Ursula K. Le Guin has passed, and it is now time for an admission from me: I had never read any of her works. This made the news of her passing only a little bit shocking for me; not being one who followed her or her works, I had somewhat assumed that she had passed years ago.
Not reading any Le Guin was not an oversight on my part. I had attempted to read A Wizard of Earthsea when I was 14 or 15 or so. My parents had a copy, and I absconded with it to one of the various little nests I had made around our half-farm. I certainly remember trying to read it by candlelight on summer evenings in the old tin shed I had cleaned out and organized (and perhaps had even found the book therein). I don’t think the book was a legal copy – I seem to remember it was actually stripped, but with a hard, plastic, press-on cover (I believe with a little lenticular diamond pattern to it) to protect the first page. But that was not something I knew at the time; it was not until many years later that I learned what the various paperbacks missing their covers actually were.
So, there I sat, and attempted to read the book. The map in front promised a grand adventure. The book exuded ocean – from the title to the map to the back cover (tan-gray with a little boat in the corner, and I believe curly gusts of wind depicted) told me that there was sailing.
I never made it past the first chapter. I don’t even recall making it past the first page.
Perhaps it was the writing. Looking at the book now, I can see that the easy, flowing style of the book would not be something that my teen-aged self would be drawn in by.
Perhaps it was the map. So many islands, so much water. It was unlike any map I had seen; how could I keep that all in my head? The geography was too difficult.
Perhaps it was the main character. I wanted to read a book about a wizard, not some boy from a northern island. Who was this boy? What was the relation to the title? Was the titular wizard the antagonist? I couldn’t tell, but to teen-aged rabbit-farmer me, reading a book about a teen-aged goat-farmer was not something I felt any interest in. And so the main character could not draw me in.
All of these are excuses; they are not the real reason I never read the book. They were barriers, yes. They prevented me from being drawn into the world. But the real barrier was this: this was not my book. I had not been granted permission to read it.
It was a book I had found and it was (I assumed at the time, and still assume to day) my mother’s. It had been packed away. It had not been given to me to read. And so I could not enter the world.
This is not to say that I could not read things without permission, but doing so always required something that would overpower the guilt I would feel doing so. I do recall reading Dave Berg’s The Lighter Side of… in my father’s copies of MAD magazine; it was something that could draw me in. The rest of the magazine was verboten in my mind (well, Spy vs. Spy could draw me in), and so I did not read it. Any time I looked over the various satirical components of the magazine, I could feel pangs of guilt; the thought that I should not be doing this because I had not been given permission. That was enough; The Lighter Side of… could draw me in and I could enjoy it in spite of the guilt, but the rest of the magazine could not. This was also true of Earthsea; it did not have the drawing power to pull me though the thoughts that I should not be reading it because I had not been given permission. And so, after a few futile attempts at reading it, it went unread, back into the box in the tin shed, possibly condemned to mildew and flames. Or possibly not – I would not be surprised to find it still extant at my parents’ house.
Years passed. Friends came and went, and talked about Ursula K. Le Guin and The Left Hand of Darkness and A Wizard of Earthsea and many other works. But still I could not bring myself to read any books. The earlier experience had paralyzed me, had soured me on works by Le Guin. I could not shake the feeling that I should not be reading them, all traceable back to those first attempts. This world was never given to me, I would think. Any further attempts at entrance were as forbidden in my mind as the first.
Oddly enough, coffee falls into this same category. I was never given permission to drink coffee, and so I never did. As I got older, I felt this more and more as a social ostracization. Eventually, when I was 40, I went to my wife and asked her permission to drink coffee (and to teach me how), just so that I could stop feeling disconnected from society. I can now drink a cup of coffee, but have not yet stopped feeling self-conscious about it.
And then came the news that Ursula K. Le Guin had passed away. Friends were commenting on the sadness. But I had nothing to say, nothing to add to the conversation. This is not my world, I still thought. But, like the coffee, I was beginning to feel an outcast for having not read anything by Le Guin. And so I opened up my Kindle and purchased A Wizard of Earthsea. My own copy. Something I had permission to read.
What follows might contain spoilers about the book. No, what follows certainly contains spoilers about the book. But if you are reading this, chances are that you have already read the book. But still, the spoiler warning begins here.
There was still a little bit of self-consciousness and hesitation about reading the book. It was the remnants of past guilt. But it was now something that I could break through and read the book.
At first, I was not even sure that this was the same book I had tried to read all those years ago. Certainly the cover was different; covers change over the years. But an internet image search shows that this is the book. What I thought was curl-i-ques of wind on the back cover was in fact waves. And I am fairly certain that the book was in fact A Wizard of Earthsea and not one of the other books in the cycle, for this is the one that has a boat on the back cover.
As far as my impressions of the book itself, I am perhaps a harder grader than others as I have now read it for the first time in my early forties. In short, it is a quality book, but not one that makes a huge impact on my life now. I have never really been a fan of bildungsroman works; it grates me to watch other people make mistakes. I would rather have the stories of the people who know what they are doing so I can emulate them. (Yoda captured my attention and imagination much more than Luke Skywalker, for example.) Yes, older and wiser people make mistakes as well, but they typically can recognize their mistakes and recover from them. Still, I much preferred the way Ged was handled than Harry Potter – a perpetually angry and whiny protagonist is not someone I can readily identify with. Ged did not learn his lesson in time to prevent a mistake, but he learned from the mistake and took the advice of his elders to heart.
The language of the book, I felt, was good. The imagery was great and the sentences flowed one into the other well. There were a few places where the syntax made it difficult for me to follow the action (but not in any way to the level that Robin McKinley’s syntax will lose me!), and a couple of places where I lost interest in the middle of the page – too much imagery can be problematic in different ways from too little. It is a style not my favorite (I really enjoy J. K. Rowling’s and Patrick Rothfuss’s writing styles), but it was not a bad one.
The main plot point, however, was one that I felt was fairly weak. Perhaps it is the fact that I am older and have seen this before: in the Star Trek episode “The Enemy Within,” in Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde, in Dark Link from The Legend of Zelda video games, in Luke’s journey into the cave in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, and in many other places I cannot recall at the moment. I picked up on what the shadow was much sooner than Ged did (when it first spoke Ged’s name was when I determined what it was), and so I was not surprised by the end of the book. By reading it this late in life, it was reduced to cliche. I’ve seen this before.
There was, however, one minor part of the story that I felt was surprising and important. In fact, it felt a little out of place in a story like this. It is, to me, unusual for a coming-of-age character to know his own limitations; that is usually the entire point of such stories. These stories all tell me that “you will be an adult when you know not to attempt what you cannot do and can accept that in yourself.” And so I was quite surprised to see that Ged calmly and wisely came up with the solution to determine the Master Doorkeeper’s name. That was the part of the book that impressed me the most. Asking for help is perhaps the most difficult thing for a hero to do, and is a lesson that some heros (such as Harry Potter) must learn over and over and over again.
And such are my impressions from reading the book. Perhaps, if I feel like I can enter this world again, I will read the others in the cycle. Or perhaps I will feel that I only have permission to read this one. I am not certain.