Earthsea

Jan. 2nd, 2017 02:55 pm
cahn: (Default)
[personal profile] cahn
Now that Yuletide reveals are over (I have a more conventional reveal post here) I can finally inflict on you guys all the feelings I have about Earthsea, which I read again for the first time in many years (at least ten, maybe fifteen) this fall.

...I have a lot of feelings.

The second trilogy: By this I mean mainly Tehanu, Dragonfly (the novella from Tales of Earthsea), and The Other Wind. I read this first, because I figured it would be easier to get through before reading the first trilogy, and I was completely right about that. I have a lot of feeeeelings about the second trilogy, most of which are summed up by feeling very frustrated? The thing is, they're well-written books and I see a lot of what she's trying to do and... I just wish she had written in some other fantasy land instead of Earthsea, I guess.

They're good books. I think if they had been written about another non-Earthsea fantasy land I would have liked them a lot. Le Guin is a masterful writer (more about that later), and she still captures my attention like no one's business, and many of her concerns are also mine. And to be honest, if the writing weren't so good the rest of what I'm going to say wouldn't bother me nearly as much, because I just wouldn't care. But I do care -- so --

My favorite quote from Earthsea, and heck, one of my favorite quotations ever, is the following, spoken by Ged to Arren in The Farthest Shore:
And though I came to forget or regret all I have ever done, yet I would remember that once I saw the dragons aloft on the wind at sunset above the western isles; and I would be content.

I loved it when I was a teenager (I chose it as my high school senior year quotation) and I love it now. It sums up the first three books for me -- Ged, quiet, accepting, wise, joyous; the world of Earthsea, a place where such experiences of transcendence are possible as part of life; and above all the dragons, strange beautiful numinous creatures who are unlike humans, but whose very existence of fire and fierceness calls out to the depths of the human spirit.

The second trilogy seems like a concerted effort to totally falsify this statement.

The whole second trilogy is about dismantling the magic and the transcendence from Earthsea. It used to be a place where Havnor was the center of the world under the Rune of Peace; where the Masters of Roke were wise; where magic had issues and was not at all a cure-all but nevertheless was a thing of wonder. In the second trilogy... we see Havnor in The Other Wind and it's an ordinary city with an ordinary king like any other king; the Masters of Roke squabble and fight like any other political committee; and magic is a tool that men use for abuse and domination, and is kind of running out anyway. The problem with this is that Earthsea becomes just a land like any other land in this world, in which case why am I reading about it rather than about a country on Earth? (The really weird thing here is that the ideas and language I'm using to complain here I got from Le Guin herself, when she made exactly this point in her seminal essay on fantasy language: "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie.")

And Tehanu is, in a large way, how Ged comes to forget or regret all he has ever done. (I mean... maybe not really? But he's certainly pretty despairing and the about it all.) He doesn't seem to remember the dragons. They don't seem to play any part in his thinking at all.

...The dragons! This is the thing that I really can't forgive Le Guin for in my heart. (My mind sees and understands what she's trying to do. My heart can't accept it.) The whole point of the dragons in the original trilogy is that they are dangerous, cruel, venomous, unlike people -- and despite that, and maybe because of it, they are beautiful and terrible and wonderful and even just seeing them on the wind is a transcendent experience. In the second trilogy, we learn that dragons are people. There is beautiful stuff there -- I really love (divorced from all my other problems with it) the double-sided silk fan Tenar sees, with the image of the dragons with human faces, the humans flying like dragons... I understand why Le Guin wanted to do it! And yet in The Other Wind, when Irian announces that the dragons are quarreling just like, oh, say, the US Congress might quarrel -- it made me really, really unhappy. It made the dragons not only more human, but imbued them with all the pettiness of humanity. And dragons aren't supposed to be petty. *stamps foot*

I also had more problems with Tehanu specifically:

I want to rant a little about gender. There's a lot of talk in the book about what women's magic looks like. Again, I see what she was trying to do -- she'd kind of painted herself into a corner in original!trilogy by postulating magic as this thing that men have and women don't really: weak as women's magic, wicked as women's magic. But the way she wants to resolve that is by making women's magic this different, Other thing -- and, I dunno, maybe it's the fact that I work in an overwhelmingly male field and am happy doing so, but it just rubs me the wrong way. I want to yell at the page, we're all people, darn it! Right? Why can't women's magic look like men's magic, if the author wanted to change things around, or men's magic look like "women's" sometimes? We already knew that Tenar had some sort of power or light in her that Ged saw; it could have been simply her soul (which is how I've always read it) but it could have been magic; why not?

(Related to this is an annoyance I have with "Darkrose and Diamond," which is a lovely little love story which I found ruined by the idea at the end that Diamond could do only one thing, take one path, Because That Is The Way Male People Are. Because I don't know any male people who have a vocation and an avocation, both of which they love. Or female people who have only one. Oh, no, wait! I know a bunch of those in both directions! Could it be that people are people and exist on a spectrum?)

I also don't really understand why Tenar, who gave up studying magic and Apparently Male Pursuits to go get married and have kids, is suddenly having all these Thinky Gender Thoughts about why men hate women and don't do the dishes, and women need to think about keeping an adult in a house with a small child and men don't, etc. when she's apparently been fine with that for 20+ years. It really seems like it came out of nowhere. Poor [personal profile] ase, who had to put up with many of these rants and is a much nicer person than I, pointed out that Tenar's husband Flint has just died at the beginning of Tehanu and that this could totally plausibly be the kind of traumatic event that triggers a mid-life crisis. She is right! Except... except that Flint never comes up. Oh, his name is dropped every so often, it seems mostly so we remember who the heck he is, but there's no emotion attached to it. Love? Hate? Liking? Frustration? Fear? None of those. It's almost as if he were a roommate who moved out one day. No shared experiences, no reminiscing, no grief, no relief, no nothing. It really reads a bit as if Tehanu were a fic where the fic-author wanted to shove the canon ship out of the way with as little fuss as possible so that she could get to the Ged/Tenar ship she was really interested in... Only Tenar/Flint didn't actually exist until this book. It's odd.

Also also, as the mother of a child that is only slightly special needs and actually very high-functioning in other ways, and who still worries about her a lot, it really bothered me, much more than it did on first reading (where it bothered me but I couldn't articulate why), that after an entire book where Tenar struggles with what Therru's future is going to be like, what her life is going to be, she is saved by a dragon coming for her and actually turning out to be a dragon herself. (And not even any dragon, but Special First Princess Dragon, Literal Child of God!) I guess that's nice for her, but it sort of betrays the whole, I don't know, theme, what I thought the entire first trilogy was going towards: that it's not magic or dragons that save us, in the end, though those things may both help and imperil us. It's ourselves, and others, who save us.


The first trilogy: I had forgotten how wonderful it is. A lot of books I loved when I was a kid, even when I still love them as an adult, come out as a little more simplistic than they were when I was a kid. These books are better-written and more complex than they were for me when I read them as an adolescent. (Tombs of Atuan was my first Le Guin, which I read in my middle school library during lunch period while trying to wait out, well, the hell that was middle school.) They're really good. Reading them now was almost a very different experience.. I remember as an adolescent being drawn into the world, loving the world and the people, and that's still true now except that I admire even more how deftly she describes and observes them, how very human they all are. But furthermore, I can also see what she's doing that I couldn't see before, thinking about complex issues of growing-up and sex and death (the trilogy, in three words) and coding them in the language of fantasy, and also having all these insights into good and evil and choice and what makes people human, like all the best works of art.

That being said, it's also super true that it's very male-dominated in ways I can see now, especially in the lens of the second trilogy, and couldn't see then. It's interesting to consider Yarrow, in Wizard, who is such a bright sparkling character -- she doesn't actually have all that many lines, but I defy anyone to read Wizard and not love her -- and yet who is taken for granted by her brother Vetch in a way that is a little antithetical to the rest of his personality, which is kind and wise and without arrogance. It's drawn so sensitively and precisely, in the way that Le Guin incisively observes things, that it's hard to imagine she didn't consciously understand what's going on, but perhaps Le Guin is just a much better observer than I am and could describe it even without conscious understanding.

Also, rather tangentially: now that I am a mother of a young girl, I could not help but notice that the entire plot of Tombs involves an older strange man coming up to a young girl, telling her she's pretty, and convincing her to abdicate her responsibilities and run off with him without really knowing anything about him at all. I mean! It's obviously not quite the same -- part of the point is that Tenar is always the one with the upper hand physically speaking, so in a sense it's an inversion of the trope -- but I might have a hard time not pointing out to my daughter that it's not actually okay to run away with strange men when she reads it. (I will try really hard not to. My parents had no idea what I read and didn't police me at all, and that was good for me.)

Studying Le Guin's writing: I got a little obsessive about studying Le Guin's style. (I didn't just read the Earthsea books for this.) In beta notes, [personal profile] sprocket talked to me for a long time about how e.g. Wizard of Earthsea is third-person omniscient rather than the tight third-person that I feel like everything is written in these days (unless it's first person, ha). In general Le Guin seems to do a lot of describing from a distance rather than immersing one in a particular point of view, which is basically the opposite of how I'm used to writing (or, usually, reading). She writes like an ethnographer (which I suppose is not super surprising) -- there's a certain amount of precision, an almost scientific detachment, in all of her descriptions of the cultures of the islands of Earthsea (and in the cultures of her other stories, too, whether they be science fiction, fantasy, or set in this world) and of the people that are in her worlds.

She is just a really good writer. She writes in short sentences. Her sentences aren't always short, of course! But mostly they are, to set off the long flowy sentences better, the ones that read almost like poetry, full of portent and meaning. Her writing is very readable, easy to read aloud, with a rhythm to it. What's more, with all of that, she can capture the attention of a reader, draw her in, until thirty minutes later I look up and I've finished several chapters of a book. (I spent a lot of time in the last couple of months doing housework while reading Le Guin in one hand. Sadly, doing this also means I do the housework half as fast, so it was probably not an overall gain.) I wish I could do that.

And sometimes she just pulls off things like this:


If he had once touched the Stone, or spoken to it, he would have been utterly lost. Yet, even as the shadow had not quite been able to catch up with him and seize him, so the Stone had not been able to use him – not quite. He had almost yielded, but not quite. He had not consented. It is very hard for evil to take hold of the unconsenting soul.

He stood between the two who had yielded, who had consented, looking from one to the other as Benderesk came forward.


I'm not doing it justice because you really have to read it in context, where it comes as the climax of a chapter in which the evil and creepiness slowly grows and grows, and after it is even more, but anyway I came across that while rereading and I thought to myself, that is amazing and Le Guin is amazing and how is it possible for her to be such a good writer?

Date: 2017-05-21 03:17 am (UTC)
duskpeterson: An apprentice builds a boat as a man looks on. (Default)
From: [personal profile] duskpeterson
I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on Earthsea. Like you, I prefer the original trilogy. However, the two aspects of the second trilogy that I liked were (1) seeing what Ged was like when he was no longer a Very Powerful Mage but had to cope with living an ordinary life, and (2) the way that "The Other Wind" followed up on the quandary left by "The Farthest Shore," which was that the afterlife was an excruciatingly awful destiny that everyone had to (not) look forward to.

Date: 2017-05-22 03:21 am (UTC)
duskpeterson: An apprentice builds a boat as a man looks on. (Default)
From: [personal profile] duskpeterson
Same here. :)

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