50 Books: A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

Oh, that bitch?

God damn it, I love wizard shit. When I was a child I read approximately ten Bibles’ worth of TSR-branded novels, all containing heavy doses of wizard shit. From there I read the Robert Aspirin run of Myth, Inc. books—comic novels about a boy who learns magic from a demon and uses it to run a private detective agency. I read the Xanth novels, which I remember not at all because I was eleven but now understand to have been infamously sexist. I didn’t notice that part, because I was focused on the wizard shit. I would probably read Mein Kampf, if you told me there was a wizard in it. The only wizard shit I don’t like is Harry Potter, for reasons that I hope to gently make clear to you as our discussion progresses.

In order to demonstrate my goodwill toward you and your personal choice of wizard shit, which is not a matter of right or wrong but only of aesthetic preference, I will recommend you a book. If you liked Harry Potter, you should check out A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin. It’s about a boy from an island village who learns he has great aptitude for magic, so he goes away to wizard school. I know that doesn’t sound like anything Harry Potter fans would like, but hear me out. There are some similarities between Le Guin’s novel, first published in 1968 and in print continuously since then, and J.K. Rowling’s 1997 smash. For example, in both novels, magic is accomplished by saying particular words.

Everything in the world of A Wizard of Earthsea, has a “true name” in an archaic tongue, and these names can be incorporated into incantations in that language to cast spells. People go by public names and keep their true names secret, since telling someone your true name gives them the power to cast spells on you. The revelation of one’s true name is therefore a gesture of profound trust. Also, it’s hard to memorize all these words, and the learning of magic is understood to affect the student’s mind. This is especially the case for Ged, the protagonist, who is impetuous and suffers multiple blows to his psyche as a result of magic gone awry.

Anyway, Le Guin does a great job of establishing two things right off the bat: magic is hard, and magic makes you weird. These two operating principles are, in my opinion, essential to the magic novel, a genre whose premise—anything can happen!—is opposed to the fundamental principle of narrative storytelling. The world of the story must be consistent. That’s especially true for speculative fiction, a genre that is often said to live or die on world-building. No one wants to read a story where stuff happens arbitrarily. A good magic story is not about a world where anything can happen; it’s about a world where magic can happen.

In order for events to matter in a world where magic happens, we have to believe there is a system behind the magic. This system has to be mysterious, therefore limited by what is known of it, and complicated, therefore limited by what that a given wizard can learn of it. These limitations are what keep magic from functioning as a deus ex machina. They tell us that, okay, magic will do some amazing things in this story, but it’s not going to solve every problem. Even in this world of miracles, there are going to be consequences, and those consequences will be irrevocable—the essence of a good story.

A good book about wizard shit shows us the limitations of magic by demonstrating that it’s hard to learn, and the learning process makes wizards weird. Early on, Le Guin shows us that magic will mess Ged up. He’ll pay a price for all this forthcoming wizard shit. Ged suffers injury early on, but he also suffers psychic wounds and unwanted changes in perspective. In A Wizard of Earthsea, practitioners of magic are known to become more committed to “balance” as they advance—a vague idea of equilibrium that seems to abandon any firm commitments to the details of the world, even the idea of good versus evil. Such changes—changes to ourselves, our values—are the ones we fear most. For the reader, the knowledge that magic will change Ged and possibly destroy him adds tension to a story that might otherwise be summarized as “lucky boy in the world of whatever we say.”

Which brings us back to Harry Potter. I don’t care for Rowling’s style, so that’s part of the problem. But the main reason I didn’t care for the first Harry Potter book is that the system of doing magic was not a arcane language of incantations that took weeks to memorize and pushed wizards into neurasthenia as a defense against madness. It was Latin. Or like, whimsical variations on latinate words. Harry waves his wand and says “luminem onnum!” and the lights come on. Doing that doesn’t make him crazy or unable to love for a few days or anything. He just does it and reveals the natural talent he always was. One gets the sense that magic in this world will be something Harry gets in this story, rather than something he pays for with his own humanity. Magic lifts too many constraints from Harry Potter without adding them back in somewhere else, and with too few constraints the flow of a story stagnates.

Anyway, I like wizard shit because it’s one of those genres that can be endlessly iterated, like vampires. Those stories aren’t about drinking blood. They’re about interesting variations on how the blood drinkers must live, and the gambits they might make to keep doing it. Le Guin creates s novel variation on how magic might work and makes it take a meaningful toll on Ged, even as he commits to it further. If you like wizard shit, or just stories about young prodigies who go to wizard school, you’ll love A Wizard of Earthsea. I’m afraid there is no comparable theme park.

I’m reading 50 books in 2018, and A Wizard of Earthsea was number four. Next I’m reading a longtime favorite, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard. Join me!


50 Books in 2018: Death Wish

Charles Bronson, star of the 1974 film

Maybe the hardest thing to believe in the movie version of Death Wish is that Charles Bronson is an architect. The protagonist of Brian Garfield’s 1972 novel is an accountant. The natural advantage of the novel lies in rendering interiority, and interiority is where Garfield’s book lives. Most of the film Death Wish is Bronson shooting muggers and avoiding detection by the police. In the novel, Paul does not kill until the last 50 pages or so. In the meantime, he experiences himself losing his mind.

After his wife and daughter are attacked by teenage hoodlums—fatally, for his wife, and so traumatically for his daughter that she slips into catatonia—Paul Benjamin is profoundly alone. A lifelong liberal, he finds himself brooding on crime and punishment in his empty apartment. At rare dinner parties or during more frequent conversations with his coworkers and son-in-law, he gets in arguments, finding that the prevailing consensus on New York City in the 1970s—that crime is a social disease rather than the responsibility of individual criminals, who would be better citizens under better economic conditions—suddenly enrages him. This transformation in his thinking reflects the adage that a Republican is a Democrat who has been mugged. Paul expresses a variation on this idea to his son-in-law, a left-leaning attorney who is comparably bereaved but nonetheless horrified by the change in Paul’s beliefs.

This difference in how Paul and Jack react to the same crime engages the fundamental theme of the story. Death Wish has been called a meditation on fascism, and that reading certainly stands up. Paul’s progress from urbane CPA to night-stalking murderer reminds us that fascism lies adjacent to the upper middle class. Invariably, it’s the rich who implement actual fascist government, but it’s the professionals and small business owners who support it. This reading concludes that what people think of as their deeply held political beliefs are actually products of their circumstances. Paul turns out to be one violent crime away from pursuing the death penalty for muggers. His friends, who sympathize with his tragedy but haven’t experienced it themselves, remain righteous liberals.

But Jack does experience the same tragedy, and it does not turn him into a right-wing vigilante the way it does Paul. Here lies the counterpoint. If people’s political views are merely the product of their circumstances, why doesn’t Jack go off the deep end, too? The difference between his and Paul’s reactions suggest that the individual is responsible for his own political views—and, by extension, his choices—after all. Applied as a universal principle, however, this idea is the one Paul disastrously fails to resist. He kills because he embraces an ethic of individual responsibility and takes it too far. The muggers and car thieves he guns down on the streets of New York are not absolved of their crimes by circumstance or broad socioeconomic theories. In the end, each is responsible for the crimes he commits.

The tension between forgiveness and responsibility, broad trends and individual choices, is what powers the novel. Paul gives in to the violent urges that dominate his thinking after his wife’s death, even as he consciously turns against a society that forgives criminals for giving in to the violent urges it instills in them. Paul should be a thoughtful man. He should be able to process his own suffering without taking it out on others. He turns out to be as much an animal as anybody else in 1970s New York, albeit with stronger fan support among the police.

The detail of this novel—both in its narration of Paul’s unraveling and in its oddly close look at accounting—make it a more satisfying experience than the film (which, for the record, I also liked.) Death Wish the Book also gets high marks for its authentic portrayal of violence. Paul is scared and acting blindly during pretty much every action scene, and his first confrontation with a teenage mugger is among the most accurate depictions of street violence I’ve read. The pace is slow at the beginning and hurtling by the end, which gives the reader just enough time to consider the themes without getting sick of them.

Death Wish loses points for giving all of its characters bland, interchangeable names: Paul, Jack, Sam, Henry, Bill, George. A comical number of these people’s last names are also first names, so that everyone except Paul and his son-in-law fades into a uniform paste of dudes. Maybe this effect is intentional, but I found it irritating. This half-assed naming is probably the fault of Garfield’s virtues as a pulp writer, however, and its flip side is brisk plotting and a lean story. Take three days to read this one and three weeks to think about it.

50 Books in 2018 is a recurring feature. Next I’m reading On Being Blue by William Gass.