Ursula Kroeber Le Guin was born in 1929 in California and she is now 85 and continues to blog on her website, http://www.ursulakleguin.com/Blog2015.html#New. A Wizard of Earthsea was published in 1968 as the first book in the Earthsea cycle series. She wrote five novels from 1951 until 1961, but she wasn’t published until the early 1960’s over the course of her writing career she has won numerous awards including two Hugos, five Locus, and four Nebula awards. She received the Pilgrim Award in 1989 from the Science Fiction Research Association (SFRA) for her “lifetime contributions to SF and fantasy scholarship.”1
Her father was an anthropologist and her mother a writer. Wikipedia asserts that she “treats race and gender quite deliberately.”1 The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) she “explores social, cultural, and personal consequences of sexual identity through a novel involving a human encounter with an unpredictably androgynous race.”1 She is a leader in Science Fiction as well as exploration of anthropological and sociological aspects of culture.
A Wizard of Earthsea is about a boy, Sparrowhawk or his true name, Ged, who grows into a man and a wizard. He eventually goes to Roke island, which is a school for wizards, where he studies to become a wizard in classes with other young men. He meets another young man named Jasper whom he is jealous of from the beginning. This jealousy and animosity leads the two young men to dual with magic. In attempting to prove his superiority, Ged calls up a deceased woman and in this act looses a shadow which nearly kills him. With time he recovers and he is able to resume his training. The remainder of the book is the story of Ged and the shadow he lets loose, which is now chasing him and trying to possess him. Revealing any more would be a spoiler, so I will leave more to be discovered within the confines of the book.
I really enjoyed the book, her world building of Earthsea, writing style, and story telling. Ged’s story is one of growth, of humanity, and one that encompasses both light and dark forces. As the reader, you observe Ged growing into a man and all the tribulations and trials that come with that growth and journey.
Her writing style is like a combination of poetry and prose. She has mastered the art of beautiful prose and prosody while world building and story telling. Her ability to story tell is excellent and encompassing. Her story telling weaves a tale that draws you in and pulls you through to the end all the while entertaining. This is the goal of any book of fiction and she not only accomplishes this basic tenet of the core of fiction but also does this with a finesse that few of us will ever achieve.
She includes a few female characters in the book, certainly fewer than the number of male characters, but often more memorable and crucial to the plot than most of the male characters. I will discuss each female character in turn below.
The first woman in this book, as in anyone’s life, is his mother. She is only present in name only and dies before the book begins. His mother is not in any scene of the book, but an image of her or her imago remains present in the book similar to the mother imago that each of us carry in ourselves of our mothers.
The next female character is his Aunt, who is a witch in a small town. She initially provides him with only the basic necessities then ignores him once he is old enough to fend for himself.3 Once she discovers that he has natural talent in the realm of magic, her attitude towards him completely changes to one similar to a teacher. She begins to teach him in what she knows of sorcery, but only after she performs a binding spell to keep him bound to her. While she was not a black sorcerer, she used her “crafts to foolish and dubious ends.”3 Though his aunt may not have the best intentions as a village witch, she does manage to teach him the best and purist of magic that she knows.
His aunt, the witch, embodies the positive and negative in one person. She fulfills partly the mother figure for Ged. The witch does what she has to do for him until she discovers that he is like her and then she does teach him all the good that she knows. While his aunt doesn’t really guide his character as he is growing up, she does teach him and gives him the opportunity to achieve something greater.
The next female character is daughter of old Lord of Re Albi is first introduced when Ged was a young man being taught by a wizard named Ogion. He was a young man and the daughter was a young girl about his age. This young girl was apparently being used by the girl’s mother to obtain information from Ogion’s spell books through Ged. The young girl asked him if he could do certain things such as summoning animals, spells of transformation, and calling up a dead spirit. He went to the spell book to find a spell of transformation but found one of summoning the spirits of the dead. He was transfixed as if he were spell bound. This provided the first hint of the shadow yet to come in the book.
Later in the story, this same young girl has grown into a woman and she is now known as Serret, which means silver in the Oskillian language. He is pushed towards or pulled towards her and she attempts to trick him into becoming a slave to a powerful stone by beguiling him with tales that he alone could control the stone and become the most powerful wizard. He is able to see through this manipulation. In their ensuing escape from her castle, she is killed by servants of the stone.
This story of repeated manipulation and being saved by someone else (Ogion) and then himself is reminiscent of the mother in the Brothers Grimm’s tale of snow white. Snow White’s mother is jealous of her beauty (compare to Ged’s power) and attempts to have her killed three times but each time she is saved by someone else (7 dwarves and finally a prince).2 In this novel, Ged is only tricked twice but he saves himself the final time demonstrating his growth from a boy to a man. Le Guin has transformed this classic story involving manipulation to meet the needs of the story and to show the growth of Ged from someone needing to be saved to one who is capable of saving himself. This is a foreshadowing of the conclusion of the book and sets up the rest of the story for Ged to fully transform.
Another way to look at this character is in the view of Jung and his archetypes. In someways she has many similarities to the second archetype in The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. The conflict that she stirs up is literally what ends up being her demise. Jung describes this in theoretical terms or that the “…upheaval process becomes a process of purification…”4
This one character is full of lenses to view her life through and her role in the story. She is the most complex and the most interesting character by far. Part of it is her mystery: you always want to know more about her. Another reason she is that she is in the book and in Ged’s life twice. She plays an integral part in two of the most important parts of his life and serves as a cornerstone of the book.
Lady of O
This female character, Lady O, is briefly in the book simply as a beautiful woman. Her purpose in the novel seems to increase the jealousy and tension between the main character, Ged, and his rival, Jasper. She is only mentioned in one section of the book and only one line. Ged remarks of her that “She’s only a woman”.3 She appears to be used by the author to further the jealousy between Ged and Jasper. The scene Lady O is used to set up the pivotal point in the story and thus her role in the book is larger than it first appears.
The last female character in the book is Yarrow, who is little sister to Ged’s best friend, Vetch. She plays a small part but her presence lingers even after the book ends.
Yarrow is Vetch’s younger sister who is still living at home and is roughly a teenager though her age is not specified. Vetch and Ged both downplay her capabilities which is surmised in her true name, Kest, which means minnow in the olden language. She exhibited inquisitiveness, insightfulness, and understanding seemingly beyond her years and certainly beyond the capabilities imagined by her older brother and his best friend.
While she has a small part in the overall story, her impact on the reader is certainly not small. She leaves a lasting impact demonstrating that no matter the outward appearance, depth, intelligence, and insight can be present. Minnow may be minimized by Ged and Vetch, but Le Guin seems to indicate that much lies beneath the surface of Minnow. I hope that Minnow is present and more is learned about her in future books in the series.
All the Women
This is a book about a wizard with a few female supporting characters. The female characters propel the story forward and serve key functions in the book through their placement, their association with archetypes or well known fairy tales or their use in illustrating Taoist principles. Without these key women, the book would fall apart.
The totality of female characters and their contribution is less than what I was expecting; however the power of the archetypes presented in this book is greater than the sum of the words written about the female characters. The mother archetype is very powerful in our lives especially in the lives of women (daughters) than in men. The mother archetype can be a stumbling block towards the way of the Tao just as over confidence, anger, jealousy, and greed can be. Ged serves to reach the masculine parts of ourselves and tell us that we are capable of a powerful ego that is a stumbling block in finding the way of the Tao; Ged’s aunt and even Serret serve to show the feminine side of ourselves that the mother imago can also be a stumbling block to the way of the Tao.
The Yin and the Yang
Taoist principles also run throughout the book including Ogion who serves as one who has attained enlightenment and Ged’s imperfect journey toward’s Tao enlightenment. Ged’s journey is not a direct path towards enlightenment and several times you wonder if he will survive himself and the consequences of his actions. His journey serves as a story, and indirectly a guide, of how to find the Tao.
While Ogion serves as the Taoist master, Ged represents any of us still searching for the way of the Tao, with all of our imperfections. Ogion is the goal that every Taoist hopes to achieve, a sage in the way of the Tao. Ged is a work in progress filled with egotistical flaws and over confidence, plagued with self doubt and ignorance. The reader is able to deduce the underlying Tao meaning of the book, which is if Ged can accomplish this then so can I. This is a powerful and worthwhile message to share with readers.
The Sum of Things
This is an excellently written book that weaves a gripping tale about a wizard in Earthsea all the while world building and incorporating such complex themes as Jungian philosophy, imagery from fairy tales, and Taoism. This is a simple yet quite complex book with an even more complex main character, Ged. The journey that Ged takes through Earthsea is symbolic of the journey that few of us are privileged enough to have taken. It is a journey of self discovery, self acceptance and the way of the Tao.
The one criticism I have of this book, is the lack of positive female characters in the book; however no one person is all good nor all bad and this book reflects the reality of humanity. If you approach the book with Taoism in mind and look at the balance of male to female characters, then the book is out of balance. However, if you look at each individual female character, you see a balance of good and evil of light and dark. I cannot say why Le Guin put the female characters into such limited roles, but this serves the overall purpose of the book well and furthers her apparent main theme of Taoism.
I am looking forward to reading more by Ursula K. Le Guin with the hopes of a female protagonist.
Do you have a favorite science fiction/fantasy female author or character? Please leave them in the comments below, I would love to know what you have found fascinating.
Ursula, K.L. Retrieved on June, 2015 From:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ursula_K._Le_Guin
Grimm, Jacob, and Wilhelm Grimm. The Complete First Edition The Original Fold and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Trans. Jack Zipes. first ed. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2014. N. pag. Print.
Le Guin, Ursula K. A Wizard of Earthsea. electronic ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1968. N. pag. Earthsea Cycle
Jung, C.G. The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. Trans. R. F. C. Hull. second ed. Vol. 9. New York: Princeton University Press, 1968. N. pag. Print.