Three Short Fiction Reviews of Tales by Le Guin

I read Ursula K. Le Guin's "Dragonfly" when it first came out in Legends four years ago and thought it easily one of the best stories of the year, and a bit of a cheat. It resolves with the dawn of female emancipation on Earthsea, that most appealing of male-dominated fantasy worlds, through the actions of a young woman who turns out not to be a woman at all. She's a marvelous character, but a triumph that could not have been achieved by a real woman (who would have been vulnerable to male charms, both personal and wizardly) is no triumph for women at all. It comes unearned, as a gift from the author.

Just so, though, would the last few chapters of The Lord of the Rings read, if you started after the fall of Sauron. Samwise and Company's scouring of the Shire and setting things handily to rights would not satisfy if one had not seen the price they had earlier paid for their easy assurance. With the appearance of Tales From Earthsea, the fifth book in Le Guin's great fantasy sequence, it turns out that "Dragonfly" is the capstone of five stories which, taken together, form a revisionist secret history of Earthsea. Read in order, they transform the heroine from a mysterious dea ex machina to a mysterious upwelling of the oceanic unconscious of Earthsea's peoples and a physical expression of their collective will.

By casting the overall story as a series of five indirectly-related tales, Le Guin has written a book that is anti-hierarchic, de-patriarchal and all that good feminist stuff. But you will suffer no lack of theoreticians to guide you through the higher meanings of Tales From Earthsea. So let's instead consider the three stories that are original to this book as individual and independent works. How do they stand up?

Pretty darn well.

"The Bones of the Earth" opens with an old man, a wizard, leaving his house to gather eggs in the rain. His name is Dulse. With the casualness of thought, the prose follows him to the henhouse, then to the day his prentice built a wooden floor for him, and so to memories of how the boy had come to him and how the man had left. In a few quick brush-strokes, the author paints a picture of the hermit on the mountain and his apprentice, Silence. It is all done with the deft economy of a Taoist monk sweeping out the house.

In a quiet moment that is the culmination of the first several pages, Dulse realizes that an earthquake is on its way, a great one that will shake the mountain island of Gont and destroy its port city and all its citizens. This threat provides the muscle of the tale. A meditation on fathers and sons forms the heart. But it is the image of the old man sitting in the grass by a pond, eating an apple, with bits of eggshell flecking the ground by his mud-stained legs that is its soul.

The action, so necessary to the story and so beside the point, moves swiftly. The prentice holds the Armed Cliffs from collapsing onto the town, while his master sacrifices himself (using archaic magic he learned from his master, a woman, which information is vitally important to the overall story-arc, but of only background interest here) in order to gentle the quake by becoming a part of the mountain. Here, at the story's climax, the elegantly simple prose reaches through eloquence to become, for one sentence, incantatory:

He knew the arteries of fire, and the beat of the great heart. He knew what to do. It was in no tongue of man that he said, "Be quiet, be easy. There now, there. Hold fast. So, there. We can be easy."
And he was easy, he was still, he held fast, rock in rock and earth in earth in the fiery dark of the mountain.

Years ago, a diligent freelancer filled a page in I forget what magazine by the old trick of asking a slew of famous people a provocative question, in this case, "Who is your favorite wizard?" and running their answers as an article. Theodore Sturgeon named a musician, a painter, and Robert A. Heinlein. It was, he mused, a more interesting question than it appeared on the surface. What was a wizard, anyway? The master, he concluded, of an unknown science.

So here. Dulse's comment on the floor Silence builds, "the wood ... so smooth it seemed soft to the bare sole," applies equally to the wizardly surface Le Guin achieves in this story: "Satin. You didn't do all that in one day without a spell or two."

"On the High Marsh" is written in a language of elementary nouns - roads, rivers, cats, women, dreams, words - that evokes the stark lives the tale's denizens live, and the clarity of vision that can come when elaborations are stripped away.

A man comes down from the mountain. He is a damaged creature, and a wizard. Kindly - we learn that by how he speaks to a heifer whose aid he enlists to find shelter. But mad as well - we learn that by how he speaks to the woman who offers him that shelter. There is (we know because the word "stories" has been dropped into the second sentence) a secret in his past, and a wound that must be healed.

There is so much to admire in this story - the craft is perfect - that it seems churlish not to like it. But after all the elements are in place - Otak finds a useful place in rural society, then threatens it with a burst of anger and unwise use of his power, Gift chooses his presence over that of her worthless drunk of a brother - Le Guin rings in an outsider (none other than our old friend, Ged) to tell Otak's back-story, and then gracefully resolve everything, tie up the loose ends, and back away with a smile and a bow.

The problem is that Gift, though she makes an implicit marriage with Otak at the end, is almost perfectly passive. She's a marvelously convincing character, but she never does anything! Oh, she sells cheese, defends Otak, defies the villagers, ousts her brother. But she does nothing to change the course of the story itself. She accepts, she supports, she nurtures. Her virtues are those of the heifer Otak calls to lead him to a farm: warmth, gentleness, predictability, strength, silence.

The cow is identified with the Goddess in many cultures, making it a respectable symbol for womankind, and so perhaps here. Perhaps the problem lies in me, that I simply cannot subscribe to the view of women as mystically attuned to the Earth and cosmically passive. (I have three sisters.) Perhaps I'm simply missing something.

The story, however, as a device, as a made thing, is wondrously done. Recently, my son was one of several teens to have their plays read by actors at The Brick, one of those virtuous shoestring operations that exist to encourage and nurture young talent. After each play, the actors and local directors and playwrights offered constructive criticism to the young playwrights. Most of it was practical: Critical action should happen on stage, one person talking on a telephone is not dramatic, and so on. When they got to Sean, there was a moment's silence because his mechanics were flawless. He'd written a drawing-room farce which obeyed all the unities, provided motivations (however ridiculous) for everyone, and accounted for everything at the end. There was a moment's silence. Then one adult cleared his throat. "You need a better subtext," he said.

As I later told my son: If the worst they can find wrong with your work is the subtext, take that as a compliment.

The first story in the batch is also the longest. "The Finder" is a novella that could easily have been stretched out to novel length had the author not had bigger fish to fry. It is, in fact, divided like a novel into numbered and titled chapters. First comes a bit of history, establishing events as happening in the near-legendary dark ages preceding the Earthsea we already know. Civilization has broken down, and the world is ruled by factious warlords in whose cruel employ wizards exercise their power unwisely. Section two introduces the protagonist.

Otter is a boatwright's son, and possessed with a gift of magery. Times being what they are, his father tries to beat it out of him. It's an age best survived by reeds, not oaks, and Losen, a pirate who styles himself King of the Innermost Sea, has use for children with power. But Otter learns what little he can in secret, and brings attention to himself when he ensorcels a raiding ship so it won't sail true. In search of him comes the first of three models for what he might become, given his power and the world he's been born into.

Hound is an intriguing character, a decent man compromised by his service to an evil master. Brutal by necessity, he is honest when he can be honest and silent when he cannot. He does what he can, in a small way. It's not enough. But he can see no other path.

Hound sends Otter to the cinnabar mines, to be a finder of ore. It's meant as a mercy, to keep him away from the battles and quick deaths of the sea. Yet, bound and gagged by day, and ensorceled both in body and mind by night, it is for the boy a near-literal Hell. The innermost circle of which is the roaster tower, where ore is baked by smoke-sickened slaves and the fumes condensed to produce the merest trickle of mercury, two or three drops a day.

The purpose of the quicksilver refined by this immense labor and unspeakable suffering is to feed the power of Otter's second potential role-model, the wizard Gelluk. He is a powerful, flamboyant and in ways attractive man, but also quite mad. He drinks mercury, which he calls the King in order to accept it into his body. He enthuses about the substance in a jumbled mish-mosh of alchemical and gnostic metaphors: His veins run silver, he sees things unknown to other men, and when the metal leaves him, his dung is gathered up so it can be purified again.

The wizard took Otter's arm and walked along with him. He said, smiling and confidential, "I am one who shits moonlight. You will not know another such. And more than that, more than that, the King enters into my seed. He is my semen. I am Turres and he is me..."

This is one creepy bastard. And yet, as I said, attractive. He is second in political power only to Losen, and second in magery to none. His knowledge draws Otter to him. Gelluk is everything Otter might become if he simply embraces the world as it is, and he's willing to teach the young lad his lore, if Otter will only cooperate. Fortunately for Otter, he has already encountered his third and proper model, though he doesn't know it yet, in, of all places, the roaster tower:

The slave stood by, motionless. All the people who worked in the heat and fumes of the roaster tower were naked or wore only breechclout and moccasins. Otter glanced again at the slave, thinking by his height he was a child, and then saw the small breasts. It was a woman. She was bald. Her joints were swollen knobs in her bone-thin limbs. She looked up once at Otter, moving her eyes only. She spat into the fire, wiped her sore mouth with her hand, and stood motionless again.

The slave, Anieb, also possesses great power, though, being a woman, it goes unsuspected. More importantly, she has the knowledge of how that power should properly be employed. She and Otter enter into an implicit conspiracy to escape. Together they are able to make a desperate bid for freedom. She points Otter in a direction where his power will have a purpose he can live with.

It is possible, though I'm not prepared to argue it in public, that all great fantasy is ontological in nature. Tolkien was a Catholic, and Eddison a solipsist. Le Guin is a taoist, and never more implicitly so than here. The third section is a cascading sequence of quests, first for a hidden island refuge, then for wholeness, then for the creation of a school of wizardry, all in service of healing the essential wrongness of the world. What is interesting about this section is how the tale continually opens out. Le Guin uses the energy of Otter's persecution and escape (and, as Charles Dickens would tell you, there is no readier source of energy than an abused child) to drive the narrative into larger and more abstract issues. The years roll by and it becomes clear that, as all our storytellers agree, the journey's destination is the journey itself, the quests have no end, and the perfect society is never achieved. The hero is in the process of always becoming.

There is an underground of wizards in this tale, called the women of the Hand, though some are men. Their recognition sign is a fist, turned and opened, as if offering something. Karate, similarly, means "empty hand" fighting. The symbol for kenpo karate is an open hand atop a fist, symbolizing power under restraint. The fist and the helping hand are, of course, two aspects of the same thing. But "The Finder" successfully demonstrates that the restraining hand is the more powerful one. One power-mad wizard dies, and he is immediately replaced by his apprentice. A king is hanged and six warlords fight over his lands. It is only when people of good will work together that things can ever change.

In the fourth and last section the perspective opens out again, and fades into the background as Otter, now old, sits himself down in the shade. His story never quite comes to an end.

And his models? One he kills, one he redeems, one he tries to be worthy of. You can never become another person, of course. That's only a metaphor.

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