The wisdom of wizards

Cardiff Waterstones wizard by Chris Riddell

For in dreams we enter a world that is entirely our own. Let them swim in the deepest ocean or glide over the highest cloud.
— Dumbledore

Harry Potter turns 40 today (he was born on 31st July 1980, fifteen years to the day after his creator) so I thought I would offer you a few choice words from just three of the best known fictional wizards in modern times.

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Crossing in mists

The Lathe of Heaven
by Ursula Le Guin,
SF Masterworks,
Gollancz 2001 (1971)

For me the sign of a good — or at least stimulating — novel is how much I think about it while I’m reading it and for some while after. Reading The Lathe of Heaven for the first time a couple of decades ago puzzled me, but I knew I’d want to return to it in due course. While there are still aspects that puzzle me I feel I have more of a foothold on the scree slope that Le Guin’s novel presents to us.

Part of the strength of this novel comes from the visual images that function as leitmotifs, along with the sense of place that the novel’s setting in Portland, Oregon provides, in which the three principal players and one or two other supporting characters act out their parts.

Buttressing all are quotes from Daoist texts and references to literature and popular culture which, though placed like bits of collage in the overall schema are actually integral to the author’s composition.

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“Greed puts out the sun.”

Islands

Ursula Le Guin: The Other Wind
Orion Children’s Books 2002 (2001)

O my joy!
Before bright Ea was, before Segoy
Bade the islands be,
The morning wind blew on the sea.
O my joy, be free!

When Lebannen, king of all the isles of Earthsea, remembers this fragment of a ballad or lullaby from his childhood he is sailing on the Inland Sea. A storm has passed; whether it is the words, the tune or being on deck that has brought the words to mind matters less than that it is a leitmotif for this final novel in the Earthsea sequence, and perhaps for the whole sequence. It recalls a beginning and even an ending, for on the last page Tenar whispers the final words to Ged: O my joy, be free . . .

The Other Wind is, however one looks at it, the last novel in Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea sequence: the collection Tales from Earthsea includes episodes which predate the events in this swansong instalment but these two books, along with Tehanu, form a balancing trilogy with the first three books which, the author came to recognise, gave a rather unbalanced worldview of her creation in terms of gender.

As Earthsea’s existence and survival is bound up with balance, it was only morally and poetically right for its Creator to follow the male-dominated first trilogy with a second reasserting female contribution; and if that involved if not retconning then at least establishing that the fulcrum of power on the Island of Roke was initiated by women as much as men justice could not only be done but seen to be done. And though some benighted erstwhile fans saw this somehow as too politically correct, to this reader at least Earthsea’s yin was finally complemented by its yang and Le Guin’s passion made manifest.

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Tales within tales

The Sleep of Reason (Wikipedia Commons)
The Sleep of Reason (Wikipedia Commons)

Ursula K Le Guin
A Fisherman of the Inland Sea: Stories
Harper Perennial 2005

Ursula Le Guin is best known for her fantasy and her science fiction writings, though she also writes other fiction as well as poetry, articles and reviews. The short stories in this 1994 collection, while firmly in the SF genre, also demonstrate her ability to compose in various tones, from light to dark, from gentle humour to philosophical musings. Originally published in various periodicals between 1983 and 1994, the narratives are clearly placed in context by an excellent introduction in which she not only discusses the tales but also mounts a spirited defence of SF as a genre, a defence which twenty years on may be less urgent though no less valid or effective.

She explains that she experiments with SF by using the form to explore character and human relationships, rather than exploring the ‘scientism’ and elitist technocracies that much traditional ‘hard’ SF was associated with and which put off the unconverted. She also denies that SF (and by extension, I suspect, fantasy) is necessarily escapist; instead, by exploring human characteristics, even or especially in alien humanoids, she throws light on our own humanity, humaneness, human-ness; she focuses on the potential strengths of SF, most particularly on a quality that is not always attached to this genre: beauty.

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The map fantastic

Contemporary sketch map of Rye (17th century?)

Contemporary novels, set in the real world, rarely if ever need a map included in the text. Historical novels occasionally offer one, especially if they show old territories or ancient names for places. Dystopian futures and distant planets do often require them and, ideally, so should fantasies: the more fantastical they are the more we need a cartographic guide, however sketchy, to orientate ourselves.

What happens though when either no map is available or, if one is offered, it’s so sketchy as to be next to useless?

The answer, for people like me, is to make my own from whatever clues are offered in the text, letting logic — and occasionally imagination — fill in the rest.

And that’s what I have been doing recently: tripping the map fantastic, as it were.

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An archipelago of stories

Smoke drifting across a copse

Ursula Le Guin: Tales from Earthsea
Orion Children’s Books 2002 (2001)

A story may be pieced together from such scraps and fragments, and though it will be an airy quilt, half made of hearsay and half of guesswork, yet it may be true enough.
— From ‘The Finder’

In the middle of Earthsea, nestled within the vast island archipelago, is the Inmost Sea. In the centre of that sea is the island of Roke. And on that island is the Immanent Grove, by the eminence that is Roke Knoll. And above all, the sky. Earth, water, wood and air: elements that we meet time and again in Tales from Earthsea and, indeed, in the whole saga. And to those we should also add fire.

Ursula Le Guin’s five Earthsea novels, expanded from the original trilogy to a quartet and then, three decades on, to a pentad, have felt at times like the saga of Duny, later called Sparrowhawk but now known as Ged. True, it drew in other participants — Tenar, Lebannen and Tehanu, for example — but principally we have followed Ged from boyhood to Archmage and on to old age.

We will have always known however that there were — that there will have to have been — other stories to tell, and in this collection we are offered five of them, along with an essay giving us some of the who, what, when and where of this magical world. And I mean ‘magical’ in all the senses of this word.

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Once-upon-a-time realms

Inverted commas 9: Imaginary Worlds

Imagination like all living things lives now, and it lives with, from, on true change. Like all we do and have, it can be co-opted and degraded; but it survives commercial and didactic exploitation. The land outlasts the empires. The conquerors may leave desert where there was forest and meadow, but the rain will fall, the rivers will run to the sea.
— from the foreword of Ursula Le Guin’s Tales from Earthsea (2001)

The late Ursula Le Guin knew all about fantastic realms. She created several, including the abiding world of Earthsea, that archipelago of islands amidst a boundless ocean.

In her foreword to the collection of short stories about this world she took a tilt at what she called commodified fantasy which, she asserted, “takes no risks: it invents nothing, but invents and trivialises.” We’re well aware of that derivative impulse that somehow diminishes what it feeds on: we see it constantly in never-ending book franchises, films, TV series, video games and assorted spin-offs: it’s a desperate experience to watch as they dilute the originals, before squeezing every last drop of merchandising out of them.

But she is optimistic about the capacity of the imagination to mount rearguard actions whenever needed, to defend against insidious exploitation whether of the commercial or intellectual kind:

The unstable, mutable, untruthful realms of Once-upon-a-time are as much a part of human history and thought as the nations in our kaleidoscopic atlases, and some are more enduring.

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Cardiff BookTalk Le Guin event

Cardiff BookTalk describes itself as “the book group with a difference: we listen to experts on great literature and then explore the big themes from the books in lively conversation.” Recently its members have been exploring science fiction and fantasy genres, including a screening and discussion of the biopic Mary Shelley as part of Cardiff FrankenFest, a contribution to a worldwide Frankenreads initiative.

Earlier this week I managed to attend a special discussion of Ursula LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, and hope you’ll enjoy the report on the evening that follows, not least because Lizzie Ross and I hosted a Witch Week event which included posts on Le Guin. This year marks not only UKLG’s death in January but also the fiftieth anniversary of the groundbreaking A Wizard of Earthsea, and as a feminist she remains a notable figure in a year that has seen the #MeToo movement take off, plus the centenary of partial women’s suffrage being won in the UK, along with unofficial recognition of 2018 as being the year of the woman. And not before time, as most years irritatingly seem to be dedicated to only half of the world’s population.

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Witch Week Day 6: The Genius of Ursula K Le Guin

Le Guin’s fantasy fans will recognize these few lines from The Creation of Éa, Le Guin’s imagined mythology of Earthsea:

Only in silence the word,
only in dark the light,
only in dying life;
bright the hawk’s flight
on the empty sky.

Some of us know that Le Guin wrote poetry before she wrote fiction, but how many of us have read beyond the fragments in her novels? Today, poet and guest blogger Tanya Manning-Yarde tantalizes us with a taste Le Guin’s poetry.

Tanya Manning-Yarde, PhD, is a poet and freelance writer from New York City. A graduate of Rutgers University and University at Albany, she recently worked as a copy editor and contributing writer for Bronze Magazine. She blogs at Tanya Manning-Yarde PhD (Instagram @every_watering_word_author) and is a freelance blogger for the annual Montclair Film Festival in Montclair, NJ.

Prior to pursuing a career as a writer, she was a high school English/Language Arts teacher, Assistant Professor, Instructional Coach, and an educational consultant. Her poems have been published at Literary Mama, Memoryhouse and Random Sample Review. Her first poetry collection, Every Watering Word, was published in 2017 (Wasteland Press).


Ursula K Le Guin’s Finding my Elegy: New and Selected Poems (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012) is a compelling constellation of poems. Spanning fifty years, this collection chronicles selected early writings to contemporary pieces previously unpublished. Although well known for her science fiction writing, Le Guin was also a prolific poet, demonstrating versatility in verse and dexterity in the topics she pondered. This compilation illustrates Le Guin’s agility; her poetry is unfettered, unobligated, reliant neither on topical boundaries nor compliant with poetic structural apparatuses.

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Witch Week Day 5: Discussion of The Other Wind

THE OTHER WIND Discussion, Witch Week 2018

Lizzie, Lory and Chris approached this discussion of The Other Wind, the read-along book, not as a Q/A session, but rather as responses developing over time and in conversation with each other. Below: the edited version, with sections that match our Feminism+Fantasy theme. For the complete version (17 pages!), click here. And if you’ve read the book please join the conversation in the Comments.

Chapter I. Mending the Green Pitcher

LIZZIE: I’m glad to see Ged play a part in the action – to hear his reference to Tenar as his wife, and watch him only minimally regretful/angry about the loss of his powers.

CHRIS: Time enough for Ged to be better reconciled to his loss of power and status. He derives a quiet joy from mundane tasks and routines, but it is now Alder who is confused by Ged’s acceptance of a massive change of status and refusal to see Lebannen.

LORY: Ged has made a huge journey through the novels. In A Wizard of Earthsea, we meet him as a proud, insecure, sometimes arrogant young man, eager to acquire and display power. He matured into a wiser man who recognized the importance of balance and restraint. Now, having given away his extraordinary powers to restore balance to the world, he recognizes the value of the mundane and ordinary. It’s where all the magic comes from, after all, and what it should serve.

It makes me think about our own world and the power of simple acts: mending, tending, healing, caring. But I still wonder: Why does Ged refuse to meet the King or his fellow wizards? Is it really shame and regret? Or does he simply not fit into their world any more, would he feel too out of place?

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Something witchy this way comes

Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series is like Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, one of those secondary worlds that I’ve found I’ve needed to revisit every so often. I’m not the only one, I know, that — however familiar the outline plots — discovers something new each time I step into those universes, whether it’s an insight, a revelation or an emotion.

With the imminent arrival of Witch Week 2018, its theme this year of Fantasy+Feminism and focus on Ursula Le Guin (further details here and here, and also here), I’ve been re-immersing myself in Earthsea as I originally promised myself in a mini-review back in 2015.

Lizzie Ross and I will be co-hosting Witch Week (30 October to 06 November), with a week of posts celebrating the fantasy genre and Diana Wynne Jones.
We’ve lined up some exciting posts from guest bloggers, including a Top-Ten list of fantasy heroines, and a discussion of a Polish fantasy series.
AND don’t forget our readalong: Le Guin’s The Other Wind, the final book of her Earthsea series.

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Witch Week 2018 is coming…

Ursula Le Guin

Fellow blogger and author Lizzie Ross and I are co-hosting Witch Week 2018. This is a yearly event, first aired on Lory Hess‘s Emerald City Book Review, named after the third book of the same name in Diana Wynne Jones’ Chrestomanci series.

The week runs from 30th October to 6th November, so it includes two great holidays: Halloween AND Guy Fawkes’ Day. The first is now mostly associated with witches and spooky goings-on, of course, while the second, commemorating the uncovering of a plot to blow up Parliament and King James, is an excuse to celebrate with bonfires and fireworks in the UK.

Remember, remember!
The fifth of November,
Gunpowder, treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why gunpowder, treason
Should ever be forgot.

This year, our theme is Feminism + Fantasy, so our read-along book will be Ursula K Le Guin‘s The Other Wind, the final book in the Earthsea series. You have plenty of time to get a copy and read it (perhaps the rest of the series as well) before 30 October. Then join the conversation as we discuss what happens when Le Guin throws a feminist dynamic into the fantastic world of Earthsea.

We’ll have guest bloggers, including this event’s originator and previous host, Lory at Emerald City Book Review, and other features to be finalised and announced as we get closer to the event. We do hope you’ll join in!

Magic, menace and the mundane

Ursula Le Guin: Tehanu: the Last Book of Earthsea
in The Earthsea Quartet
Puffin/Penguin Books 1993 (1990)

As a fantasy novel Tehanu is a tough read: it touches on child abuse, rape, misogyny, prejudice, paranoia, xenophobia, torture and psychopathy. But against all these evils we also witness loyalty, support, care, consolation, compassion and love. Does magic come into it? Well, a bit. And let’s not forget dragons, or at least one particular dragon.

This instalment of the Earthsea series is set immediately after the events in The Farthest Shore. That ended with the promise of a crowning and Sparrowhawk’s return to his place of birth, the island of Gont. Great events had shaken the archipelago, but one might have hoped that the overthrow of one evil would have returned Earthsea to some stability. Much has happened in the twenty years since Tenar was rescued from the Place of the Tombs on Atuan: the former child priestess has married a Gontish farmer, had children, and has lately been widowed. But things remain awry; indeed, they may be getting worse.

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My top ten mazes

Ritratto Di Gentiluomo by Bartolomeo Veneto in Bartolomeo Veneto, l’opera completa, Firenze: Centro Di, 1997. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve long had a fascination with mazes and labyrinthine paths, whether it be their patterns, their history, their symbolism or their psychology. My bible for a long time was W H Matthews’ classic overview Mazes and Labyrinths: their history and developments (first published in 1922 and republished in 1970). I also pored over G R Levy’s The Gate of Horn (1948, republished 1963) which looked at how caves may have contributed to the lore of the winding path, while taking copious notes from a library copy of Jack Lindsay’s fascinating Helen of Troy (1974).

I learnt the difference between unicursal and multicursal mazes, and also the correspondences between the classic Cretan labyrinth and the Christian maze (as typified in Chartres Cathedral); I taught myself how to draw the classic pattern freehand, and traced it out on beaches for the amusement of children and, later, grandchildren; I corresponded with experts (for example Adrian Fisher and Jeff Seward, author of Magical Paths) and exchanged notes and booklets on the subject with them.

And, of course, I read fiction that featured the labyrinth and the maze in all its wonderful variety.

Here are ten titles about these conundrums that I especially remember and value (links are to relevant reviews or discussions).

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Righting the balance

Ursula Le Guin: The Farthest Shore
in The Earthsea Quartet
Puffin Books 1993 (1973)

When one comes to the end of a planned trilogy one always hopes for a sense of closure. But when I first read this there was also a sense of profound disappointment: yes, wrongs were righted, evil was overcome, but at what a cost! And yet, on a second reading and armed with hindsight, that disappointment was transmuted into acceptance as I started to understand the narrative arcs that applied to the whole trilogy.

With that understanding I think that the author’s intended ending was perfectly logical and absolutely in harmony with the preceding two novels. Because it also functions well enough as a standalone novel I can see how a new reader (and that was me, once upon a time) might feel bereft in the concluding pages; but Le Guin, in running counter to our expectations of a fantasy universe, showed what an original thinker she was and how her approach both overturned and reinvigorated the epic fantasy conventions of the time.

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