Tuesday, July 24, 2012

A Visit to Earthsea

I spent the last few days re-reading Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea Trilogy. I first read A Wizard of Earthsea years ago for an undergraduate Psychology and Literature class and was really taken with not only the story but the prose. Ms. LeGuin's style in these books is low-key but elegant. Her hero, Ged, is homespun and unprepossessing; in the beginning, he's not even that likeable, having rather a large chip on his shoulder and a need to constantly prove himself. Of course, as they say, pride goeth before a fall, and Ged's flaw leads him to the edge of darkness, where he struggles to undo the damage he has done and mend the dangerous hole he has created in the fabric of the world.

How to describe the charm of LeGuin's EarthSea? It's no country you recognize, although her world of islands, surrounded by an ocean whose outer boundaries are unknown, is a little reminiscent of Europe before Columbus. It's a world beyond time, with villages, castles, goatherds, wizards, sailing ships, and dragons (and these dragons speak, but you have to know the language). Each island is a different land, with its own customs and peculiarities. Osskil, in the North, is cold and strangely inhospitable; Roke, in the Inmost Sea, is famous for its wizards; Havnor is known for its beautiful city of white towers. Karego-At, in the East, is the home of a Viking-like people who raid and plunder; Wathort, in the South, is the island of Hort town, a place of ill repute. The little-known Western lands, on the very edge of imagination, are remote and vague; dragons live there.

EarthSea is a world in miniature, which may explain part of its inimitable appeal. It's almost like a child's imaginary world, with everything scaled down to an almost cozy dimension. Only the ocean suggests great distances. The countries are pint-sized but together constitute a prosperous, various world full of people and animals we recognize, though dusted with a peculiar magic, and all the usual virtues and vices. There is also a matter-of-fact darkness running through the stories, very like the age-old darkness we recognize from fairy tales and folk tales.

Ged is a marvelous anti-hero hero. He is not handsome and not even tall. As a boy, he's brash and foolish, if clever; as a man, he is taciturn and scarred, yet inspires great love. In the midst of LeGuin's childlike world, he is complex and very adult, wild and ungovernable as a boy and silent and self-contained when grown. He grows from an impetuous child with a gift he does not understand but is impatient to use to a thoughtful man who uses his considerable power only rarely. He comes to understand that a wizard's powers, glamorous and alluring to an outsider, appear very different to one who has attained them and understands the true costs of things.

When I first read A Wizard of Earthsea, it was in the context of a discussion of Jung and the shadow. As an apprentice wizard, Ged unleashes, through an unauthorized use of a dangerous spell, a dark creature, who emerges from a rent in the fabric of things. Ged spends most of the book in atonement for his error, which takes the form of tracking down this darkness and putting it back where it belongs. One of the most memorable scenes has Ged tracking the creature across the sea in his little boat, as it walks, formless but terrible, on the waves. As he follows it further and further south, rumor reaches him of its passing, and he begins to realize for the first time, as people shun him, how much this shadow actually resembles him.

What Ged has created has emerged from his own darkness, the shadow of his own nature. Coming to terms with this makes him whole again.

A Wizard of Earthsea, the matchless beginning, is my favorite book in the trilogy; the second book, The Tombs of Atuan, is dark and almost painful to read. I think this is because the anti-hero heroine of that tale, while outwardly a powerful priestess, is in reality the victim of a cruel deception. The last book, The Farthest Shore, seems much longer than it is, somehow enfolding a feeling of great time and distance into a modest number of pages, bringing to a conclusion the theme of the balancing of light and dark introduced in the first novel.

The Earthsea trilogy encompasses many mythic themes in its simple, unassuming tales. Reading the stories at this juncture, I found myself occasionally catching a glimpse of a familiar landscape, though remote in place and time from LeGuin's Earthsea. The school of wizardry on Roke, of course, bears a slender resemblance to Harry Potter's Hogwarts. As Tenar and Ged groped their way through the fearsome underground passage beneath Atuan's tombstones, I was suddenly with Ariadne and Theseus, looking over my shoulder for the Minotaur. As Ged and Arren sought the source of the opening that was siphoning light and magic out of the world, I thought of Mordor; when they stepped through the faint doorway into the bleak, monotonous land of death, I thought of Childe Roland. When Ged, worn and exhausted, asked Kalessin to carry him to Gont, at which point he disappeared into the world of legend, I thought of King Arthur, spirited away and healed on the Isle of Apples.

LeGuin's books echo the themes of other timeless myths while creating a memorable and original world of their own, which is worth revisiting from time to time. I think it must be marvelous to be the creator of such a wonderful work of fantasy, but LeGuin would no doubt tell me that this kind of wizardry has both costs and benefits. Most things do.

Friday, July 13, 2012

A Forest, Near Athens

Last night I went to see A Midsummer Night's Dream in the arboretum. It's my favorite of the Shakespearean comedies and, as I've written before, once helped me climb out from under a mountain of research that was crushing me. For, behold: the forest outside Athens is a maze, Theseus is in the play, and the lighthearted entanglements of the lovers fit perfectly into my Chapter 4. It brought a badly needed element of fun and fresh air to my dissertation, like the throwing open of a window to a party on the lawn.

Unfortunately, for the people putting on the play, rain showers moved into town this week and look to be staying for a while. After examining the forecast, I decided it was less likely to rain last night than it would be on any other night of the run. So I packed up refreshments, a blanket, binoculars, and my folding chair and headed over on foot through the damp, yellow grass.

The sun dipped below a solid bank of gray on its way down, flaring out suddenly behind me as I crossed the field, soon turning the entire Western sky a flaming orange. In the opening scenes of the play, the dramatic sunset was a counterpoint to the subdued early action, in which Theseus and Hippolyta discuss their impending wedding, Egeus importunes the king to force his daughter to marry the wrong boy, and the lovers make their secret plan. The characters were framed at certain times by the woods behind them, so that even though we were on an open hillside, the presence of an actual forest was very palpable.

I've got to hand it to these people. The costumes, the set, and the staging let the magic of the play shine through. It can be difficult to bring MSND off without veering into slapstick and making it all seem silly instead of funny. I mean, you have fairies flitting around, quarreling, rubbing magic flowers on people's eyes, and turning a man into an ass. It's barely there, like a dewy cobweb, and needs a light touch to keep the whole thing afloat.

The cast had the outdoor setting, fading to black once the sun disappeared, on its side, the dark trees looming in the near distance, insects chirping, and the mild summer air effortlessly conjuring up a sense of place. We were in a midsummer night, those dark trees could be the forest outside Athens, and those insects flying high near the lights, radiance reflecting off their tiny wings, could be little sprites.

Onstage, the floating costumes, fairyland colors, and actors disappearing and reappearing through mysterious openings--sometimes even appearing from the direction of the audience--seemed to be who they told us they were--confused lovers, befuddled aspiring thespians, kings and queens, and mischievous fairies. Titania's bed, cushioned and bedecked just as a fairy queen's bed should be, floated out and disappeared at judicious moments, evoking the dreamlike feeling of a magical summer night.

Naturally, one must be ready to suspend disbelief in these circumstances. If the cast and crew are magicians casting a spell, the audience participates in the enchantment by bringing imagination to bear. For that reason, the play is different for everyone present. For me, there seemed to be something solemn peeking out from behind the trees in the forest near Athens, something unspoken running through and behind the words of the actors, something to do with the mysterious life force represented by the fairies, representatives of nature, who fix things for the lovers in spite of the king and Hermia's father. The play was woven of both light and dark in a way it hadn't ever seemed to be before.

I was sorry when it was over, and I took my time walking home, sidetracking and pausing within a grove of trees, gazing up at the cloudy sky, not wanting to break the spell. Some of it clung to me even as I was brushing my teeth in front of the bathroom mirror a little later. I was reluctant to turn on too many lights, and the shadows in the corners, instead of appearing merely dark, seemed filled with possibilities. Maybe there was some impudent Puck hanging around, ready to sour the milk or knock over a book once I was sleeping. I didn't mind too much. Perhaps another fairy would mop the kitchen floor for me, to even things out. Sometimes the material world needs a little moonshine to keep things lively (often, in fact).

Then, in a twinkling, it was midnight, the witching hour, and time to go to bed.