The World Needs More Wizard of Earthsea and Less Harry Potter

1 Jun

Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, though influential and well-received, is an underappreciated literary masterpiece. The reason it is underappreciated is the same reason it is great: its seriousness. We live in a dangerously unserious time, a Brave New World in which comfort, convenience, and amusement have become our all-consuming objectives and our unexamined reasons for existing. The consequences of this intellectual and spiritual vacuousness can be gauged in the last presidential election, in which over fifty percent of eligible voters couldn’t be bothered to exercise their franchise, even as a clearly deranged man, with open authoritarian and white supremacist tendencies, not only ran but won. Meanwhile, many of those who did vote treated it like a reality television show or sporting event. Our fifth estate, the news media, helped fuel the frivolity of the campaign, and indeed, helped elect our current president. The function of art has always been to counter the self-congratulatory groupthink of any society, the propaganda, that is, but sadly, our art too has been consumed by our collective demand for comfort, convenience, and entertainment. Harry Potter, adored by millions of readers and movie audiences, sadly does nothing but reinforce the status quo, comforting us with the myth that everything is just dandy as is. A Wizard of Earthsea on the other hand, published in 1968, asks hard questions and tells uncomfortable truths, ultimately demanding that we change. We need it, and books like it, now more than ever.

To illustrate and support the statement above, I will fall back on the old “compare/contrast” essay formula, limiting myself to first book in each series for the sake of space.

The comparison:

Both books, written for a middle-grade audience, are about a boy with a gift for magic, who finds his way into a prestigious wizard school, and grows into his power while confronting a dangerous nemesis.

The contrasts:

  • Audience:

A Wizard of Earthsea is considered a classic fantasy novel, but in my experience, hardly anyone younger than me has read it, or even heard of it. Harry Potter is perhaps the most culturally influential “publishing event” that has occurred over my lifetime. Harry Potter’s audience is huge; A Wizard of Earthsea’s is relatively tiny. Make of this what you will.

  • Heroes:

Harry Potter is a white boy born into celebrity and wealth. He did nothing to earn his fame or his money. Powerful people help him get into the land’s most prestigious school, where he is beloved before he even arrives by everyone except the followers of his nemesis. In school, he’s a talented athlete who doesn’t like to study but who gets by academically by leaning on a smart friend. He never does anything wrong and has no flaws.

Earthsea’s Ged is a brown-skinned boy born poor, abused by his father and sold as an adolescent into indentured servitude to a blacksmith. He runs away, and because of his verve and talent, is noticed by the village witch, who takes him under her wing for one reason: to use him for her benefit. Immediately, she tries to cast an enslaving spell on him, but he resists her magic, and, frankly frightened by his latent power, she sends him off to the regional wizard, and that’s how he eventually gets to college—a college where he is seen as a poor, backward rube, to be ridiculed or avoided. In essence, he’s the black kid from a traumatic and impoverished background who, because of undeniable academic gifts, gets admitted to Harvard. Like many kids in that position, Ged is far from perfect. He is insecure, angry, prideful, and envious of all the rich kids surrounding him.

In short, Ged is real; Harry is a storybook character.

  • Monsters:

Voldemort is pure, uncomplicated evil. He and his minions embody everything that’s wrong in the world. If only they can be eliminated, the world (i.e. England) will be “great again.”

Ged’s nameless, faceless, silent demon springs from his own weakness. Giving in to the urge to show off and show up the smug rich kids, he does the one thing he knows he’s not supposed to do: he casts a spell he doesn’t fully understand. The earth splits, the demon emerges, and pounces on Ged in a terrifying scene I still remember decades after I read it as a child. Ged is mauled, his face half ripped off, and he’s permanently maimed, walking with a limp for the rest of his life. His mentor is killed saving him, and the demon, his responsibility, is unleashed to wreak havoc across the land. Ged is left ugly to look at, permanently wounded. Compare his deformed face to the adorable lightning bolt scar on Harry Potter’s forehead.

In Earthsea, mistakes carry consequences. While Harry Potter never makes mistakes, and even if he did, they’d be quickly forgiven and fixed by his powerful handlers.

  • Magic:

Sorcery in Harry Potter’s world is treated lightly, and the study of it seems to consist of a series of kinesiology-like courses designed to train students to twirl their magic wands just so. The author shows more interest in the gimmicks of wizardry—the pets and capes and flying brooms and custom made wands—than in the source of magic.

In Earthsea, magic is a combination of knowledge, wisdom, and native talent. Broken up into specialties clearly borrowed from academia, the study of magic involves years of work in dusty archives. The wizard in Earthsea is something like a public intellectual, an old professor who is called upon when special knowledge is needed. Power comes from knowing a thing or person’s true name, which is to say, knowing its true nature. To learn the deepest truth is to achieve mastery. Wizardry and education are practically synonymous.

  • Final Showdown:

Harry Potter vanquishes Voldemort in the end. Not permanently of course, because if you get rid of the Evil Other you have no one left to blame your troubles on. Why do you think Trump and the GOP have never actually done anything to improve America’s outdated immigration system? Harry’s temporary but decisive victory was never in question. Anyone old enough to read a sentence can sense from the beginning that he would win it all in the end. Rowlings’ omniscient, authoritarian narrator does not shy away from telling her reader whom to root for, whom to laugh at, and whom to hate. She assures the reader early and often that everything will work out just fine in the end. No need to fret. Not only does Harry beat Voldemort, his “frat” also wins the trivial frat of the year award, gifted them by a deus ex machina move by the schoolmaster.

The results of Ged’s final confrontation with his demon are far more complicated. As mentioned above, Earthsea magic relies heavily upon the learning of a thing or person’s true name, and thus true nature. Knowledge of this true name gives the scholar/wizard mastery over the subject. For this reason, everyone guards their true name, and the sharing of it is a great intimacy and moment of vulnerability. Throughout the novel, Ged chases and is chased by the demon across the land until they come face to face, where Ged finally names the demon, and the demon’s name, of course, is Ged. It was always him. Reading the first time as a kid, I didn’t see it coming, but it was so perfect and so powerful I had to get up and walk around for a while to put everything into place. After the naming, I fully expected Ged to slay the monster; it was time in the story for the revenge I so passionately wanted. But Le Guin, unlike Rowling, was more interested in telling the truth than satisfying her readers’ blood lust. Instead of killing it, Ged acknowledges the demon, and compels it into himself. You might say he forgives it. This product of envy, anger, and insecurity, has not disappeared. It will remain in Ged forever, his burden, because the only way to control evil is to recognize that it belongs to us, to keep it inside and in check, or else it runs rampant under the guise of the Evil Other. This is an utterly profound truth, one that we have for the most part forgotten.

Conclusion:

Harry Potter is a perfectly entertaining exercise in simple wish fulfillment. I bear it no ill will. A Wizard of Earthsea, however, is art of the highest order, the sort of work that can save us, philosophically weighty and yet simple enough for a child to understand. To read better books, to tell better stories, has become a matter of survival, I fear. I hope you’ll help spread the word about this great story.

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