Divergent – Critical Thinking Skills as Super Power

After a long hiatus (during which I was doing an unfortunate amount of grad school things), I am back to my inquiries in speculative fiction and rhetoric with Veronica Roth’s 2011 young adult novel Divergent. Divergent was a favorite among Goodreads users in 2011, and the film adaptation comes out later this month.

The World: Set in post-apocalyptic Chicago, Divergent presents readers with a society divided based on what qualities or ideologies individuals hold most dear. The five factions — Abnegation, Candor, Dauntless, Erudite, and Amity — comprise people who have opted to live their lives committed to their faction’s guiding principle. Amity, commited to kindness and harmony, lives outside of town and tends the agricultural and water purification needs of the city, while Erudite, striving after knowledge, focus on scientific developments to keep food and water coming. Dauntless, whose guiding principle is bravery, take care of protecting the borders (though against what, no one knows). Abnegation, committed to selflessness, manages all goverment affairs (based on the assumption that power should be given to those who do not want it), while Candor, who value honesty, work to prevent corruption. Factions are supposed to be prized more highly than family ties, as an individual’s faction tells her who she truly is, and others can expect her to act in a predictable way based on her faction.

The Plot: We meet our protagonist, Tris, at the age of sixteen, right before she will choose her faction. Raised in Abnegation, Tris attends school with children from all factions where, at the end of their education, they are put through simulations to determine which faction they are most suited for. When Tris undergoes her simulation, she discovers that she is “divergent,” or suitable for multiple factions. Additionally, she is aware during simulations in ways that other are not. However, this ability might get her killed as divergent members of the population often disappear or die under mysterious circumstances once their divergence is discovered. While she is suitable for either Abnegation, Erudite, or Dauntless, Tris opts to join the Dauntless faction and spends the next few weeks training with other recruits. Though small and relatively weak when she begins, Tris rises through the ranks to graduate top of her initiation class. In the meantime, she also learns some family secrets and falls in love with one of her teachers, Four (so-called because he only has four fears, an highly valued characteristic in a faction that values bravery). However, the night after her graduation, all of Dauntless falls under a simulation (with the exception of a few key leaders) and begin invading the Abnegation part of the city, killing leaders and resistors along the way. As Four and Tris are both divergent and thus aware, it falls to them to do what they can to stop the massacre.

I have strong feelings in both directions about this novel. I’ll start with the bad because it’s easy and quick: I find the love story between Tris and Four annoying and uninteresting. I think this might be because it’s a stereotypical love story between teenagers with lots of “Does he like me or not?” It got old fast.

On the other hand, I really love that the super power of this world is, simply put, critical thinking skills. Tris, Four, and the other divergent are special because they can see the world around them from multiple viewpoints and take on multiple, sometimes conflicting, ideologies. And the fact that something as simple as taking on multiple perspectives can be a super power is a sharp warning about one possible future for us. In the subsequent novels (I’m currently listening to second of the trilogy, Insurgent, on audiobook), Roth explains that the faction system keeps people manageable by making them predictable; that is, keeping people committed to a single ideological framework is good for those in power (or those who are trying to come into power). And that reader can see each faction as having positive goals sharpens this critique, demonstrating that even values that we can agree are good are dangerous when they become a single focus. Of course, this kind of statement has been made frequently before. We’re familiar with the stories of those who pursue knowledge at the cost of human life, and we know why absolute honesty is not always the best policy. What Roth’s novel adds to this conversation is an illustration of how proponents of these values may interact. And while Tris’s rhetorical skills are not necessarily at the forefront of this first novel, I think they will become more important in the rest of the trilogy as she negotiates among various groups to stop a wannabe dictator from taking power.

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Fire – Women, Beauty, Children, and Risk

Kristin Cashore’s 2009 novel Fire  is a companion to Graceling rather than the sequel I was hoping for. Instead, we travel back in time with Graceling‘s primary antagonist Leck to witness his first attempt to take over a kingdom, this time the Dells, a land separated from the seven kingdoms by an impassable mountain range. While Fire doesn’t continue the story of Katsa, it does pick up on several of the themes from Graceling that I found interesting.

The Plot: The Dells is a kingdom populated with both regular varieties of recognizable animals and people and monster varieties: unnaturally brightly colored creatures with the mental abilities to ensnare regular human and other animals in order to make them easier prey. While monster animals are widely prevalent, monster humans are much more rare; in fact, there is only one, named Fire after her widely colored red hair. Lady Fire lives in relative seclusion in the northern part of the kingdom for two reasons: 1) many people are unable to control their attraction to or strong reaction against her and she must constantly be on her guard, and 2) her father, Lord Cansrel, basically ran the kingdom into the ground through his control over the previous king and insatiable desire for chaos and strife. As much as Fire prefers her quiet life, teaching local children music and how to guard their minds against the monsters and spending her evenings with childhood friend and part time lover Lord Archer and his father, the unrest in the kingdom results in Prince Brigan, commander of the King Nash’s army, escorting her to the King’s City to assist in wartime preparations and spy operations. For some time, Fire resists using her impressive mental abilities to break into the minds of captured spies and enemies, but twins Prince Garan and Princess Clara convince her of her responsibility to the kingdom. As Fire gets more involved with political intrigue, she also gets more involved with Prince Brigan and his daughter Hanna, before finding herself facing young Leck, the ugliest mind she has met yet.

Fire is primarily a romance, and to a certain degree it put me in mind of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Paladin of Souls; both feature women who wish they could travel and live without the necessary trappings of their lives, but who both come to understand that “with great power comes great responsibility.” The important difference is, of course, that Paladin of Souls is about a middle aged woman, not a young one, and that plays into the narrative and its critiques. Fire is a more conventional romance with a young beautiful lady and a young powerful prince…who happens to have a five year old daughter. As I skimmed through the reviews on Goodreads, several commented, whether positively or negatively, on the sexual and marriage politics of the novel, and that is a very large part of the novel. However, I would disagree with those who criticized the novel for its pro-casual sex stance; I think it’s more complicated than that. Archer, the most promiscuous character of the novel, is not treated kindly for his choices; as he blames Fire’s rejections of his frequent proposals of marriage for his sometimes unseemly behavior, Fire refuses to take the blame, telling him that he was responsible for his own actions and that those actions made him somewhat distasteful to her, even as she continued to love him as a friend (she ends their relationship as lovers halfway through the novel). Those women who do sleep with Archer face the consequences: both Princess Clara and Mila, one of Fire’s guards, end up pregnant. Brigan’s youthful relationship with a stable girl results in his daughter (the mother passed away shortly after the child’s birth). One of the reasons that Fire does shy away from casual sex, even as she so easily entices so many men, is because she refuses to risk children, who would undoubtedly be monsters as well. In fact, Fire takes herbs that will make her permanently barren, even though she deeply desires children and feels so jealous of Clara and Mila in their pregnancies.

Where the novel does depart from the social mores of some segments of our own society and of some depictions of “courtly” life is in what is at stake with a unexpected pregnancy. When Mila declares, “I’m ruined!”, she is not referring to her chances at getting a good husband or some risk of her being disowned by her family. Instead, because Mila is a soldier who uses her wages to support her sister and her sister’s children, her pregnancy will interfere with her ability to make money. Women are not socially punished for having children out of wedlock, and Mila is found another job that she is able to perform. Even bastards may be declared heirs without anyone batting an eye.

The feminist features of Cashore’s novels are complicated; she neither criticizes women for desiring children or upholds the assumed imperative of motherhood. At the same time, her texts do follow pretty standard, and somewhat disturbing, romance narratives in which young women are unable to fully be themselves, to feel all their feelings, until the right men come along. So I continue to feel ambivalent about this pair of novels, and I guess I’ll have to check out the third one, Bitterblue.

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.