A Wizard of Earthsea (1968)

Creators

Ursula K. Le Guin (writer).

Extent

Previously rated a 2.

Categorization

Young-adult fantasy.

Commentary

One of the better clones of Tolkien. It’s a secondary world of high integrity, carefully built on a stronger central premise, with a shorter story told in fairly dense prose, no epic war and no sapient species other than humans and dragons. I don’t like the dragons; their long mental immaturity is nice, but they are too feeble next to the human hero.

The idea of magic revolving around true names is found in large parts of the ancient world and is a feature of the Christian bible, but it may have come from Egyptian mythology into Earthsea. This would be appropriate, since Le Guin here makes a deliberate effort not to put whites at the centre of the secondary world. For some reason she includes them at the periphery and excludes women from formal training in wizardry.

References here: The Farthest Shore (1972), Lord Foul’s Bane (1977), Always Coming Home (1985), “Seventy-Two Letters” (2000), Star Wars (1977).

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Sequel:

The Tombs of Atuan (1971)

Creators

Ursula K. Le Guin (writer).

Extent

Read in 2018.

Subject

A peasant’s toddler in a warlike bronze-age tyranny is selected to head the cult of uncommunicative, nameless chthonic deities identified with the primal terrors of night and death. Her responsibilities weigh on her conscience and she is caught up in the intersection of politics and a nunnery’s tedium. Her friends are a sympathetic atheist and a eunuch.

Commentary

The basic premise is great. I dislike the dungeon complex, featuring Ged as a looter, a mere D&D-style wizard. I don’t mind the extended metaphor about the position of women in Kargish society; in this metaphor the dungeon is the internal sex organs. What I dislike is the usual problem with dungeons: There is no answer to the question of who actually expended the extreme effort to build this one, nor why it is untouched by geological forces or mould. The powers in it are inconsistent with the corresponding ancient power in the preceding novel, which was much more impressive, to the point of setting the course of Ged’s life. Here we do not even get a definitive answer to the question of Tenar’s possible connection to prior priestesses.

References here: The Farthest Shore (1972), Tales from Earthsea (2006).

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Sequel:

The Farthest Shore (1972)

Creators

Ursula K. Le Guin (writer).

Extent

Read in 2018.

Commentary

More typical young-adult fantasy than the previous two novels, with a capable, self-assured, wine-drinking, aristocratic, Aragorn-like teen hero who is fated to become a great ruler by virtue of his descent from a legendary figure and who immediately becomes a fanboy of Ged’s. Similarly, there is a strong moral dichotomy and a great deal of violence, another unfortunate contrast to the preceding books. Meh.

The initial threat is the loss of magic, a genre motif. Le Guin narrowly avoids the most common implication associated with this motif, i.e. that an ordinary life is poor because it is not supernatural. Though the author seems to dodge that bullet, those who are robbed of magic will then deny the very existence of magic, as if magic were nothing more than a metaphor for joie de vivre. This somewhat undermines the worldbuilding and clearly contradicts the more healthy critical thinking exhibited in The Tombs of Atuan (1971).

At the same time, in this book Ged formulates both the anarchist and the Daoist premises of the series more clearly than before. In the space of one page he declares:

I will not make their choices for them, nor will I let them make mine for me! [---] an act is not, as young men think, like a rock that one picks up and throws, and it hits or misses, and that’s the end of it. When that rock is lifted the earth is lighter, the hand that bears it heavier. When it is thrown the circuits of the stars respond, and where it strikes or falls the universe is changed. [---] But we [people], in so far as we have power over the world and over one another, we must learn to do what the leaf and the whale and the wind do of their own nature.

If you don’t take the point, the entire novel will seem quite ordinary for its genre, as A Wizard of Earthsea (1968) seemed to me when I gave it a cursory initial reading, before becoming acquainted with Le Guin’s philosophy. The ultimate fate of Ged in this volume, to stop working magic, like Ogion, is both a natural conclusion and an elegant worldbuilding stratagem, accounting for why the world is not ruled by wizards. To be powerful, they must first understand nature, and when they understand nature, they love it more than their own artifice.

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Adaptation:

Tales from Earthsea (2006) IMDb

Creators

Suzuki Toshio (producer).

Subject

Magic is on the wane and there are many portents. Fear of death has driven a prince and one of the few magicians who can still rely on his power quite insane. Another mage travels calmly across the face of Earthsea, trying to shore up a delicate balance.

Commentary

Not to be confused with the book Tales from Earthsea (2001). The film was directed by Miyazaki Gorō, the son of Hayao, in an unfortunate nepotist twist to which the elder Miyazaki, supposedly, barely agreed. Le Guin herself did not expect it when she agreed, at long last, to have her work adapted by the Japanese studio. The result is not much better than The Cat Returns (2002), making it Ghibli’s second worst feature.

Even so, the film is a beautiful and well paced pastoral. I particularly enjoyed Cob’s “future proof” fortress—despite its videogame-like qualities—and the replanting of the seed beds, both of which are original to the film. It’s enjoyable to see the awesome talents of Ghibli applied to a relatively conventional genre-bound script for a change. The feel of the novels is absent—not enough sea!—and the moral message is both heavy-handed and absurd, amounting to no more than a blustering defence of an intuitive non sequitur, where Le Guin was much more careful.

The script is based primarily on The Farthest Shore, which is the source of the characters Arren, Hare and Cob, the ex-sorceress selling bolts of cloth, and the motif of dragons fighting amongst themselves. The most obvious single departure in the script is that almost all the characters are light-skinned: A racist choice. That’s a huge missed opportunity to make a predominantly and visibly dark-skinned fantasy epic.

The second most obvious departure from the book is the patricide committed by Arren, which I assume is intended to recall Tenar’s order to have three political prisoners killed in The Tombs of Atuan (1971), rather than Arren’s dark thoughts about Ged under Cob’s influence in The Farthest Shore or, for that matter, the younger Miyzaki replacing his father. It is a poor choice.

Cob and Arren are both weak shades of the Nausicaä manga’s imperial brothers. The other characters are uninteresting, including Hare as a sort of Kurotowa character cast as a toady inexplicably collecting slaves in a city almost crossed by very tall aqueducts. The novel’s Hare is not such a toady, slaves there are collected by robbers, and there is no mention of aqueducts.

There are more complicated intertextual relationships. Compare Chihiro recalling her true name in Spirited Away (2001) to Tenar recalling her true name in The Tombs of Atuan. There’s a taint of furry/scaly wish fulfillment in Tales from Earthsea, perverted in its taking from Spirited Away. Many other deviations mix up the Earthsea books and prior Miyazaki productions like The Journey of Shuna (1983) in similarly unwise ways, such as Arren having his own gebbeth without magic while Ged still bears the scars which, in the book, he got from a gebbeth that required great magic to appear. Alas, it is impossible to say whether it is better to start with the books or the film: The film relies on some familiarity with the books, yet willfully corrupts their contents, which is a poor combination.

The film’s internal inconsistencies are no worse than Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989). Certainly I wish the script and director had been more faithful and more competent, but the overall product is decidedly enjoyable as a well-animated, mostly thoughtful fantasy epic.

References here: Ghibli movie titles.

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Spin-off:

“Darkrose and Diamond” (1999)

Creators

Ursula K. Le Guin (writer).

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