Having finished the third installment and halfway point of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series, I feel I should look back through the books and record my thoughts. (I think this is a good place to do it, because my understanding is that the second half of the series was written long after the first three). There are few fantasy books that have the same moral and philosophical horsepower, so the temptation to reflect is just too great.
The Farthest Shore (#3) is not as atmospheric and charming as A Wizard Of Earthsea, but neither is it as dark as the second book, The Tombs of Atuan. It lies somewhere in the middle. More adventurous, perhaps, than its successors, but the adventure is not the purpose of the book. Le Guin is often vague on details, and there’s hardly the suspense you’d normally associate with a fantasy like this. Rather, the focus is on the discussions of the characters and the sum total of their experiences that lead to a feeling more of spiritual/mental journeying than of physical, though I don’t think an allegorical hypothesis of the book would hold much weight.
There is great movement of thought and belief that in a way mirrors the movements of Sparrowhawk and Arren across the world of Earthsea, and this is probably a turnoff for some. I’d be willing to say that The Farthest Shore is a bit more of an indulgence of thought than her other two, and I liked it better when the adventure meant a bit more than just a vessel for those thoughts. Even more of a turnoff since the philosophy was beginning to turn stale toward the end of the book in my opinion. After all, humanism can only get you so far, and when read in light of C. S. Lewis, Earthsea began to pale by the third book.
Why is that? In A Wizard Of Earthsea, main character and magician Sparrowhawk (a.k.a Ged) learns his art and battles against his own pride, which is personified by shadow. Presiding over the book is the theme of light and dark – particularly as equal and opposing forces – but there is a good deal of wisdom here, and I could almost ignore the dualism by taking a Christian perspective throughout. The light and dark motif manages to remain fresh even with the dualistic, ying-yang coupling at the book’s conclusion:
“Light and darkness met, and joined, and were one.”
But it’s disturbing to think that Ged defeated the darkness (ostensibly his own pride) by absorbing it into himself, and from here on in the series Ged never really shows his old propensity toward pride, which is probably unrealistic and makes him less interesting.
Here I realized that simply disregarding the dualistic, humanistic values wasn’t possible, and it shouldn’t have been how I read the tales of Earthsea. I wanted to trap the themes I liked – the ones that fit with my worldview – and extract them and pin them up on my bulletin like dried out butterfly wings. Classic Christian denial. I suspect Le Guin would’ve liked to hit me, and I’d deserve it. Instead, I started taking the books as a whole (I had to go back through them), and I found them more difficult to enjoy, yet more interesting to dialogue with.
Fist off, I think it’s important to read these books in tandem with Lewis’ Narnia series and probably even Pullman’s The Golden Compass. They lead to interesting discussions for both sides, and they help me articulate why I like one philosophy over another. But that’s not to say the humanistic side is entirely bad. In fact, Le Guin says a lot that needs to be said. Particularly in The Tombs Of Atuan and The Farthest Shore she presents a critique of religion that is not just fair; I’d agree with most of it.
The way she sees religion in Atuan is troubling and dark, and the priestess Tenar is saved by Sparrowhawk who says to her at the end,
“You were the vessel of evil. The evil is poured out. It is done. It is buried in its own tomb. You were never made for cruelty and darkness; you were made to hold light, as a lamp burning holds and gives it light.”
Brought out of the Platonic cave of religious darkness, Tanar’s escape is from the ignorance and cruelty of her religion. In that case, I must agree that this series offers a critique of what religion often is, but not what it was designed to be. Whether that was Le Guin’s intention or not, I don’t know.
This is interesting to think about especially since Le Guin has some things to say that direct us towards hope and are often neglected by Christianity since we are so bogged down by our ruminations on total depravity. Tinged with humanism that it is, I don’t think the books’ redemptive qualities should be ignored. There’s a lot of hope, and none of it lies in the upper floors of the tower of Babel.
Still, The Farthest Shore presents an interesting problem for Christians. The major theme is living a life full of color and accepting death when it comes. Easy for Christians to say with heaven around the corner and all, but the book makes it clear that Le Guin believes death the great anti-climax. End of the line. Not that I share the sentiment, it’s still an important thought. Sometimes we’re too focused on The Last Battle perfect ending, forgetting about all the rest. And The Farthest Shore’s answer to death is not hedonism, which is especially relieving.
The series’ hope is a down to earth hope, and there it remains, but that’s good for some thought. And as a critique of religion, it’s appears gentle and, to some degrees, necessary. Or at least not unreasonable. The wisdom of Earthsea is a human sort of wisdom, and I read it with discernment, but Le Guin’s style of writing is beautiful and her thoughts are worth pondering. As a fantasy, this represents some very powerful literature.
I have a tendency to get stuck in my characters’ thoughts and actions so often that I forget to see through their eyes. The world in which a character lives – whether fictional or historical – has a broadening or shrinking effect on the way readers see that world. The author can use both to his or her advantage. As narrator, we decide where we want our reader’s to be looking, but we also want to give them a sense of the background – a fuller picture of what world they’ve arrived at for the duration of the story.
I’ve said this in so many words before, but in similar posts I’ve stopped at trying to capture the broader importance of world building for fantasy. That only goes so far, and it would be a tad ironic to ask you to think only about world building through the lens of one of my wide gestures.
Art. Unless you’re an artist, this usually gets overlooked. I, for one, have spent so much time trying to create a believable, utilitarian medieval city in Brisha that I sometimes forget about art. Yes, architecture is part of this package and is usually one of the first things a person notices when entering any city be it Baltimore or Brisha.
Architecture also demands attention for fantasy authors who build cities (China Mieville is one of the best city architects I’ve ever encountered in literature), but it’s sometimes hard for fantasy authors to dial their attention down from the grandiose to what hangs on the walls. Who are the famous painters of the age, and what does their art tell us about that country/city/empire?
It takes knowledge of history to organize your own believable accounts. Artists have always been one of the most important parts of Earth’s history and cultures, and there are many things about Earth that fantasy worlds mirror. Steven Erikson is especially good at including the artist (as well as the historian), and it adds lots of texture to his Malazan Empire.
In a recent interview, he said that “…there are themes that are running through the trilogy which relate to how civilizations destroy themselves, and one of the themes I’m advancing is that the various forms of art have to be destroyed first — the meaning of art, if you will…you often see how art in the past is a reflection of the health of a particular civilization.”
And that civilization – your civilization – can benefit from the power of art over it because you can do almost anything with that in mind.
A few years ago, a friend and I got this idea in our heads that we’d write a story in portions back and forth to each other. One story. He’d start. We got technical and planned on sharing a Google document, each of us using a different color. “See where it goes,” we thought. “Oh, and you can’t change what the other person wrote or degrade him to his face.” Good rule.
Off we went to write the first collaborative National Book Award winner…
…He never started.
About a month later, I remembered our brilliant idea and wrote a few paragraphs about a guy on a train in a suede suit holding a brief case handcuffed to his wrist. Some woman started flirting with him (I was hoping my friend wouldn’t talk too much about her during his session because I wanted to make her an infamous con artist intent on stealing the brief case. And maybe his jacket for some extra spite).
Well, that scheme got a little sidetracked when I saw the next portion my friend sent me. The man in the suede suite (a different color now) had pulled a gun on my infamous con artist who, rather obstinately, claimed to be the mother of four and an obsessive gardener to boot. I got the six-paragraph story back with train cops bursting in to find the madman in an oddly deep philosophical debate with the woman about the ethics of train robberies.
I was more than a little tempted to bring in Nancy Drew and various Boxcar Kids to sort everything out. Scooby could make a surprise cameo in the sequel if I didn’t like where that one went either.
I realized collaborative fiction is a little worse than playing a game of telephone with preschoolers. It’s not easy to salvage a story that swings so far from your idea of where things should properly go. This was especially true in my case, since I was clearly taking the National Book Award more seriously than my friend. Our collaborative writing career was probably over. (I think one of us came back a few weeks later and concluded our epic adventure with cow-snatching aliens disguised as train robbers). Everyone died. Thanks for reading.
The crazy thing is, authors actually do this. And sometimes it really works! If you’ve ever read Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, you know what I mean. The seamlessness of their style and humor is extremely entertaining. Like all partnerships, collaborative writing needs to be taken seriously and probably be planned out (preferably not in a Google doc).
It was an interesting experiment while it lasted, but I learned how selfish I am as a writer sometimes – how set I am in my ways. I immediately wanted to control the project, and I began taking it entirely too seriously before my dreams were crushed.
I sometime wonder if that’s not dissimilar to what it’s like to have an editor. Apart from the micro-edits, I worry occasionally about what said editor might want to do to my stories or how he or she might wish to change my characters. I’m sure he or she would never sabotage the plot so much as to turn my perfect train con-woman scene into a guns out philosophy duel, but I don’t have to worry about that at this stage. Right now, as I try to get there, my writing remains blissfully my own. But I don’t suppose there’s any harm in bracing myself for a future editor to come along with the red pen.
I’ve never been quite sure how to realistically imagine the writer’s relationship with the editor. I’ve heard so many different accounts that cover a broad range of emotions from gratitude to whatever the mother of four might have felt toward the man wearing suede.
I’m no expert, but I think there’s a skill to sharing your work, whether it’s to collaborate on the first draft or the fifth. Or even just to share by reading to others who took no part in the writing process, but turn the story in their minds and, therefore, change it. I have a hunch that there’s a learned skill to exposing your writing to others and having the grace to allow them to make it better.
…I should wind up here before the philosophy leads to revolvers.
“Learning to detect the difference between quitting a tactic and quitting a dream.” These are wise words you don’t hear often. There’s a fine line here that’s to be followed by careful consideration and prayer, but there’s wisdom in this post.
Originally posted on Kristen Lamb's Blog:
Ah, the New Year is upon us. Most of our resolutions revolve around grabbing hold with a death-grip and vowing to never let go. When it comes to losing weight, getting out of debt, or discovering if our closets actually have floors? This is a good plan. Yet, when it comes to our careers? Never giving up might keep us from ever succeeding.
Want to know the secret to success? Quitting. Yes, you heard me correctly. And, if you’re a creative professional, it is in your interest to learn to get really good at quitting. Maybe you’ve felt like a loser or a failure, that your dream to make a living with your art was a fool’s errand.
Might it be a little like reinventing the wheel? Am I attempting to fix something not broken? After all, literature is full of amazing heroes and triumphant knights, supermen, dragon-slayers, battle-scared soldiers, protectors, avengers.
Sometimes they fall out of favor. Have you ever read one of those “knights in shining armor” stories, and by the end you wanted nothing more than to punch the hero’s perfect face right in his perfect teeth? We don’t see many Prince Charmings anymore. They’ve all been hit soundly off their horses and have slinked away to the dirty bars where the dragons they’ve battled are waiting for them with a mug of skunked ale.
Many times movements in literature seem to come as the result of people becoming aware of the archetypes and wanting to change them. No book is written in the vacuum of its own story – separated from the history of other stories that are similar. In some ways, everything we write is a response to the other stories we’ve assimilated. They shape us and words that come from us. And as we recognize the stereotypes and turn them on their golden heads, so we have thrown the perfect heroes off their pedestals and onto the streets with the crooks.
And many of them have become the crooks. A lot of fantasy seems to fall into one of these two categories: bland, flawless Hero or dubious Antihero – Spiderman or Deadpool. And occasionally we find ourselves more enamored with the bad guy just for fun (ie. they are making a Venom movie). But I want to escape the stereotypes and the spin-offs and create a rare kind of protagonist. The flawed, but essentially good person. The hero who’s shadows haunt him or her – who’s recorded flaws are not just there to avoid the “flat character” category, but who’s still cheered for by an audience captivated by his or her goodness.
This is a rare thing, but the best stories stay with us because of these people. They are the stories in which the hero has to defeat the evil, but also the evil in himself or herself. They are those who grow and change. Who love. And their flaws are always an intricate part of events; the great chasm that almost defeats them.
Consider all the protagonists in literature who have made you truly believe in goodness and who (though they are fictional) are real enough to become our role models and make us better after the book is back on the shelf.
And as writers, we think to ourselves, “How can I create that?” Because these types of heroes are a rare phenomenon. And if I do anything right in my writing career I hope I will have created at least one.
Most of us have gotten over the odd fact that a second Hobbit has arrived. We were anticipating it. We have just enough time to enjoy the heck out of this movie before we start begging for the conclusive third, having entirely forgotten that there was only one 300 page book. (We all complained until the guy in the back of the room cried, “To hell with that, I’m entertained!”).
My guess is that a vast majority of the Hobbit’s biggest critics are those who wanted these movies to be just like The Lord of the Rings trilogy, or those who are still book purists. And perhaps a few who still hate Hollywood and their money-making schemes (but your argument is no longer valid if you gave Hollywood your money to see their money-making scheme).
I realize it’s more hip to be a critic, but I can’t lie. I loved both the first and second Hobbit. Just about equally. Needless to say at this point, the Rings Trilogy is intentionally very different from the Hobbit in both books and movies, and that trend continues with the second Hobbit film. The Desolation of Smaug doesn’t feel like a new movie. It’s a simple continuation of the story and arrives to us on screen with very little pause – hardly a chapter break. While it’s possible to pick a favorite among the trilogy, that doesn’t seem as simple here.
My reasoning comes from the same idea I had in my original Hobbit review, last year. The Lord of the Rings is about war. The Hobbit centers around a more whimsical and lively adventure. People like The Two Towers because of Helm’s Deep or because they like Rohan. They like the Fellowship for the character interaction and maybe Hobbiton. The setting is grander, encompassing more races and heavier themes. The Hobbit is one long adventure, and even specific scenes are hard to choose as favorites because they’re a little harder to define. I think that’s a good thing. This is one book, after all.
Jackson as continued to capture the feeling of Tolkien’s Hobbit in a way that has to convert at least a few of the puritans. Middlearth still seems more vibrant and a bit younger than it did in the trilogy. From the colors, to the way it was filmed, to Legolas’ eyes; everything is set somewhat apart from the war against Sauron that comes later. (And the Dark Lord’s short appearance in this movie was wicked). (And that mean “cool”).
Just about the only thing I didn’t like was Legolas. Not that he was there, just that he was a lot harder to like. We always knew he was the least interesting character of the Fellowship to begin with despite the fact that he was awesome, but he was never the stone-cold stoic they made him out to be here. Kili totally deserves the girl! And the love story – as it was a pure Jackson addition – still managed to be charming. It seemed genuine and gave a secondary character that is hard not to like some screen time. Of course there had to be additions with the amount of secondary characters in Tolkien’s The Hobbit. The movie’s attempt to round some of them out further is admirable.
The Desolation of Smaug was one heck of a barrel ride that I’d go on again and again. Martin Freeman has instilled Bilbo with a charm that can’t be forgotten, Gandalf has once again proved that he could string Harry Potter up by his cape (he went at least three rounds with Sauron), and Smaug was fiendishly fabulous. I’ve never loved a greedy, good-for-nothing lizard more!
Intentionality of words is something poets speak of often and value highly. And I think us authors of prose should attempt to cultivate the same efforts of word-smithery. For a poet, each word and grammatical mark – even individual letters sometimes – carries the potential to affect the entire poem and the way a reader views or hears it. Part of the poet’s genius is in the sound manipulations he or she can create in the reader’s ears.
But can prose manage that?
Considering length it would be difficult to contribute that much care to each mark on the page as many poets do. But what about some of the longer epic poetry like “Paradise Lost” or “The Divine Comedy” (see also “Beowulf,” “things by Homer,” “Canterbury Tales,” “The Waste Land”…) Some of these are probably longer than the last book you read.
I’m not saying that most authors of prose literature don’t toil over each word with care, but, of course, how could authors like Stephen King write 50 pages a day if he taxed his efforts and time with how best to craft each sentence? Edgar Allen Poe said of short fiction, “A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it.” This sounds a lot like what the poet tries to accomplish in verse, but nothing of the sort is said of longer works of prose.
Unfortunately, this is the same man who wrote, “I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity,” which is mildly concerning, but we were already concerned.
And in any case, readers don’t read prose like they do poetry. They skim, glide, peruse to take in the joy-ride of the story. Don’t they?
Maybe that’s because too many books these days are written like movie scripts. Who’s to say some of them weren’t written in the hopes they could become movies? In a brief debate about writing I had with an acquaintance a week ago, I was told flatly that I shouldn’t bother spending the time to find the perfect wording since people who read books don’t read every word, and my efforts would be squandered because of that. He didn’t believe me when I said that I do read every word…unless the book is poorly written, and it’s not worth reading every word…which is why people skim.
He didn’t believe me, so I told him that I’d rather not squander my skills, but instead I’d waste all my precious time and try. Then I added (somewhat spitefully) that he must never have read a well-written book in his life, and he should go immerse himself in Steinbeck (ok, I thought of that last bit later and wish I had said it). That was the end of the conversation, but it brought me to this intentionality-of-words obsession, which further fueled my love of poetry, and finally brought me to a conclusion…
Authors of prose have quite a lot to learn from poets. We should even practice poetry on occasion for the health of our talent. Why? Because the really good books do get read word for word. There’s no other way to read them. Every word, every line demands the attention it’s due and contributes to the full work – mood, story, and character.
Sure, I’m bias by a dose of idealism and a spoonful of romanticism (which actually makes the medicine come back up), but writing is still an art despite the best efforts of money and media. And poetry doesn’t have to be the highest form of that art when the prosers take extra good care of their words. The two are separated by little more than the mentality and claim of the writer in the first place.
After all, where do you draw the line between poetry and prose? Take a look at multiple award-winner, James Tate who writes poems like “Man with Wooden Leg Escapes Prison,” and puzzle over that for the rest of your day.
Man with wooden leg escapes prison. He’s caught.
They take his wooden leg away from him. Each day
he must cross a large hill and swim a wide river
to get to the field where he must work all day on
one leg. This goes on for a year. At the Christmas
Party they give him back his leg. Now he doesn’t
want it. His escape is all planned. It requires
only one leg.
Look what I found today!
A comprehensive list of all the poetry collections that have won the National Book Award since 1950. This is a rich resource of thought that I hope to one day get through in its entirety even if it takes me the rest of my life.
Poetry isn’t my first love, but every couple of months, my need for it is rekindled, and I set the novels aside to find joy in short collections of words I don’t usually understand. What’s got me so giddy about a confusing mire of abstraction? I can’t always explain it. Some poems don’t touch me at all; others hound my soul for days. Sometimes a line or couplet of words will hit me in a way that makes me feel like my life is not/can not be the same after.
And digging through pages of nonsense to my ears is worth finding one of those precious gems any day. In a later post I hope to have up this week, I’ll attempt to explain a little more my thoughts about how poetry can affect us, so tune in. It’s been too long since my last post.
When Daniel Abraham wrote his debut novel, A Shadow In Summer, it was well received by those who bothered to notice. It was understood by critics, peers, and readers that Abraham was a new force of creativity in a genera growing dark with cliché. But it was quickly buried by other’s popularity.
Hugo Award winning author, Connie Willis, named it “intricate, elegant, and almost hypnotically told.” And there is really something about it – a peripheral sensation, stunningly poetic that manages to remain untainted by an over-abundance of style. By this, I mean to say it’s simply written and intricately thought. The wisdom of the narrator’s voice washes over its readers, leaving them with a notion that something right has just been said. I couldn’t always name it. But isn’t that the hazy definition of the sublime?
My apologies. It’s a bit too early in a post to get philosophical. The fact is, this is shameless promotion of four novels that changed the way I saw fantasy. When I finished the series I was actually surprised to realize that it may have been my favorite series ever.
Why was I surprised? Because these humble, near-perfect novels are not at all flashy. And that might begin to account for it’s dismal shelf life. Tor actually dropped Abraham soon after the fourth was printed. Too bad for them that Orbit picked Daniel up, dusted him off and reprinted the series in a two-part omnibus. And his new series is selling very well.
Taking place in a world rich with Asian culture and delicate as fine calligraphy, Abraham spins a story about two young men growing up in a world that has no place for them. The author’s descriptions of the hubristic Empire and the characters that try to save it reads like a Greek tragedy and will steal your breath.
And the Andat – god-like manifestations of elemental thoughts held as slaves by the Empire’s poets – are an exceptional creation amounting to creative genius. The dialogue of one andat called Seedless made him a favorite character of mine despite the fact that he wasn’t even human. It’s really a joy to read, and keeps you captivated.
So if you have the time and want to read something that fell more in league with Homer than George Martin (Homer has still sold more books) – if you want an epic that won’t leave you unscathed by tragedy – or by wisdom – then delve into an author that will probably never land on the “best sellers” shelf, but shouldn’t escape the notice of aspiring writers and discerning readers.
Because when you finish, you’ll have witnessed a rich world and an amazing story.