Recently, in a review of the children’s fantasy book, Wildwood, I noted that I had a preference for female protagonists. I typically find that, in fiction, men are flat, simple, non-complex, and incomplete. I don’t think I’m actually wrong there. In fantasy writing, by contrast, young women are bright, powerful, layered, and well sketched. I mentioned Lyra of Phil Pullman’s multi-dimensional Oxford, Lucy of Narnia, and Prue of Wildwood—all young women who steal the show and capture my imagination.
So, to be certain, I reread Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea (1968) and The Tombs of Atuan (1971) while camping in late August. I must admit: I over-spoke. Even though I loved the desperate courage and flailing, intuitive choices of Arha in Atuan, Ged is far and beyond a better character.
So why was I originally mistaken?
Besides my own intrepid limitations, there were two reasons, I think: I confused the genre of the books, and I first read them at different periods of my life.
I loved the magic—I really loved the magic. Earthsea bases its magical laws upon naming, so that the wizard is the one who knows the true name of things and calls them out in wisdom (or madness), controlling the named things within the equilibrium with the patterns of nature. It wasn’t until I studied Greek and understood the idea of ‘the Name’ in the ancient world that I realized that Ursula Le Guin had formed in me an understanding of the magic of true names that prepared me to understand Christian spirituality so very deeply. But still, A Wizard of Earthsea was long behind me.
I read The Tombs of Atuan, by contrast, as an adult in my rediscovery of the magic of books and books of magic. Somewhere in my teen years and in the forced pages of college I had forgotten the sheer delight of reading for pleasure. I was slowly drawn back in over the years, and Atuan appeared in the midst of my conversion.
It is no wonder then, despite the power of true names, that I preferred The Tombs of Atuan.
But the reason is deeper, I think. And it comes down to an important genre distinction.
Both Wizard of Earthsea and Tombs of Atuan are in the tradition of high fantasy, epic stories of fictional worlds. There is a difference, however, between them. Atuan is told in the style of fairly typical fantasy writing. I was drawn into Arha’s emotional conflicts, her doubt, and her need to fly through what are often imperceptible evils to take the great risk—which is also her great chance. I remember reading Atuan fifteen years ago and being struck by Arha’s anguish, and the great darkness of the setting itself. It is a very dark book.
The Wizard of Earthsea, by contrast, is less emotionally complex and yet so invested in personal struggle. It is a difficult book, and Ged, the protagonist, must face his deepest fear: he must face himself. But it is not psychologically complex. There are two great challenges in classic epic literature: the challenge of hubris (pride) and the realization of personal mortality. Ged faces both. In classic form, he must face his own pride and live with the consequences of his youthful boasting. Unlike the classic heroes, however, he does not face his mortality by searching for immortality. He confronts it face to face, negotiates it, and ultimately finds his way through his greatest fears. It is not his inborn power—which is very great—that makes him Earthsea’s legendary Sparrowhawk; it is the fact that he journeys against hubris with his mortality in both hands that makes him great.
Not only is Ged’s journey a classic tale, it is told in classic language. The writing of Wizard of Earthsea is less like a modern high fantasy and more like an ancient chronicle. It sounds more like the Book of Kings in the Old Testament, or Homer in prose, or a somber Arthurian tale, than a precursor to Harry Potter. The storytelling is formal, punctuated by epic statements, poor man prophecies, blessings and cursings, and the occasional folk song. It is a classic odyssey in classic language.
The genre of the Earthsea Cycle shifts from mythic language in book one (Wizard of Earthsea) to 20th century epic fantasy in book two (Tombs of Atuan).
So when I first encountered Ged, the wizard of Earthsea, I recognized him only as a stock character of fantasy. I did not see him as a mythic hero. And I did not see his character develop and mature in book two, as he creates a bond with Arha. Now, as I begin the third book, The Farthest Shore, I am looking forward to seeing Ged as Archmage, as leader against the threat of all threats—or the mentor of the one who will stand up for the good (whichever it is—I’m not that far yet, and this is my first time reading). I’m noticing, though, that the language is shifting again, subtly. The third book, The Farthest Shore, is more mythic like the first, and is a more philosophical novel. We’ll see how it goes.
And, so, I repent. I do like Ged better than Arha, even though he’s not a girl. I would still like to be challenged on my point of un-complex male characters in fiction. But, meanwhile, I have Ged, and am excited about disappearing into another Earthsea book this very night.