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Monday, June 07, 2004  

Reading: Le Guin creates a hero

I've been thinking about heroism. That is partly because of the brouhaha over the death of former President of the United States Ronald Reagan. The obsession the Right has about creating military heroes in the amorphous war against terrorism also has something to do with it. Last year, I was one of the first bloggers to be very skeptical about the elevation of Pfc. Jesssica Lynch to heroine. Just last month, I reprised the role in regard to the deification of Spec. Pat Tillman. Another reason is literary. I have been an admirer of speculative fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin since childhood and have the good fortune of knowing her. However, I had not read the Earthsea series until recently. All of the books, five writtten over three decades, deserve reviews. But, for now, let's consider the first of them, A Wizard of Earthsea.

Though a winner of prizes for young adult literature, Wizard is a profoundly adult novel in my opinion. To paraphrase the wonderful singer and songwriter, Phoebe Snow, being an adult means learning to bear your life in pain. The moral of the novel is ultimately that.

We are entering Earthsea, a land where magic is as common as cattle. Suspend your disbelief.

Anyone who was a precocious, but not confident, child, will recognize the personality of the hero of the book. The boy, Duny, goes through a catch as catch can childhood after his mother dies during his infancy. His father is a hard-bitten craftsman who has already reared several other sons. He pays little attention to his youngest, except to smack him around from time to time. The aunt who cared for Duny as a baby is just as indifferent until she discovers the boy has a gift. A witch herself, she decides to train her nephew in the art of magic. When he is about 12, the boy comes to the attention of the local wizard. The warlike Kargs invade Gont. Duny defeats them with a distraction spell that masks the town in mist and confuses the invaders. They kill each other in the confusion and make a bumbling retreat. As a result of his obvious power despite rudimentary training, the boy is eventually sent to the academy for wizards on the isolated isle of Roke.

The fifteen-year-old, true name Ged, use name Sparrowhawk, has the most potential of all the students at the academy. However, he comes from one of the least comfortable backgrounds among them. The manners, money and self-confidence of the older boys is a constant reminder that he is considered to be of inferior stock. The matter comes to a climax when Sparrowhawk allows himself to be goaded into invoking a forbidden spell to try to impress a wealthy, sophisticated schoolmate. The effect of the spell is to bring an evil into the world that will follow him, intent on taking control, for years to come. It is the pain of that encounter, which will humble and scar Ged for the rest of his life, that makes it possible for him to become a hero. Without that self-knowledge, the feats that will be the content of the Deed of Ged, the song the denizens of Earthsea will commit to memory for life, would not occur. Those acts rely on self-sacrifice. The experience that alters the eventual mage's life is the catalyst that makes his capacity for self-sacrifice possible.

The reason I do not agree with claims that people such as Lynch and Tillman are heroes is that their stories lack the elements of self-knowledge and self-sacrifice that define heroism. A Wizard of Earthsea, a work of fantasy that some folks may think is for children, gets heroism right.

Reasonably related

Wikipedia has collected information about the Earthsea series.

•Visit Ursula K. Le Guin's home on the Web.

•The lyrics to Phoebe Snow's "Harpo's Blues."

11:45 PM