Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Old-School Wizard School

A few years ago, when my family returned to our urban home from a long spring vacation, we were greeted by a dozen or so young owls frolicking on the roof. Surprised and delighted, I couldn't help posting on facebook, "Either there's a nest nearby or one of the kids got accepted to Hogwarts."

Harry Potter has become such a part of the cultural milieu that he springs instantly to mind every time a train arrives or an owl flutters by your window or an iPhone 6s snapshot moves a little bit. Sometimes it's hard to remember that Harry was neither the first nor last fictional wizard to struggle through a program of rigorous magical instruction.

Take Ged, from A Wizard of Earthsea, published in 1967 by Ursula K. Le Guin. At the time she wrote the book, according to LeGuin, there wasn't much fantasy out there besides The Lord of the Rings, so she started by imagining what a powerful wizard like Gandalf or a Merlin must have been like as a kid.

Unlike Harry, Ged has a number of different teachers who have varying success in training him. His abilities are first discovered by his aunt, a witch of little power, when, she fails to silence her young nephew despite using the strongest spell she knows. Understanding that he must have tremendous talent, she teaches him everything she knows including animal summoning and commanding the weather. When Ged uses his newfound knowledge to thwart a raid from a neighboring island, everyone agrees that it's time to find him a real teacher.

But the wizard Ged trains with next is ponderous and philosophical and demands patience, a quality Ged sorely lacks. When the master catches his student attempting to summon the dead--a definite no-no--they both agree he should be sent off for more formal training at a proper wizard's school. At the school Ged bonds with other students, and grows up, but he also gets into a terrible kind of trouble that follows him out into the world after his training is complete.

Le Guin works hard to make the text subtly subversive. While she admits it's a traditional hero's tale in that it's a story about men and that most of the women in the tale are either insignificant or evil (don't worry: she addresses sex and gender issues in a number of her other books and stories), she does manage to make Ged and those close to him all non-white characters without making a big deal out of it.

Also, while there's plenty of darkness for Ged to wrestle, it's of a different sort than in most fantasy novels. There's no Lord Voldemort, no "him or me" conflict. The greatest trouble Ged faces comes from within him: his pride, his impulsiveness and his anger, though Le Guin masterfully manifests it into a monstrous form.

Be a little patient yourself when entering into the Earthsea tales (A Wizard is just the first of many). While they are not difficult books, they are written in a style that suggests a sort of Medieval formality and it may take a few pages to get used to it. But it's well worth it for an old-school take on the wizard school them.

1 comment :

Gillian said...

One of my all-time favorite fantasy series...