Monday, February 22, 2016

people in transit

The smith stared at his son who stood wraithlike in that weird, dank mist. It took him a minute to see Duny's meaning, but when he did he ran at once, noiselessly, knowing every fence and corner of the village, to find the others and tell them what to do. Now through the grey fog bloomed a blur of red, as the Kargs set fire to the thatch of a house. Still they did not come up into the village, but waited at the lower end till the mist should lift and lay bare their loot and prey.

The tanner, whose house it was that burned, sent a couple of boys skipping right under the Kargs' noses, taunting and yelling and vanishing again like smoke into smoke. Meantime the older men, creeping behind fences and running from house to house, came close on the other side and sent a volley of arrows and spears at the warriors, who stood all in a bunch. One Karg fell writhing with a spear, still warm from its forging, right through his body. Others were arrow-bitten, and all enraged. They charged forward then to hew down their puny attackers, but they found only the fog about them, full of voices. They followed the voices, stabbing ahead into the mist with their great, plumed, bloodstained lances. Up the length of the street they came shouting, and never knew they had run right through the village, as the empty huts and houses loomed and disappeared again in the writhing grey fog. The villagers ran scattering, most of them keeping well ahead since they knew the ground; but some, boys or old men, were slow. The Kargs stumbling on them drove their lances or hacked with their swords, yelling their war-cry, the names of the White Godbrothers of Atuan: "Wuluah! Atwah!"

Some of the band stopped when they felt the land grow rough underfoot, but others pressed right on, seeking the phantom village, following dim wavering shapes that fled just out of reach before them. All the mist had come alive with these fleeting forms, dodging, flickering, fading on every side. One group of the Kargs chased the wraiths straight to the High Fall, the cliff's edge above the springs of Ar, and the shapes they pursued ran out onto the air and there vanished in a thinning of the mist, while the pursuers fell screaming through fog and sudden sunlight a hundred feet sheer to the shallow pools among the rocks. And those that came behind and did not fall stood at the cliff's edge, listening.
I'm reading Ursula K. LeGuin's A Wizard of Earthsea, the first book in the "Earthsea" trilogy. I have heard that there are actually more than three novels in this series now, but I've only read the first three. A Wizard of Earthsea was originally published in 1968. I don't know when I first read it, but it must've been in the early 1970s. I think I read these books before I read Lord of the Rings. I've always remembered "Earthsea" fondly, and when I found a set on the bookshelves at a house I was sharing eleven years ago, I read them and I was pleased to find them as fine as I'd remembered. Mighty Reader got me a set (in the original covers, hurrah!) for Christmas last year, and this seems to be when I've decided to read them again. I report that the books remain as good as I'd always thought they were.

The prose is quite rhythmic and propulsive, as you can see from the above excerpt. It has both the flavor of the tale-teller's art and of Modernism, I think. The surface simplicity of fairy tales and the angular rolling along of Fitzgerald or Hemingway. It's also a compact story, each volume being more a novella than a novel, not at all what one imagines nowadays when one thinks of a high fantasy trilogy.

The other thing "Earthsea" contains is the entire Harry Potter story, in compressed form. There's the proud boy whose mother died when he was a babe, the school of wizardry, the connection/battle with a dark half of himself, and even the scar on the boy wizard's face. What Rowling takes 7,000 pages to do, LeGuin managed in about 400. But I am not here to compare the two works. LeGuin's novels, I assume, have in some way informed my own novels. I recognize the sparse prose, the brevity of the action, the intimate focus on a single character, and the movement. LeGuin's characters are always leaving home, going somewhere, traveling. It came as a shock to me when I saw how every novel I write is essentially about someone on a journey. Not the hero's transformative journey, but by gum my protagonists are not at home. All of the novels I have planned for the future are also about people in transit. Huh, I say. Huh. I will have to write something soon about people who stay home.


  1. Your reading adventure (a phrase I use rather than "reading experience" which got me into trouble previously elsewhere) reminds me of the pleasures to be had by adults who revisit (or even visit for the first time) books intended for children. Perhaps that should be a requirement for all older readers: return to innocence through children's books. Now, as I ponder that notion, I will have to compile a list and write a posting based on that kind of excursion. What other "children's books" have you most enjoyed lately?

    1. I don't know if these are "children's books"! I suspect that LeGuin thinks of them as suitable for all perceptive readers. I read War and Peace when I was 16; that doesn't make it a "young adult" novel, does it? I guess I don't think in terms of "children's books" versus "adult books."

      But let's say the "Earthsea" novels are intended for young readers. I can't call them "innocent" at all. They're violent, disturbing books full of loss and death. My kind of stuff, but no kind of return to innocence.

      I read some Tolkien stories a few weeks ago that were fine. I don't know if those were aimed at children, though. They're in a traditional "fairy tale" voice, but they're quite knowing and I suspect the humor would be lost on kids. Like I say, I don't really know from kid's books.

    2. Perhaps I used the word "innocence" somewhat carelessly; however, I remember my early grade school encounters with Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, and Landmark history books (roughly in that order), and those were certainly written and marketed for young readers. I am sure that publishers have an age range in mind that divides books for young readers v. books for adolescent readers, and I suspect LeGuin's Earthsea series was aimed at adolescents rather than adults. And I also think of the differences between _Tom Sawyer_ and _Huck Finn_, or C. S. Lewis's two different fantasy series as examples of the differences. Of course, I could be quite wrong, but I suspect your reading of _War and Peace_ at 16 put you in singular and precocious company of readers.

    3. I'm sure you're right about marketing; I just don't think in those terms, and of the books you mention, I've only read Huck Finn, and that as an adult. When I was a kid, my parents let us read whatever we were interested in. There was no thought given to age-appropriateness or anything like that. I really don't know what I read when I was very young. Dr Seuss, Kidnapped, and that sort of thing. The Sherlock Holmes stories, I read a lot of them when I was about 14, were kid's books in my school, which is maybe why I think of the mystery/crime genre as being kid's books, though I know of course that they are generally considered to be written for adults.

      There are good books and bad books, and that's as far as I like to categorize things. Or maybe there are books I'm interested in and books I'm not interested in; that might be more accurate.

      I believe the Kaetha Recheis novel I just read was marketed for young readers, but as far as I can tell that is only because the the narrator is a young girl who ages from 10 to 15 during the course of the book. There's no sex but there is the horror of war. The final hundred or so pages are strewn with corpses and burning cities. It's not clear that the author thought she was writing for children, but it was a good move on the publisher's part, as the book is widely read in German-language schools.

      Anyway, I'm useless for coming up with lists of "my favorite books of category X, Y or Z." I will always bridle against the categories, because I don't think in those terms, and possibly the books I tend to read fall mostly on the permeable edges of the categories.

      But I am enjoying A Wizard of Earthsea.

  2. I too got wrapped up in this trilogy when I was young and am not surprised to find that it ages well - along with its readers. I had a similar experience re-reading John Christopher's Tripods trilogy a few years ago, and was fairly astonished by what some would think of as the "adult" content of those books - exactly the kinds of things that, back then, helped expand my world and prepare me for some of its darker contours.

    1. Tripods, one of my older brothers read those. I never did, but I like a lot of that late-60s science fiction, the stuff that informed the reader that the world was not a fluffy adventure, that decent people die and not always to serve heroic ends, etc. I also remember that collection Dangerous Visions put together by Harlan Ellison. Some of it was amazing. I'm sure some of it was not, too.

      There was a lot of interesting stuff going on in science fiction in those days. Maybe there still it, and I just don't read it anymore so I don't know. At some point I started to feel that the quality of the writing didn't live up to the quality of the ideas, and I had to stop reading it.

  3. me too, he said, having read them in the early seventies; i read the sherlock canon 3 times before i was 20. not to brag... someone said once "if it's true it's not bragging"; that makes me a little uncomfortable,tho... anyway, read the last earthsea volume about a year ago and it left me shivering, if not absolutely cold: age gradually takes away the things you love. i think my favorite leguin was left hand of darkness which at the time i thought was brilliant; don't know what i'd think of it now... i don't divide lit much, just into what i can enjoy and what i can't; sometimes i get 3/4 of the way through a book and then do the wall abuse thing, it's all serendipity...

    1. I barely remember Left Hand of Darkness. I was maybe 15 when I read it. A couple of years ago I read Lavinia, historical fiction retelling the Aeneid. It was all right, but not as exciting as reading Virgil. We have a couple of Le Guin's little books about winged cats around the house, too.

      What I read most during my early teens were the "Doc Savage" adventure books, which were written by several different people all using the nom de plume Kenneth Robeson. They were not very good, but there were something like 80 of them in the school library.

      By "the last earthsea" do you mean The Other Wind, from 2001? I haven't read any of the three beyond the original trilogy.

  4. I now know that Mudpuddle is a man!

    All the age gradation of recent decades are just marketing fop-de-rol. It's much better for children to wander library stacks and find what they like. Where they still have library stacks, that is...

    I reread the first book in the series on the way to North Carolina last month. It holds up. Then I read have the next and forgot to put it in the car when I left.

  5. Replies
    1. I somehow assumed you were a woman. (Perhaps you are only blinding me with "he said," and spreading fictional dissembling!)

      Why does that say FOP instead of FOL? My typographical enemies follow me everywhere. Alas.

    2. i don't remember where i got that from.... something i read somewhere; it's just a third person way of referring to oneself, being kind of schizoid apparently... i'm convinced my keyboard has it's own mind about how to spell and we have disagreements, yes...

    3. I think M outed himself a while back here when he referred to himself as "an old man." Though perhaps that's also just a figure of speech. One of the novels I'm reading has a protagonist who refers to his sometime girlfriend as "a good chap."

      I thought "fop-de-rol" was deliberate.

    4. Should have been, I suppose. Like Crane's typesetter's error, turning "black wing of eternity" into "wink."

      In a youth-mad culture, I imagine that saying you are old is not reliable, at least without a picture provided!

      "Mudpuddle" is a great name. And I always felt that my children had a perfect right to splash in them.

  6. When I was ten, I tried to read the Earthsea books on the recommendation of a supernaturally intelligent friend, but I found the tone too stark and the prose too dense. I was unprepared for them. When I returned to them just a couple years ago, I loved them, and I was impressed by their strong moral sense, particularly in Le Guin's dramatization of lasting guilt and profound responsibility.

    Le Guin has rightly gotten every award the fantasy and SF scene could bestow on her, but I wish she weren't seen as someone who (ah, the old faint praise) elevates popular genres to art, but as a top-notch American writer, period. Many of her short stories really shine.