comparisons may be drawn between between Earthsea and such contemporary works are the Harry Potter series and the Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini.

The Plot: This novel is written as a previously untold legend of an already widely-known and wide-praised man, Ged. It begins with Ged’s childhood, his initial training by his ignorant witch aunt, and his rescue of his village from vicious raiders by using his power to summon thick mists. After this feat, he is accepted as an apprentice by the wizard Ogion, a very quiet man whom Ged grows to love, but soon Ged tires of not actually learning how to use his power; Ogion instead focuses on trying to get Ged to learn to listen, to be still and silent, to learn humility. After a brush with the daughter of an enchantress, with some power in her own right, and almost calling forth a shadow out of the darkness, Ged opts to leave Ogion for the island of Roke, where there is a school for wizards. Ged proves to be an extremely apt pupil, but also an extremely proud one, quick to anger and lusting to use his power. While he makes a friend, Vetch, he also makes an enemy, Jasper, who goads him into performing a bit of difficult magic: calling forth the dead. Unfortunately, when Ged succeeds, the shadow also comes into the world and attacks Ged. He is saved by the masters of the school, but spends a long time recovering from the attack and is left with scars on his face and body and a new hesitancy in his learning. He is never the same quick pupil again. After Ged receives his mage’s staff and leaves the school, he is stationed in Low Turing, a collection of islands living in fear of the near-by dragons. Ged performs his duties as mage well, healing the sick and helping construct sturdy boats for fishing and travel, but when a friend’s son falls ill, Ged tries too hard to save him, sending his own spirit into the world of the dead to chase after the boy. When he turns back, he finds his way blocked by the shadow, and only the instinctual ministrations of his little pet, an otak (something like a weasel or rat?), brings him back to life. He decides to leave Low Turing so that the shadow may not harm the people there, but before he does, he deals with the dragons, killing five of them outright and mortally wounding a sixth before making a pact with the dragon patriarch, who is bound to keep his word because Ged knows his true name. Ged begins his travels, ending up on the island of Osskil, where the shadow has possessed a man’s body and attacks Ged. He is saved by the lord and lady of Osskil, the lady being the same enchantresses daughter who tried to ensnare Ged as a boy. She again tries to trap Ged using a stone of Old Power, but Ged again escapes, this time in the body of a hawk. He returns to Ogion, who tells him that the only way to defeat the shadow is to hunt it, which Ged then sets out to do. After quite a bit of sailing, Ged ends up on the same island as his friend Vetch and tells Vetch of his quest. The other wizard opts to join Ged, and together they sail east past the last island known to them, until they reach the land of the dead at the edge of the world. There Ged again confronts the shadow and calls it by his own name, realizing it to be the shadow of his own death and therefore uniting it with himself. Vetch and Ged safely return home and so ends this legend.

A Wizard of Earthsea is one of the first novels to feature a wizard school. Previously, wizards were largely conceived of as getting their education either through books or in a master/apprentice relationship. However, the wizard school idea proved to be extremely popular, and I don’t just mean Harry Potter. Between the publication of A Wizard and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, a number of books have features wizard schools, including Jillian Murphy’s The Worst Witch series, Terry Pratchett’s Unseen University in his Discworld novels, Jane Yolen’s Wizard’s Hall, and arguably Professor X’s school for mutants in various incarnations of The X-Men. I would argue that this shift is belatedly following a shift in education. On the one hand, general education by and large moved from the hands of individuals tutors or priests to the hands of teachers in schools a long time ago. On the other hand, institutions for teaching “trade skills” — welding, auto mechanics, plumbing, electrical work — are quite a bit newer. It seems that in this sense, the idea of magic as a practice has won out over the concept of magic as a philosophy; students at Hogwarts are often seen learning how to do things, not so much the principles behind them. It’s like learning how to make an omelet with learning how the chemical nature of the eggs changes as they cook (I once had someone try to teach how to make an omelet in this manner; it was extremely confusing).

The second thing about A Wizard of Earthsea that I found resonating with more contemporary fantasy that I’ve read is this idea of the True Name, perhaps most obviously in Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle. The idea is that in order to harness power, you must learn the Old Language in which things have their True Names. In A Wizard, this Old Language is a precursor of the Hardic language; in other iterations, it might be the language of elves or something like that. This connection between wizardry and knowing the right words is a long-standing and deep-seated one, though there are some notable breaks from the tradition, including Gandalf the Grey in The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Orson Scott Card’s Alvin Maker novels. Now, as a rhetorician and post-modernist, I scoff at this notion of true names holding power, though perhaps somewhat hesitantly. After all, parents are warned not to let their children wear clothing with their names clearly displayed for a reason; we seem to give an inordinate amount of trust to someone who walks up to us and knows our name.

Finally, it is worth noting that, much like The Left Hand of Darkness, this book is very concerned with shadows and their relationship to light and to the material world, a theme which I had been told runs throughout Le Guin’s work, but now I can see that for myself.

So now that I’ve said all that, here’s what I really want to say: I found this novel extremely troubling because it is extremely sexist. Here are the female characters we meet or hear of:

  • Ged’s aunt, who is a small-time witch and is described as ignorant. In reference to her, we hear the phrases “weak as woman’s magic” and “wicked as woman’s magic.”
  • The evil enchantress who is Lady of Gont
  • The daughter of the enchantress, whom Ged meets on Gont and again at Osskil
  • The village witch of Low Turing, who has little power or knowledge, though she knows enough to know that Ged is not dead when he falls into his coma
  • The Karg woman on the little reef who was probably once a princess or lord’s daughter
  • Yarrow, Vetch’s sister, who keeps house for him and for her brother. At one point she says to Ged, “I wish I could truly understand what you tell me. I am too stupid.”

There are no female mages. Women with magical skill may not enter the School of Roke. Instead they become backwater witches or, apparently, evil. Now, I’m not quite sure what to do with this. It is possible that this is the sexism of the narrator and the sexism of this society; after all, myths and legends are prime places for ideologies to hide. At the same time, I feel like this reading is overly generous, because Le Guin does little to create any kind of contrast by which we may look at this sexism rather than through it to the story. I’m anxious to continue through with the series (I’m waiting for book 2 to arrive in the mail because it was the only one I couldn’t find at my local Half Priced Books) just to see how this mess plays out.