Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Fantasy Book Review: The Earthsea Cycle

Earlier this summer I was on library duty at the academy where I work, didn't have anything to do, and was bored enough to grab a novel off the high shelf that none of our kids (except the one to whom I affectionately refer as "the Lord of the Rings kid") are advanced enough to use.
None of them looked too exciting, and the majority I'd never heard of. The one I picked was called The Tombs of Atuan. It was moderately intriguing, though there's not much action, it sort of drags, and it definitely felt like it was only a small piece of a bigger story, which it is indeed. It's the second of a 5-book series plus a book of short stories called The Earthsea Cycle by Ursula K. Le Guin. 

The cover art for this series is delightfully cliché and kitsch and the fanart that exists is mostly terrible, but this site is full of some great concept drawings and paintings.
I knew it'd bother me to only read a small part of the middle of a series, so I went ahead and read the whole thing, then watched the Sci-Fi Channel miniseries and the Ghibli-produced movie. There's also an Earthsea encyclopedia-type e-book you can download, but it's easier to just google if you really want to look something up that badly.

Maybe it's kind of weird that I didn't really start reading fantasy until my mid-20's. Maybe it's a desperate subconscious attempt at escapism, since I'm at that point where I'm trying to figure out the entire rest of my life and how to make money and have some semblance of a career I don't completely hate. You know, that awesome point everyone loves so much, The Quarter-Life Crisis. Either way, the fact that this series began in the 60's and has inspired much more famous ones (re: Harry Potter) makes it a classic of sorts, and that merits a read, I think. You can do like I did and drunkenly lament your choice of Liberal Arts B.A. later. It's wizards and dragons time now.

Alright, so the lore of Earthsea says that Segoy - a creation diety - raised the islands out of the great sea. As the title of the series suggests, Earthsea is an alternate Earth with additional sea. There are a whole lot of islands, the main ones being part of a large archipelago also aptly named the Archipelago. The central island is Havnor, traditionally home to the king of all the realm. There are also "reaches", or various other small, less civilised and less important islands, named for each of the four cardinal directions in which they are scattered.

The lore also says that people and dragons used to be the same creatures. Bear with me here; believe it or not, this whole aspect doesn't actually get that ridiculous. It's just a laboured metaphor. People valued land and material possessions above all else while the dragons valued freedom, and as their differences became more pronounced, some drifted off to the West and some to the East. Those in the East changed or devolved somehow into humans. Although, dragons do enjoy arson and shiny things, so it's not like they're completely good and pure creatures or anything.

Segoy also spoke the Language of Making to create the world, the ancient language that existed before anything else. Dragons still use it; it is part of their being. Very few people are born with a sort of sixth sense of inherently being able to understand it, and those who study to become wizards must learn as much of it as possible. 

People (except Kargish barbarians, who don't speak Hardic or have wizardry of the same type) have "use-names" their whole lives, but upon reaching adolescence or somewhere thereabouts, there's a naming ceremony where everybody gets their "true name" while standing with a man of magic in a river, stream, or other body of water. It's just like a baptism. A wizard can look at a person and see the essence of their being, and with their knowledge of the ancient language, bestow a name. Because a thing is its true name, though, people can be controlled completely by those who know theirs, so it's kept secret. Telling someone your true name is, like, super cereal.

As far as technology is concerned, eh, Earthsea is basically medieval. Most people are farmers, merchants, soldiers, pirates, village witches, and so on. 

I've never really enjoyed fantasy, so I was surprised that these dragons and the use of magic and everything didn't come off as juvenile and trite. People in this universe use magics of finding, weatherworking, illusion, naming, changing and summoning, along with a few others. 
The masters - or mages - of these arts teach them to pupils somehow deemed gifted or worthy at a school of wizardry on Roke Island. This is the point at which we go, oh hey Harry Potter, how's it going? Le Guin did it first; she introduced the concept of a wizarding school.

Now, the series actually spans over a thousand years. It's not like Dune or anything, though, if you found that too expansive; it's light, fanciful reading. 

After the first four novels were written over a span of over 20 years, Le Guin decided to explore her own creation more deeply by writing additional backstory in Tales From Earthsea, and some of that stretches pretty far back and explains some neat stuff. 

Actually, the book of short stories was my favourite, hands-down. The elements of plot and character development are not only more concise but a lot keener and better-planned in short form, and plus, the author was much more mature and very familiar with it all by the time she got to that point. She also thought that Tehanu would be the last book but ended up writing a fifth after the Tales, The Other Wind. Even though that book is the best-written of the novels, it didn't hold my interest well for some reason and took me a while to finish.

If I try to write more about the plot itself it'll be riddled with spoilers, so basically, if you're not the kind of person to casually read 5 novels just for the fuck of it (who am I kidding, anyone reading this is a total nerd), read the short stories. You'll get the most out of them if you read them all and in the order intended, but maybe you ain't got time for that. The novels get progressively better as they go along, but they would still definitely be best for readers aged about 10 - 16. 

Interestingly, completely unsubtle feminist themes, sexual language and rape appear in Tehanu, making it clear that the author went from being young, naïve, and dreamy in her writing to actually having something to say about the goings-on of the world. Yay, it's the 90's!

In the ongoing saga, the balance of the world has shifted, and the Dry Land (or land of the dead, Otherworld) starts to mingle in unsettling ways with the world of the living, dragons lose their ability to speak and become mindless half-rabid killing machines, and magic just kind of goes wrong and stops working. This all happens after the Archmage disappears (as far as most people are concerned) after restoring the rightful king to his throne in Havnor, which had been vacant for hundreds of years. Which, I mean, yeah, sounds a lot like The Return of the King

People start freaking out because of how weird everything's getting, and the Dark Ages sort of set in again, even though they seemed to have been coming to an end. There are more criminals and marauders about as the economy crashes and people start losing their grip. 

Anyway, the girl who comes to be known as Tehanu/Therru was originally with a band of travelers. There's something very strange though not evil about her, but it scares people either way. You find out what about her is so unnerving later. Her mother was basically a badly abused slave of the men of the group, and one night, they rape the little girl, beat her unconscious and throw her into the campfire. As a result, half of her face is burned away, Harvey Dent style, and her right arm is also scarred so badly that her hand heals into a sort of claw. Her throat and voice were damaged by the embers as well - not to mention that she doesn't have much reason to trust people or enjoy their company - so she rarely speaks. When she does it's in a whisper that sounds like "metal scraping against metal".

Compared to what was going on before, that kind of violence is pretty shocking. Even though the time gap is apparent in the writing, it serves as an effective device for emphasising the chaos and danger of the changing world. If nothing else, it's cool how much the author and her writing grow.

Now, as far as the film adaptations go, well.. They're not very good. 

I recently went to the first-ever Studio Ghibli exhibit held outside Japan and even after listening to the audio about and seeing original sketches and layout designs for Ged's War Chronicles I was like, no. 
First of all, Ged (the wizard, the effing main one) is barely in it. Second of all, there is neither a war nor are there chronicles. It mostly takes place during what would be the fourth novel, Tehanu, though they have to switch a lot of stuff around to cram it into two hours. For example, Lebannen, heir to the throne, kills his father for absolutely no reason. Lol sorry, what? He's supposed to be more or less a shining example of a white knight character. The malicious wizard Cob who, in the series, uses his mastery of ancient and dangerous Pelnish lore to temporarily conquer and mess up death is the main villain, but he looks like a weird gothic middle-aged Japanese woman, or maybe like Him from The Powerpuff Girls. Also, everyone is Caucasian and brunette and looks identical. I almost turned it off halfway through, and would have still felt this way if I had never read the books.

The Sci-Fi Channel miniseries was worse. You're probably like, "Orly? Thanks Captain Obvious", but it's not intentionally worse like all of the increasingly outrageous B-movies they've been making the last several years. This was made back in '04 and, for them, is actually a really decent effort. Danny Glover is Ogion and Isabella Rossellini is Thar. Don't ask me how that happened, but it was kind of interesting. Watching it also gave me a really pleasant feeling of nostalgia, like I was a high school freshman again, because it was ripped from TV and the dated ads and commercials made me feel like I was at home. Warm and fuzzy~ 

But, all is not well in this adaptation.

Ged is the main problem. Ged is white. Again. Honestly I was even a little disappointed that Ghibli did it, but not at all surprised. Shawn Ashmore though? Who the hell cast him? He's in his late teens/early 20's when you meet him, which is too old, and he's a total douche. His character is arrogant, pompous, whiny, annoying, and generally without any redeemable qualities. The whole situation of Atuan, the priestesses, and the tombs is all different and stupid, too. Like with the Ghibli, they tried to cram so much crap in that it ends up not really making any sense. 

Actually, I found a couple of good articles about the whitewashing specifically, this one having been written by Le Guin herself:

A Whitewashed Earthsea: How the Sci Fi Channel Wrecked My Books

If I could cast an Earthsea movie adaptation, this is who would be in it. It's just a start, but think about how well this would work if Disney had never done John Carter and chose this series to drop a record amount of money on instead:

Karan Brar - Ged as a boy

Cute kid, appropriate precursor to this stroke of brilliance:
Naveen Andrews - Ged

Look at this shit, he's practically on the Lookfar right there!
That could very well be an otak on his shoulder.
Also, gratuitous semi-nudity isn't nearly as tasteless as casual racism!
 You know you dig it. Count those mad stacks of Benjis, movie studio.
Michelle Trachtenberg - Tenar
Not only do we know and love her from Buffy and other stuff from the 90's, but she's
not a random airhead who's there just to stand around and look hot.
Plus her eyes and the right colour.
Mackenzie Foy - Tehanu
There's something about this girl's face that kind of creeps me out. I know she's got a lot of makeup on, but she looks like she's aged beyond her years somehow. When I looked for more pics I found out she's in Twilight. Bam. Shit just got real. My series crossover character brings all the fans to the yard.
Rooney Mara - Priestess Thar
Yeah, I'm gonna throw her in here. Fuck it. It's supposed to be awesome, that's why.

Anyway, if you're bored and looking for something fairly easy to read, or wondering which parts and adaptations of this sada are worth your time, hopefully this helps. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go write a rainbow-font fanfic on a GeoCities site about Naveen Andrews as Sparrowhawk...

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