A Wizard of Earthsea

First, let me express my hearty thanks to Anton Rose (@antonjrose) for letting me raid his bookshelf so that I could finally read this masterwork of speculative fiction. Second, how did it take me so long to get around to this wonderful little book?

There are a lot of things I could write about when it comes to A Wizard of Earthsea, but I’m going to focus on just one here, and it comes from the end of the book so beware: SPOILERS AHEAD!

If you’re still with me, then let me proceed. For a large chunk of this book (and it’s less than 200 pages long, by the way), Ged is either fleeing from or pursuing a shadow, a denizen of the darkness who was allowed to enter into the real, physical world through Ged’s carelessness and arrogance. The turning point in the story is when Ged transitions from fleeing the shadow to seeking it out. In seeking out what has terrified and crippled him, that thing loses its terrible power over him. All that is well and good, but at the end of Le Guin’s tale, after Ged has finally confronted the shadow and named it with his own name (see, I told you there would be spoilers), his friend Vetch sees that

Ged had neither lost nor won but, naming the shadow of his death with his own name, had made himself whole: a man: who, knowing his whole true self, cannot be used or possessed by any power other than himself, and whose life therefore is lived for life’s sake and never in the service of ruin, or pain, or hatred, or the dark.

This is a powerful narration of the spiritual formation process. We are so prone to emphasizing those facets of our character and personality that make us look good, that make others respect, admire, or appreciate us. But at best that is just a snapshot of who we really are – it’s just the tip of the iceberg. At worst, it’s an outright lie, a fabrication set up to mask and disguise reality.

But wholeness – at least as far as life within the world as we know it is concerned – necessitates acknowledging, embracing, and welcoming our shadow-selves (naming our darkness with our own name and knowing that Christ died for that aspect as well as our “more presentable” side; or as Thomas H. Green, S.J. might have encouraged, we need to learn to sit among our weeds, not just within our wheat). Wholeness rests in allowing Christ to shine his light into the darkness of our souls, welcoming the Spirit into more and more of our hidden places so that they too can be seen and known and redeemed.

Le Guin has not written an allegory of the spiritual life in her little book, but the insight she narrates sheds light on the world around us, on what is true both psychologically and spiritually. And because she has narrated this reality rather than simply telling us that this is the case, the insight is more striking and resonant. We experience it through another’s perspective and we might just see how we can experience it in our own. We might see ways in which we can name our shadow-selves with our own names, and in doing so experience the love of Christ even there, where we may feel darkest and least lovable.

The Spider’s War

There’s a good chance this will prove to the best book I read all year. It’s a truly satisfying conclusion to one of the best series I’ve yet read. Big claims, I know, so hopefully I can offer some support for them:

The characters are well-drawn and absolutely convincing. They act consistently and believably, and that means even the characters you’re rooting for aren’t always likable, and the bad guys aren’t all bad. Which leads me to Geder. He is the perfect example of this. His actions are understandable, but he never comes across sympathetically. You’re never rooting for his success even when you understand how damaged he is and how badly he longs to belong. He’s a horrible man, but his relationship with Aster is tender and sweet. It is all the things you’d hope it would be, but Geder’s tenderness and affection for his ward don’t stop him from ordering some true atrocities (all while blaming others for “forcing him to do it” of course). He’s a petty man, small minded and proud, but he isn’t Sauron . . . he isn’t a dark lord with strictly malicious purposes (not that I have any problem with heroes battling against truly epic evil mind you). He isn’t some malevolent force that has lost all that was originally good in him. No, he’s human, just like all tyrants throughout our history, and that means he is equally capable of compassion, mercy, and monstrosity. Murder, butchery, and intense rage contrast with his deep and abiding love of and respect for his father. I’m sure Hitler felt tenderly toward his nearest and dearest, but that didn’t stop him from genocide. It doesn’t stop Geder either. And so evil as represented by Geder is an Augustinian evil–it is an evil characterized not by some intense substantive force, but rather by lack. It is evil as privatio boni, the privation of the good. In this, he parallels Sauron, only on a much smaller scale. He is capable of human-level evil, rather than angelic-level evil (or dragon-level evil to put it in the terms of The Dagger and the Coin). In a world where humanity (in all its races–and we’ll talk more about that in a moment) has risen from the ashes of a dragon-apocalypse to stand on its own two feet, it’s exactly the right depiction of evil, and it’s made even more fitting in the context of war and suffering which is portrayed so dramatically. 

Moving on . . .

Every time Marcus and Yardem are on the page together, I smile. The way they speak to each other is great. Like the best of friends who have worked together, travelled together, and survived countless difficulties together they know each others’ minds so well they don’t even need to speak in full sentences. Their abrupt, punchy dialogue is both delightful and unique. Where others might be long winded, these two speak only the words that must be spoken. Why say, “Yes, it is” when “Is” communicates the same thing? Love it!

The place of medieval banking as a primary story element in this epic fantasy series is amazing! Who would have thought banking would be both fascinating and powerful? Apparently Daniel Abraham would. Of course there’s political intrigue and war, but money is the driving force in these novels and the advancements in banking are integral to the advancement of the plot and of course to the story’s conclusion. Brilliantly done!

The world-building behind this series is magnificent. The conception of the different races forged by dragons from one original stock of humanity is executed perfectly. The differences are shown in the final volumes to be intentional (both on Abraham’s part and on the dragons’) and integral to the plot. The locales are varied and exciting without being extravagant, but they match the races who populate them. It’s a fascinating thought experiment to wonder how humanity would respond if we were essentially divided into 12 very different races or breeds (think humans as we know them side-by-side with humans fashioned in the likeness of dragons, or dogs, or otters . . . they’re all human, even when they’re covered in thick furry pelts or dragon scales). Of course there’s racism and prejudice, but there’s also a shared humanity that even such physiological differences cannot change. And this element of a united (even if not always friendly or beneficent) humanity is in stark contrast to the role of humanity under the rule of the dragons . . .

And don’t even get me started on Inys . . . 

Finally, the main threads of the series are tied off as only a master storyteller can accomplish, but that doesn’t mean Abraham ties off all the threads. He has left himself room to tell other stories (or even another series) within this world that will build on what’s already happened while introducing us to new characters and locales. I really hope he does it because I’m not ready to leave this world behind. I want more of it, and that’s a testament to the work Abraham has put into making this world feel intriguing and real. But even if he doesn’t revisit this world (and he has said in the comments of a post on his blog that he currently has no intentions of doing so), he has given us a masterfully crafted tale in five parts, each one better than the one before. I cannot recommend this series highly enough.