Confessions of a bad SF fan: I always liked fantasy better

earthseaIt occurred to me that classics of fantasy are as important to me as classics of scifi. So I’m cheating this month, and visiting Earthsea in my celebration of genre classics. I’ll come completely clean: this isn’t even a first read. This was one of my first loves. Can it survive my adult prejudices?

Back in the mid-80s when Harry Potter wasn’t even a twinkle in JK’s eye, A Wizard of Earthsea won my heart as a magical coming of age story. Sparrowhawk (I never liked his true name) is tall, intemperate and gifted. We follow in his footsteps as he learns first from his village witch, then from the gentle Mage of Re-Albi and finally at the great School on Roke, where in an act of hubris he summons a shadow that pursues him to the ends of the world. It took me years to fully unpick everything that is going on here; but I loved it from the first reading.

A Wizard of Earthsea starts off with the sort of economical world-building and stylised prose that went right over my head as a child and makes my adult heart skip a beat. We are on a large if less than respectable northern island (famous for goat thieves and pirates), and we are to be told a little-known tale of a great man before he was famous.

A few chapters later, when our (anti-)hero raises an enemy he can’t possibly vanquish, the memory that I was assured of his survival from the very first page has long since evaporated. This is largely down to masterful storytelling – no sooner has Le Guin established her iconic hero, than she distracts with a childhood episode dripping with mythistorical authenticity from its bewitched goats to its mist-wracked Viking Kargad invaders.

It’s not the only bait and switch. There’s a famous, much-rued line:

Weak as woman’s magic.

Wicked as woman’s magic.

Yet the village witch is defined by her ignorance, not her malice – and she learnt from a sorcerer, so for all the disapproving maxims, there’s no cultural barrier on Gont to women learning magic. The Lord of Re Albi is married to a foreign sorceress. Women are barred only from the great School on Roke, leaving them to learn scraps of magic by whatever means they can (and then judging them for it. GRRR).

For readers seeking female characters, it means there can be only disappointment here – the story is told through the lens of Roke’s teachings, even before it reaches Roke itself. Roke-trained Ogion speaks with distaste of the Lady of Re Albi, and when Sparrowhawk steals a look at forbidden lore, Ogion blames her daughter for leading the boy astray, rather than blaming his pupil’s wilful pride. Like the witch, neither the lady nor her daughter are even named (a trend that continues through the book – only 2 women get names; 3, if you count legendary, long-dead Elfarran). On Roke, the Masters are troubled by the mere presence of a female visitor under their roof.

At least I find Serret, Lady of the Terrenon, a glittering, magnetic character: she’s so obviously a femme fatale, weaving a web. It’s her husband who is invisible in the northern court; in my head at least, the spellbound fortress is all dark stone and cold, grey skies, its power founded on the ironically understated paving slab in the basement. Coming back to that Gontish saying, nobody would accuse Serret of weaving weak magic (“I turned their blood to lead”) – but she’s certainly wicked, driven by ambition and heartlessness.

But for the most part, Sparrowhawk is surrounded by men. Perhaps because I read this so young, for once the male-dominated world doesn’t bother me. But perhaps this is because – once off Roke, at least – there’s regular reference to the women who inhabit it. They’re nameless, not invisible, and I see subtle feminist criticism in (some of) its structural sexism.

However, my lifelong love of a good villain is probably in part due to growing up with stories where this was the only role inhabited by a strong woman (Jadis; Serret; the Morrigan). Imagine what Serret might have been had she been free to learn on the Isle of the Wise (I was always upset by her fate; these days I am more aggrieved by it). Are the Old Powers so terrible as Roke teaches? Or is it that they do not acknowledge Roke’s limits?

Ogion says very early on:

“Manhood is patience. Mastery is nine times patience.” 

and this message is backed up endlessly on Roke: do not do just because you can. Know the consequences is practically the school motto. Ogion teaches that one must earn the right to know a name, and first know and understand the thing itself; he is a hermit who rarely acts, but who can bring the world to a standstill when he does (move over Dumbledore; you would be a villain in Earthsea).

Yet on Roke, the boys are set to learning lists of Names at the Isolate Tower (speaking of epic names); there’s neither patience nor mastery, merely a drudgery of memory. As we see in Sparrowhawk – and Serret – one who can command a name can do almost anything. The trick is that this makes a wizard’s power both limitless and limited as language itself: the wonderful example that to spell the sea, one must either know the exact name of the bit of sea you wish to command (e.g. the Channel) or be able to command only unnamed seas. There’s no way to command the platonic concept of the sea.

It seems to me that the Old Powers are a channel that sidesteps these rules, although they remain something of a formless bogeyman so it’s hard to be certain. It’s not even clear what the Terrenon wants with Sparrowhawk: we are given no clue as to what ends a possessed wizard is the means to, although the options are almost endless and the North – doesn’t it always – has a bit of an axe to grind regards undue Southern influence. This is children’s fantasy; we need only be scared of a shadow and a threat, and accept that our hero must not bow to them.

What amazes me now is that I loved A Wizard of Earthsea so fiercely. For all I’ve just accused it of childish simplicity in one regard, this is not your typical children’s fantasy, and Sparrowhawk is no typical hero (although I recall loyally taking his side as a child, too used to my protagonists being heroes). Instead, he is sullen and ambitious, bitterly feeding the prodigious chip on his shoulder, driven by insecurity in the face of well-bred, well-spoken fellow students. His rivalry with Jasper is all the darker for being so one-sided; we never get Jasper’s point of view, but Sparrowhawk provides Jasper with ample reason to dislike him. Yet we see only gentle mockery in response until the night Jasper finally snaps and pushes him into a confrontation. Does Jasper hate him, or is he just tired of the younger boy’s insufferable attitude?

Where other stories might raise their heroes high, Le Guin makes Sparrowhawk’s victory pyrrhic, an epic failure with devastating consequences. It teaches him the lessons he sorely needed to learn, and leaves him a more sympathetic figure for the second half of the book as – humbled – he seeks to undo the harm he caused. Crucially, his fear and guilt help him to learn the patience that true mastery demands – the knowledge of when and how to act.

The scene in which he is reunited with Ogion broke my heart on re-reading with its open-eyed love and gentle humour. Sparrowhawk has – in absentia – learnt a depth of regard for the old man, even though his youth was spent resenting him.

“I have walked with great wizards and have lived on the Isle of the Wise, but you are my true master Ogion.” 

“Good. Now you know it. Better now than never… I must go look after my goats. Watch the kettle for me, lad.” 

He finally reaches a place where – having acted out and acted in haste too many times – he can recognise Ogion’s wisdom. No doubt it helps that Ogion knows and loves him flaws and all, and that Ogion has an insight that bypasses even the Archmage: all things have a Name.

So the heart of the tale – from the very start to the very end – revolves around understanding yourself and understanding the world around you. Power comes from knowledge, but it is the application of knowledge that is evil, not the knowledge itself (no wonder I still love this so much). And choice is crucial:

It is very hard for evil to take hold of the unconsenting soul

When you take a step back and look at what the shadow is shown to be (and the liberation Sparrowhawk achieves in confronting it), there’s a philosophical commentary on self-knowledge that is unique in my childhood reading (and almost certainly escaped me at the time: I loved this for the adventure, and the world it described so lyrically – the topless towers of Ilien; the white towers of Havnor at the centre of the world; the salt water roads of the Ninety Isles. And it had dragons).

I’ve wittered on at length, so if you take nothing else from this (and others have been far more insightful given the years and pages of critical writing about this classic fantasy), take this: damn, I still love this book. But I don’t know if I’d love this book so much if I hadn’t grown up on it. I can’t answer the question of whether I defend its portrayal of women because I already care.

Would I have struggled with the lyrically archaic prose and deeply unlikeable young man? Maybe. Would I have still loved his transformative journey towards redemption? Probably. The narrative criticises Sparrowhawk’s choices, inviting us to judge him even while we can see the garden path he’s being led down. He earns his forgiveness, and by the end I have no qualms about respecting who he has become. And for all the sidelining of female characters and undermining of female magic, women are powerful and visible in Earthsea.

I think I’d still find plenty to like if I were sailing Earthsea for the first time.