Ursula K LeGuin: Still Taking Us To School

This lecture was originally delivered in February 2017 as part of the Big Read celebration hosted by the Golden Isles Arts & Humanities organization. It has been lightly edited for republication here.



Thank you not only for that introduction, and for the chance to speak to all of you tonight, but also for the opportunity for all of us, together, to read one of the most important and influential fantasy novels ever written. Now, Wizard of Earthsea is a short novel. You can read in a day. And I sincerely hope you already have read it, because I am going to spoil the hell out of it over the next forty five minutes. Just warning you.

The first thing many of you probably noticed is there's a lot of talk going on about Ursula LeGuin's magical school, the school for wizards on the Isle of Roke, and Roke's role as an inspiration or influence on JK Rowling's magical school of Hogwarts. I myself am a college professor, and I'm just as interested in schools as the rest of you, so perhaps we should start there.

Ursula LeGuin did not invent the magical school. She herself acknowledges this in one of her essays, titled "Art, Information, Theft, and Confusion." This essay, for those who are interested, appears alongside many others on her blog. She writes there that, "if anybody did [invent the magical school, that is], it was T.H. White, though he did it in a single throwaway line and didn’t develop it." The line she's talking about appears in the first edition of The Sword in the Stone, a novel that was published in 1938 when Ursula Kroeber was 9. It's about a young King Arthur. He's nowhere near being King yet, however, and is just known by his nickname -- the people of Earthsea would call it his use-name -- of Wart. Wart is tutored by Merlin, who gets into a magical duel with a certain Madame Mim. This duel occurs in the Disney animated adaptation of The Sword in the Stone, but White cut it from the 1958 revised edition when he compiled all his Arthurian books into a single novel, The Once and Future King. So if you've only read Once and Future King, and that's what you have sitting on your shelf at home or in your kindle, you can search all night and you'll never find it. But if you buy a copy of the original 1938 edition of The Sword in the Stone, you will find it, and it goes like this:

[Merlin is speaking] "Now we shall see how a double first at Dom-Daniel avails against the private tuition of my master Bleise."

Now, for those who aren't up on the vocabulary of the British educational system, a "double first" probably comes from a university like Cambridge -- where it means you earned the best possible score on both sets of exams -- or Oxford -- where it means you earned the best possible score on both your Bachelor's and Master's degree. Madame Mim appears to have done quite well for herself at a magical university, a place perhaps a bit akin to Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy, the setting for Lev Grossman's novel The Magicians, now adapted into an ongoing television series on Syfy.

But the real nugget in that line, that "throwaway" line as LeGuin calls it, is the name of the school: Dom-Daniel. Because TH White did not, actually, invent that either. Domdaniel is a vast underground cavern inhabited by sorcerers, fairies, and other magical creatures; it's first described in a version of The Arabian Nights dating from the late 1700s. It was later used, or sometimes just name-dropped as TH White did, by the poet Robert Southey, by Nathanial Hawthorne (author of The Scarlet Letter, among many other wonderful things), and by HP Lovecraft, another incredibly influential author of weird fiction dating from the 1920s. 21st century fantasists have continued to add to the legend of Domdaniel; Neil Gaiman, as great an admirer of Wizard of Earthsea as ever there was, himself cited Domdaniel in his graphic novel 1602, which is a retelling of the story of Marvel superheroes, except they all live in the 17th century and most of them are British. But in none of these uses of Domdaniel is it ever explicitly identified or described as a school. So White didn't invent Domdaniel, but he may have invented the magical school.

Except that he didn't. In fact, the legend or myth of a magical school predates modern fantasy by centuries. The best example is probably the infamous Scholomance. The Scholomance is named after King Solomon, who by the 2nd century BC was already famous not just for his wisdom, but for being a magician who used the power of God to make both angels and demons do his bidding. The Scholomance is a legend of Transylvania, appropriately enough, and the earliest written mention of it I can find is by a German or Austrian schoolteacher named Wilhelm Schmidt; unfortunately I can't read German, but twenty years later, in 1885, a Scottish woman named Emily Gerard, who was married to a Polish cavalry officer serving in the Austrio-Hungarian army, collected a book of Transylvanian legends which would turn out to be very influential and important, and among those legends is the story of the Scholomance:

a school [and I'm quoting from Emily's marvelous book here] supposed to exist somewhere in the heart of the mountains, and where all the secrets of nature, the language of animals, and all imaginable magic spells and charms are taught by the devil in person. Only ten scholars are admitted at a time, and when the course of learning has expired and nine of them are released to return to their homes, the tenth scholar is detained by the devil as payment, and mounted upon an zmeju (dragon) he becomes henceforward the devil's aide-de-camp, and assists him in 'making the weather,' that is, in preparing thunderbolts. A small lake, immeasurably deep, lying high up among the mountains south of Hermanstadt, is supposed to be the cauldron where is brewed the thunder, and in fair weather the dragon sleeps beneath the waters.

The graduates of the Scholomance were known as the Scholomanari and they had a school uniform: they wore white, they carried their books of instruction around with them, and apparently they were all redheads, which only confirms the well known fact that gingers are evil.

But the reason why I said Emily Gerard's book was very influential and important is because it was read by someone else you know: Bram Stoker, who borrowed heavily from it when he wrote Dracula. And, in fact, Stoker writes that Dracula attended the Scholomance, where apparently he was one of the nine lucky students that survived, "and there was no branch of knowledge of his time that he did not essay." That's right, Dracula is an alumnus of one of the first magical schools. Other authors have cited the Scholomance in their own work -- for example, Cassandra Clare, author of the Mortal Instruments series; in her books, the Scholomance is a school where shadow hunters are trained. These books are also the subject of a currently running television series. The Scholomance even appears in World of Warcraft.

But that's not all! Or even the oldest magical school I could find. Because in the late Middle Ages, by 1400 at the latest, there was already the myth of the Cave of Salamanca. The cave is actually the crypt of a church dedicated to Saint Cyprian; Cyprian was a magician, as astrologer, and seller of magic spells before he converted to Christianity after a love spell he made failed to work on a young holy woman named Justina. For his faith he was tortured with a pair of pliers and eventually beheaded. But this crypt is located near the town of Salamanca in Spain, and Salamanca, like the Scholomance, is named for our other famous magician, King Solomon the wise. And the crypt of Saint Cyprian was used by a priest whose title was the sacristan, he was an officer of the church charged with taking care of the crypt. And there in the cave he taught obscure lore like astrology and palmistry, and his students -- who would also have been priests or priests in training -- were charged with keeping all their lessons secret and never revealing what they learned there. So it shouldn't really surprise us that, in a cave dedicated to a magician-saint and named after a magician-king, in a city which, in the Middle Ages, already had a famous university, these secret lessons gave rise to a legend that the actual teacher in the Cave of Salamanca was the devil himself, who had only seven students at a time. And at the end of each term of instruction, you can guess what happened: six of the students were allowed to leave, but the last, chosen by random lot, was forced to stay because, you see, he got stuck with the bill. He had to pay the college tuition for all seven of the students, and of course he couldn't, because even 600 years ago college was too expensive, and so he had to trick his way out somehow, usually by running when the devil's back was turned.

So, once again, we are back where we started. Ursula K LeGuin did not invent the magical school. And the man she said invented the magical school -- TH White -- he didn't invent it either. And JK Rowling certainly didn't invent the magical school. The magical school is a myth, a legend, found in places like Salamanca in Spain and in Romania, where vampires, dragons, and weather-witches are said to dwell.

None of this is to downplay the importance of LeGuin's book, or our delight in it, as she herself would acknowledge were she here. LeGuin has often written about the way that authors borrow from each other, and she considers it to be a good thing actually, a sign that a genre is healthy and creative. The first time she wrote about this was in a marvelous little essay called "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie," which I first found in a paperback collection, Fantasists on Fantasy. It's a book of essays by fantasy authors, all writing about how to write fantasy. It's invaluable and, as we are all interested not only in fantasy but in how those fantasies came to be written, I promise you'll find it fascinating. I call it invaluable but in fact used copies -- because it is decades out of print -- run you about twelve bucks on Amazon.

In any case, "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie" makes the point that authors are inspired by each other, borrow ideas from each other, all the time, and they're seldom shy about it. In fact, the best authors make it quite clear who they are borrowing from, even as they put their own spin on whatever idea they've been inspired by. This is to be contrasted with outright plagiarism, which is when an author cuts and pastes lines of text from another book into their own; that's a crime, and it's not art, it's theft. But if someone else has an idea -- such as Phillip Dick's use of Taoism in a novel -- and you want to try the same thing -- just as LeGuin did incorporating Taoism into her novel Lathe of Heaven, that's not plagiarism. At worst, it’s imitation. But imitation, borrowing, and inspiration does not strike LeGuin as a bad thing; others have imitated her, and she has imitated others. She compares this to the way classical composers in Austria and Germany -- people like Hayden, Handel, and Mozart -- borrowed from each other as they innovated. Each created something unique and individual, even when they were obviously using someone else's work as a jumping off point. You can hear a very similar thing happening in rap today, with artists remixing tunes others have written, and adding their own beats.

What bothers LeGuin, and she's continued to write about this in recent decades as everyone has made comparisons between the school of Roke and Hogwarts, is when an author pretends that no inspiration, imitation, or borrowing has taken place. To LeGuin, this is both unnecessary and patently absurd. If we look at Rowling's Potterverse, it's very hard to make the claim that nothing in it is inspired by, in imitation of, or borrowed from other authors. The list of influences is very long, and you probably know it, so I won't go over all of it. But because I've taught Tolkien, and am very proud of the fact that Tolkien taught Chaucer to the guy who taught the guy who taught me Chaucer, I'll just note that Rowling is not the first author to have a giant talking spider for a bad guy, an evil willow tree, and a big bad evil guy who preserves his life by putting a part of his soul into an object, as long as the object exists, he can't be killed, and the longer you wear this cursed object, the more messed up you become.

Now, we could spend a long time psychoanalyzing JK Rowling, trying to figure out why she refuses to acknowledge that she's not the first person to write about a magical school. Perhaps she feels it would tarnish her fame. Perhaps she's a little self conscious. She's probably worried about being sued. What matters to LeGuin, however, is just that it's a little ungracious. LeGuin herself has not just noted the authors who inspired her, and whom she imitated or borrowed from, but she's actually taken pride in it. Philip Dick, who I mentioned before as a source for LeGuin's novel Lathe of Heaven, is a Hollywood standby now, with his novel The Man in the High Castle having become yet another television adaptation, and many of his other works made into films, including Blade Runner and its sequel, Total Recall and its remake, Minority Report in both television and feature film incarnations, and on and on. But at the time she knew him, and corresponded with him in many letters, Phillip Dick was a pariah, admired in France but scorned by the literary community here in America. He was sort of a science fiction version of Alfred Hitchcock, a master artist unappreciated by his home country but revered abroad. And LeGuin is very proud of the fact that she appreciated Phil's work before most everyone else did, and she borrowed from him a little, but not too much, because she admits that while she wanted to put a talking taxi cab in her book, she just couldn't, because the talking taxi cab was Phil's thing, and hers would never be as funny as his anyway.

All of this leads to LeGuin's main point in "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie" that the book is not the plot. This is a hard thing for my students to wrap their head around, because when someone asks you, "What's the book about?", your first instinct is to start with the plot. "Well," you say, "it's a story about this young man who has the power to work magic, but he can't really control it very well. He wants to be a wizard, so he goes to this magical school where he makes some friends, meets some rivals, and is mentored by the head of the school..." And by this point, the person you're talking to says, "So it's Harry Potter, basically," and you have to stop and blink and look for words because, no. No, it's nothing like Harry Potter. But the book you just described sounds so much like Harry Potter, and how can this be?

LeGuin's argument is that the plot of a book is really just information, and raw information is not art. You can imagine a spreadsheet filled with numbers -- your date of birth, your social security number, your height and weight, your anniversary, the grades you got on every report card you ever earned -- but all of those numbers are just information, just data. It's not until you arrange those numbers into the Mona Lisa that they become art. A book, or at least what makes a book art, is not the raw facts contained in it, but rather how those facts are arranged and how the story is told. That's the art, and that's what makes the book worth reading, and worth writing in the first place.

This is also why Wizard of Earthsea has not been merchandised. You know what I mean: there are no Wizard of Earthsea t-shirts or ball caps. Although the staves carried by all the wizards of Roke are described to us in the books, you can't buy a replica for your closet the way you can buy a duplicate of every wand every shown in the Harry Potter films. There are no Ged or Tehanu action figures. There's no Earthsea video game, in which you sail from island to island going on quests, talking to dragons, and learning how to change shape into a bird or a goat. There are no stuffed otaks, even though, let's face it, they'd be the perfect Christmas gift for your niece.

LeGuin has resisted all these things, even though they would make her a boatload of money. And the reason why she has resisted these things is because she considers them part of the problem, and that problem is the commodification of fantasy. That is, fantasy is in danger of not being about books any more, about reading. Instead, fantasy becomes about the action figures, the video games, and the t-shirts. It's about the stuff. It's like owning a postcard depicting the Grand Canyon and thinking that's as good as having been there. The only way to experience The Wizard of Earthsea is by reading the damn book, because that's what it is, that's how LeGuin made it. It's a book, not a LEGO playset. And I have to note, again as a guy who had plenty of LEGOs as a child, none of this is to say toys can't be fun, games can't be fun. It's just that they're not books, and neither of those things can substitute for the other.

LeGuin's view, that the plot is not the book, makes perfect sense when you consider it alongside her opinion on borrowing and imitation. Ged's story is a coming of age story. That's a very old plot. He goes to school and, while there, has some of the problems that seem perfectly normal to us at school: he's not sure where he fits in to the established cliques yet, he gets pushed around by upper class men, he tries to impress his fellow students, and so on. These plot elements are not unique to Roke, or to magical schools, they're part of what happens at schools, period. You see the same thing at Hogwarts, in Spider-Man comics, and in old episodes of Saved by the Bell. It's not what happens that makes these stories distinctive, it's how they're told.

When we describe a book, we begin by describing its plot, but that's only because that's the easiest part to describe. This is a very common mistake. As one of my colleagues pointed out to me one day, we evaluate teachers based on the grades their students earn, which is one of the least accurate and most unfair ways to evaluate a teacher, but it's by far the easiest, and that's why we do it. Our assumption that a book's plot is what makes it distinctive is wrong, but it's easy to understand how we get there.

But LeGuin argues that what makes the book distinctive is its style. Style is the book. That's LeGuin's opinion. The way the book is written: the word choice, the turn of phrase, the sentences and paragraphs. The dialogue -- "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie" is primarily about what makes good and bad dialogue in a fantasy. A book is much less about what the characters in it do than about how they talk. That, LeGuin says, is the book. Or, at least, that's what makes it art. And style is very hard to measure; it's hard to explain to others, and it's hard to describe, which is why most of us don't even try to talk about style. A book's style also doesn't translate very well into video games and t-shirts, which is why LeGuin doesn't want any of that merchandise filling in for Wizard of Earthsea.

But this is also why she doesn't care that JK Rowling has made an enormous fortune off a magical school. Because Rowling's books are about as unlike the Earthsea novels as they could possibly be. Rowling isn't borrowing style, she's borrowing an element of plot, and every author, good or bad, does that. What frustrates LeGuin to no end is the fact that Rowling refuses to acknowledge she's borrowed, as if she created Hogwarts in a vacuum. Which to LeGuin is just ridiculous and a wholly unnecessary claim.

Now let's talk about Roke for a minute. It's first described in Wizard of Earthsea but we return to it many times throughout the Earthsea series, and in her story "The Finder," reprinted in Tales from Earthsea, we even learn how the school was founded. Its features and landmarks can be counted on one hand: there are a couple of doors in and out, both of which are hidden or guarded; there's the Great House, where most of the students and faculty reside, and where the Court of Fountains is located, where Ged first meets Archmage Nemmerle; there's Roke Knoll, said to be one of the first pieces of land drug up out of the water by Segoy; and there's the Immanent Grove, a primeval forest which, like the TARDIS, is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. There are nine masters at Roke: including the Master Patterner, who lives in the Grove, the Master Namer Kurremkarmerruk, who lives off by himself in the Isolate Tower, the Doorkeeper, who has to let you in and whom you must get past if you want to leave, and who just may be the same guy who helped found the school centuries before the events of the novel, and the Master Summoner. The Summoner handles the magic of spirits and the dead, and for that reason his position is perhaps the most perilous and most dangerous. He's Roke's equivalent of the Defense Against the Dark Arts instructor, and over the course of five novels we see three different men serve in this rather hazardous post. One of them, Thorion, comes back from death to be the primary antagonist of the fourth book in the series, The Farthest Shore, and at that time the Masters of Roke are actually divided, with half of them backing Thorion and the other half -- the wiser and better half, including the Namer, the Patterner, and the Doorkeeper -- siding against him.

What's notable about all this is that the School of Roke is far from perfect. When we first arrive there along with Ged, when we meet Archmage Nemmerle at the Court of Fountains and see all the other boys learning magic, when Ged is befriended by Vetch, Roke appears to be an ideal haven. Sure, there are bad apples like Jasper, but in general -- and especially to an academic like myself, a guy who, as a kid, won the Perfect Attendance award every year -- it's the place all of us wish we were at. If there was a Wizard of Earthsea park in Orlando, let's face it, we'd all be buying tickets and waiting in line. They'd probably have a water ride, and a restaurant hidden in the Immanent Grove, where they'd serve Gedburgers made with goat meat.

But contrast all this business with the school on Roke to Ogion the Silent, Ged's second teacher -- I say second because we really should not forget his aunt, the Witch of Ten Alders, who saw him summoning goats as a child and who taught him how to call hawks down out of the sky. So she was his first teacher, Ogion his second, and the masters of Roke his third. On Roke there were classrooms where dozens of boys sat together learning from books, but Ogion had only one student and no classroom or, indeed, anything but an old and unremarkable house where he, too, kept goats. The two of them, master and apprentice, went on walks, long walks through the forest; Ogion the Silent lived up to his nickname by saying almost nothing, and he certainly never lectured, or even seemed to instruct Ged at all. Like the famous story of the Sorcerer's Apprentice, which was put on the big screen in Disney's animated film Fantasia, when Ursula Kroeber was 11 years old and the perfect age to see it, Ged snuck a peek at his master's book and worked magic he could not control. But instead of conjuring up an army of uncontrollable mops to flood the place, as Mickey does, he conjures up "a shadow of a shadow", in this case a literal foreshadowing of the much more dangerous Shadow he calls forth later. And it's after this incident that Ogion offers Ged the choice of remaining his pupil on Gont or going to Roke.

But something we often lose sight of is that, when Ged chooses to go to Roke, Ged is making a mistake. This is a young Ged, before he has learned about himself and integrated his flaws into his character, making him a whole and better person. His choice to go to Roke is motivated by pride, by the shame of his error, by a desire to master power quickly and easily, and his failure to understand what Ogion was trying to teach him. As I reread the novel, it struck me again that what Ged really should have done, what would have been best for him, was to stay on Gont with Ogion and learn what Ogion had that he, Ged, did not: patience, stillness, and humility.

But he doesn't. He goes to Roke, where his pride and his recklessness are fed, and it's there where he calls forth the spirit of Elferran and summons the shadow. The Archmage Nemmerle gives his life to send it away, and Ged survives, forever scarred, but also humbled and afraid. He goes to the next Archmage, who is called Gensher of Way, and he asks Gensher for advice. How should he combat the shadow? What can he do? And Gensher tells him that the shadow is a "Nameless Thing" and, because it has no name, no power of magic can stand against it. Ged is helpless. There's nothing he can do. His only option is to run as long as he can and as far as he can until the shadow finds him and consumes him, takes over his body and makes him a monster.

But Genser of Way, the Archmage of Roke, who I'll remind you was chosen from among all the wizards of Earthsea by the nine Masters, is flat out wrong when he says all this. The shadow does have a name, Ged's name, because it is not a "Nameless Thing" at all, it's a manifestation of Ged's own pride, recklessness, and desire for power. And it's Ogion, Ogion the Silent, who gives Ged the right answer to his question, who corrects the Archmage and assures Ged that all things have a name. It is Ogion who counsels Ged, and tells him the only proper thing to do is not to flee the shadow, but to turn and face it. And it's after all this that Ged kneels down before Ogion and says, "I have walked with great wizards and have lived on the Isle of the Wise, but you are my true master."

It's a tough thing to admit for those of us who work at a school for a living, but Wizard of Earthsea is a book in which going to school is actually kind of a bad idea. The teachers are wrong as often as they're right. They often disagree with each other, they distrust each other, and they keep secrets from each other. The school is filled with petty rivalries among both faculty and students, and it's saddled with old rules that didn't make much sense when they were first put into place and make even less sense now, years later. And, of course, none of this surprises us, because all these qualities are the sort of thing you expect in stories set in a school, again whether it's Hogwarts, Peter Parker's high school, or my own College of Coastal Georgia.

But as we learn in later novels, there is something especially troubling about the school of Roke: it's deeply misogynist. No women are allowed to study there, but that's not because women can't use magic or be wizards, it's because of centuries-old prejudice against witches. There's no other reason for the prohibition against women at Roke; it's just a straight-up distrust and contempt for women, and its ugly as hell. It's especially offensive because the School of Roke was, in fact, founded by women, but after they formalized the school and accepted male students and masters, they chose the first Archmage, and that guy was called Halkel of Way. Halkel threw all the women out and instituted a rule that wizards, and all the students at Roke, had to be celibate. Note that Halkel is from the same place as Gensher of Way, who gave Ged the bad advice about the Shadow; apparently, wizards from Way are wrong a lot.

But anyhow, the celibacy among wizards is enforced through magic; students cast spells on themselves that prevent them, or women around them, from thinking about sex. But it wasn't always this way, and the fact that the great wizards from before Roke -- including Morred, the wizard-king -- were married and had children demonstrates that the celibacy of wizards is completely unnecessary.

Now, none of this misogyny and celibacy business is explicit in Wizard of Earthsea, the first novel. Only boys can study at Roke and become wizards, but it's never explained why this is, and it's easy to presume that this is just how magic works in Earthsea. That is, if you want to be a wizard, you have to be born a boy, and that's just all there is to it. The masters of Roke aren't being jerks, this is just nature. I'm not even sure how much of all this LeGuin had figured out when she first began to write the books, because LeGuin describes her writing process as one of exploration. That is, she did not sit down, before she wrote the first novel, and figure out all the isles of Earthsea, who lives on them, what their cultures and languages are like, what food they eat and what songs they sing. She discovered all these things as she wrote, ensuring new revelations fit with facts we already knew but always with a sense of discovery. This is another way Earthsea differs from the Potterverse, for Rowling has often spoken and written about all the planning that went into her novels, down to listing all the students in Harry's class before she wrote a single page. LeGuin would never work that way; it's completely counter-intuitive for her. But to get back to Roke, we know that the school was founded by women, that women could be wizards except the Masters of Roke won't allow it, and wizards don't need to be celibate, they're just afraid of the influence of women. They're afraid that if a wizard is distracted and corrupted by women he won't be as good of a wizard. But we only know that later, not in The Wizard of Earthsea, and it's really hard to know how much of this LeGuin figured out before hand, and how much she discovered as she was writing The Tombs of Atuan and later books.

This method of writing, of discovering rather than planning, is totally consistent with other aspects of LeGuin's work, including her emphasis on style over plot and the fact that Ogion is a better teacher for Ged than all the Masters of Roke. Because all of these things emphasize being over doing. This is a Taoist viewpoint, and Taoism has been a part of LeGuin's life and work for most of her career. Taoism can be hard to explain -- if I try to outline the history of Taoist philosophy and the life of Lao-Tze, Taoism's most famous proponent -- I expect your eyes would all glaze over and you'd fall asleep. But if I illustrate it with examples, I think you might recognize it. Taoism is, in many ways, about appreciating the simple pleasures of life, especially in connection with nature and family. Those of us that live in the rural South don't need convincing when it comes to things like enjoying a walk in the woods, a sunny day at the beach, or the cold nose of your dog or cat brushing up into your palm, asking to be petted. I'm talking about the happiness that comes from fishing, or the garden, from both making and eating a meal with your friends and family. These are not expensive pleasures. They are not dramatic acts. There's no great story there, no grand or epic narrative. But these pleasures are easy to find, and so easy for us to take for granted. A man or a woman who did nothing but these kinds of things their whole life would die happy -- indeed, probably happier than the rest of us, who spend our whole lives running the rat race, hoping for some big score, so busy chasing that giant piece of cheese that we forget about all the happiness which is right there, all around us, if we just paused a minute and really looked at it. Being, not doing; that's the lifestyle that saturates LeGuin's work. This is an author who tells us almost nothing about the various antagonists and bad guys in her books; characters like Jasper, Thorion, and Cob are almost complete ciphers, motivated by one overwhelming passion such as envy, vengeance, or a desire for power. But LeGuin will spend entire chapters describing Tenar's domestic life in Ogion's old house or back on her farm with Ged. It's all about being, not doing, and I think this is one of the reasons why every attempt to adapt Wizard of Earthsea into a movie or television show or animated film has been a total failure.

Tonight I've mentioned a lot of fantasy and science fiction novels, and they all have something in common: you can choose to watch them instead of read them. And I can't help but think that, for some of these authors, that was the actual point all along. After all, that's where the money is, the pot of gold. And Rowling is a great example of this, too; she is a woman who was totally transformed by her fortune, and now she writes screenplays, not novels at all. They're delightful films, please don't misunderstand me. But reading a book and watching a movie are very different experiences. Tolkien wrote about this in a famous essay of his, titled "On Fairy Stories." Tolkien died in 1973, but even during his lifetime there was talk about making movies out of the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. Tolkien agreed to these proposals, and he had very practical, no-nonsense reasons: he had a big family, he didn't get paid much, and he had bills. After reading one script for an animated adaptation of the Hobbit, he told his publishers not to send him any more scripts. Don't ask him to read a script, because he'll hate it. Just send the check.

But Tolkien understood that the difference between reading a book and watching a film is one of interpretation. When Tolkien writes about a rock, a tree, or a river, you, as you read that line, imagine that rock you sit on whenever you go to the beach, that tree that still stands in the front yard of your family home, the river where you went to spot gators over summer vacation. Reading a book requires something from you, and it allows you to possess it in a way that's totally unique to you. You have to invest in it. You have to participate. But as soon as someone makes a movie out of that book, well, now you're not seeing your rock, your tree, and your river; you're seeing Peter Jackson's rock, Peter Jackson's tree, and Peter Jackson's river. And you've lost the one thing that's distinctive about the book in the first place.

The animated, film, and television adaptations of Earthsea, the few that LeGuin has allowed to proceed, are all pretty terrible and she regrets every single one. Not only do they lose the style and focus on the plot, which as I've said is contrary to everything LeGuin thinks about art and writing, but they make enormous changes to Earthsea in the name of profitability. The worst example of this is the whitewashing of Earthsea. As anyone who has read any of the novels knows, most of the people in Earthsea -- including Ged -- are not white. They sail boats around an archipelago, their skin is reddish-brown, and they have dark hair. Basically, the cast of a Wizard of Earthsea movie should look like the cast of Moana. Earthsea is almost 50 years old, but it's taken until now for Hollywood to be brave enough to make a big budget fantasy movie starring Polynesians. LeGuin will probably never agree to another Earthsea adaptation, but the film industry may finally be mature enough to do a fair version of it.

Step back for a moment and examine the Earthsea series, in its entirety, and you'll see how audacious and brave it is. And I'm not talking just about its presentation of race, but in all kinds of other choices LeGuin made while writing the series. For example, the first five books in the series all star a different character. Oh, sure, Ged is in all of them to one extent or another, but imagine for a minute that you have written your first fantasy novel, and it's a huge hit, and you begin winning awards for it pretty much as soon as it's published. So you decide to write a sequel, and this pleases your agent and your publisher enormously because they can see the money rolling in. And what do you decide to do with this sequel novel? This continuation of the story of Ged? You spend the entire first half of the book telling the story of a different character, in a place Ged has never been, and when Ged finally does show up, he's captured by your new female lead and he hardly seems to do anything except starve to death.

And then every book in the series, you do the same thing! Every time someone thinks they have your series figured out, you change it. So the first three books are for young people, and they're all coming-of-age stories. But then when you write the last three books twenty years later, they're books for adults, for parents with children of their own, and all the protagonists are in their fifties, or older, and their hair has gone gray. And they seem to spend most of their time washing dishes, herding goats, and repairing fences. Think for a minute how easy it would have been for LeGuin to just write another book about Ged the Archmage doing heroic wizardly things: facing down dragons, humbling rival wizards, saving the kingdom again and again. We would eat that stuff up. But she chose not to do what was easy; she chose to do what was hard.

And there's no better example of this than The Other Wind, the last book in the series. Which, no matter how much I love Wizard of Earthsea, I will always respect as the hardest, the most challenging, of the books for LeGuin to write, because it's so unlike everything else in Earthsea. It's the only novel with a fellowship of protagonists in it. It's her story of Jason and the Argonauts, or Tolkien's Fellowship of the Ring. Every other novel and short story in Earthsea follows one character pretty much from beginning to end, but in The Other Wind she assembles a cast of characters from all her other books and we see Earthsea through each of their eyes in turn. That sounds familiar, but in perfect LeGuin fashion, it's totally unlike anything you expect. If you haven't read The Other Wind yet, I promise you're in for a treat, but imagine if JRR Tolkien wrote a whole book just about Gandalf, a sequel about Boromir, a third book about Aragorn, another book about Legolas and Gimli, and then finally, in the last book of the series, everyone finally gets together and hangs out in Gondor for 15 chapters, basically just talking, until in the last 30 pages they all go to Rivendell, destroy the One Ring, and save the world. That sounds completely bananas, and yet that's the plot of the entire Earthsea series, in a nutshell.

But as we know by now, the plot is not the book. It's not the school that's important, it's the lesson. And the primary lesson for wizards at the School of Roke is to act only when absolutely necessary and, when acting, to do as little as possible. That's a tough bit for an American audience to swallow; it's certainly in contrast to the media we watch. Ged is taught, and teaches others, to do as little as possible, but here in America we spend a billion dollars to watch the latest Action movie, and we define heroes not by their thoughts and feelings, but by how many explosions they walk away from. Indeed, we define ourselves with the question, "What do you do?" That's one of the first things we ask a stranger. But to a wizard of Earthsea, the best answer to that question is, "As little as possible." That's difficult for us to understand, and it's a lesson Ged himself learns only very painfully.

Why should a wizard do as little as possible? Because when a wizard uses his magic to do something in the world, his actions have ramifications, repercussions which he will then have to deal with. If you call up a wind to blow your ship in the right direction, sailing west, well, that wind has to come from somewhere; someone else is going to lose it. And the wind that blows you west, in the right direction for you, is blowing in the face of the guy on the other side of the lake, who wants to go east. And what makes your way more important than his? Who says west is better than east? Maybe that guy is just trying to get home after a long day at work, and he wants to put his feet up, open a beer, and watch the game. Or maybe his wife is about to give birth to their first child, and he knows she'll be frightened and he wants to be there for her. The only way a wizard can rationalize using his power for his own convenience is if he assumes he is more important than every other person in the world. And that's an easy mistake to make, not just for wizards, but for all of us, because we only see the world through one set of eyes: our own. And it takes an exercise of will to see anything from another person's point of view. And sometimes we can manage it, but often we can't, and even when we do, it seldom lasts very long. By now you can see this has nothing to do with wizards at all, and everything to do with just being a human being in the world. Which is why A Wizard of Earthsea connects with everyone, not just boys, or adolescents, but all of us. Because this is a problem we all come to understand, eventually. Sometimes painfully, and sometimes with grace.

When we act in the world, we are stones creating ripples in a pond. And we're responsible for those ripples, the consequences of our actions. Not just the ones we perceive, but even the ones we don't. When we're children, we don't have much power. We affect other people, our parents and siblings and those closest to us, but we're locked out of so much in society and adults are immune to much of our power. But as we mature, we become better at what we do, and the levers of power are given to us. We're given tangible things like automobiles and firearms, but also intangible things like a lover's pledge, or the respect of our peers, and now our capacity for action is much greater. The ripples we make when our stone is thrown are much higher now, and stronger. We try to do what is right, what is good, and what is just. But we are constantly pressured to act by society, and obliged to act thanks to our own internal moral code. Every act is another stone in the water, creating new obligations, new duties, new responsibilities which are ours and belong to none other. Proud of our skill and power, we become certain in our actions and choices. We no longer have time for things which once made us happy all day long, and we forget that for every wind that blows us west, some other poor schmuck is trying to go east.

This, to me, is the great lesson of Wizard of Earthsea. It's a hard lesson, but I thought I'd leave you with it. It's on page 71 of my well-worn paperback edition, and it goes like this:

"And the truth is that as a man's real power grows and his knowledge widens, ever the way he can follow grows narrower: until at last he chooses nothing, but does only and wholly what he must do..."


Jason Tondro is an English professor, author, gamer, and blogger. He can be found on Twitter @doctorcomics
Ursula K LeGuin: Still Taking Us To School Ursula K LeGuin: Still Taking Us To School Reviewed by Unknown on Wednesday, January 24, 2018 Rating: 5
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