August 26th, 2006

Relax!  Grab a Book!

38 of 50

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  1. Ballard, J.G. — Crash
  2. Joyce, James — The Dubliners
  3. Le Guin, Ursula — Tales from Earthsea

I've had a craving to read more Le Guin for several weeks. Though I've had The Dispossessed sitting on my shelf these past months, I haven't considered it yet, wanting to finish the Earthsea books before exploring Le Guin's Hainish universe. However, I could find Tales from Earthsea and The Other Wind nowhere in England.

Part of my goal while back in Boston (besides, obviously, the business that required me to go back) was to acquire copies of these last two Earthsea books and the last two Prydain books. I succeeded in the former, failed in the latter. (Thus, it looks like I won't be able to finish reading about Taran's adventures within a year of having started, but I will about wizardry in Earthsea.)

I think Tales from Earthsea probably re-establishes Le Guin as my favorite author. Attempting essentially the same thing as Tehanu (reclaiming the magic arts from men), it avoids that book's shortcomings. Le Guin claims in the preface that the last story is a prelude to The Other Wind. Truly, the entire book is a prelude, a skillful transition.

Through the course of these five stories and the appended "A Description of Earthsea," Le Guin explains away any inconsistencies introduced in her previous book and much more gracefully weaves into the reader's conception of Earthsea the idea that men aren't the only ones who can wield great power. Strong women figure prominently in each story.

In "The Finder" we learn of the vital role women played in keeping the scholarly and ethical teaching of magic alive during the Dark Times and in founding the School on Roke. "Darkrose and Diamond" features a man with innate power struggling to choose between wizardry with its enforced celibacy and the woman he loves. "The Bones of the Earth" shows us that Ogion and his teacher would never have been able to still the great earthquake on Gont were it not for the teaching of a woman of power. "On the High Marsh" features a woman being the only person brave enough to do the right thing, defying conventional belief and superstition. And finally, in "Dragonfly," we see a young woman shake the very foundations of Roke itself.

Though each story is different, that common theme (women can have power, wizards are an unjustly misogynistic bunch) unites them. The entire book has beautiful arc, like a well-crafted concerto, bookended by the longer stories of beginning and end with three shorter stories in the middle, playing upon the theme in different keys. This book is a fantastic achievement!

While reading these stories, in which Le Guin actively tackles literature's male bias, I often found myself thinking about bias more generally. Given a lack of further information from the author, a reader tends to associate a character's traits with his own. Therefore, male readers (and probably most readers, as the male bias in literature is so strong) probably assumed, incorrectly, that Dulce's teacher, Ard, was a man (a fact Le Guin no doubt counted on in order to make her case more strongly). Yet I found my own bias repeatedly asserting itself despite knowledge to the contrary. I kept picturing in my mind's eye, until again being reminded in the text, the people of Earthsea as white, despite having been told from the very first chapter of the very first book that they are generally brown-skinned. I found it interesting that my white-skinned bias kept asserting itself. I wonder what that says.