Monday, June 10, 2019

A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K Le Guin

To the horror of many wise friends, I've started this famous book several times but never finished it until now. It charts the early life of Ged - or Sparrowhawk, or Duny - who, while training as a wizard, unleashes a sinister shadow-thing that then pursues him. As Ged hops from island to island round Earthsea to escape his creation, the monster comes ever on.

The first chapter, in which young dorky Duny first learns some magic and then saves his village from invaders, is brilliant but his subsequent mentoring by stoic old wizard Ogion and squabbles with other pupils at wizard school never quite connected with me before. Having read the whole book, that's all cast in different light. Sneering fellow student Jasper isn't really Ged's worst enemy - it's his own impatience and pride. He must learn subtler arts than spells: using historical research to best a dragon, and not using magic to turn the tables on the shadow.

As with the Le Guin I already know (The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness) there's lots on the way words shape our reality and have their own innate power. Knowing a person or thing's secret, true name gives you power over that person or thing, a simple basis on which to build a complex framework of magic and a richly realised society. Ged's best friendship is defined by them condfiding real names, and when he learns the true name of a young woman it immediately suggests a strong link between them. That distinction between public persona and private, true self seems all the more pertinent today with the lives we live online and IRL.

I didn't realise the "werelights" conjured by Peter Grant in the Rivers of London books came from here, and assume Le Guin also inspired the name of my friend's band:
“As a boy, Ogion like all boys had thought it would be a very pleasant game to take by art-magic whatever shape one liked, man or beast, tree or cloud, and so to play at a thousand beings. But as a wizard he had learned the price of the game, which is the peril of losing one's self, playing away the truth. The longer a man stays in a form not his own, the greater this peril. Every prentice-sorcerer learns the tale of the wizard Bordger of Way, who delighted in taking bear's shape, and did so more and more often until the bear grew in him and the man died away, and he became a bear, and killed his own little son in the forests, and was hunted down and slain. And no one knows how many of the dolphins that leap in the waters of the Inmost Sea were men once, wise men, who forgot their wisdom and their name in the joy of the restless sea.” (pp. 117-8)
I've ploughed straight on into the second book, The Tombs of Atuan, which opens with a scene I think more haunting than anything in the first: a man chiding his wife for doting on the young daughter they know will shortly be taken from them, the man already grieving.

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