Late to the Party: A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

I’ve been an avid fan of speculative fiction for as long as I can remember, but I’ve always tended to stick to rereading my favorites. The sci-fi and fantasy genres are massive, and I have decades—if not centuries—to catch up on. Sure, I’ve read TheLord of the Rings, but what are the other foundational books in this realm? The game-changers? The “classics” I ought to have read by now? I’m clearly late to the party, but hey, at least I’ve made it, right? Now that I’ve arrived, here are my thoughts on the classics.

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“The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards.” – A Wizard of Earthsea

I knew nothing about this series before I picked it up, and little more about Le Guin herself. I’d read one of her series—Annals of the Western Shore—too long ago to remember properly, so I went into this with no idea what to expect. All I did know was that Le Guin was considered a brilliant, boundary-pushing legend in the science fiction and fantasy (SFF) genres. So, I may not have known her work, but I certainly knew her name.

A Wizard of Earthsea was published in 1968, launching a series and career that has had a profound impact on SFF literature over the past fifty-three years—and it’s hard to believe I knew so little about it for so long, given that Le Guin’s influence is so prevalent. For example, some critics credit her for popularizing the “magic school” story long before Rowling. So many of my favorite authors, influencers of my own writing—Rick Riordan, Christopher Paolini, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman—have acknowledged Le Guin and her Books of Earthsea as favorites of their own. And, in science fiction, Le Guin was a pioneering voice for women; The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) is considered a “breakthrough for female authors,” offering a revolutionary perspective on gender roles and cementing Le Guin’s place in the genre. She amassed a stunning oeuvre of novels, short stories, poetry, translations, and essays that won her dozens of awards, including the Boston Globe-Horn Book award for A Wizard of Earthsea, among many other prestigious honors for SFF writers.

Le Guin’s seminal fantasy novel opens on the island of Gont, in the Archipelago of Earthsea, the birthplace of a boy destined to become the great wizard Sparrowhawk. The boy, whose true name is Ged, discovers his powers at a young age and seeks to realize his full potential, first under the tutelage of the wizard Ogion, then at the school on the island of Roke. In an impulsive display of his prowess in front of a rival student, Ged inadvertently lets loose a malevolent shadow into the world. The shadow knows him intimately and will pursue him to the ends of the world to possess and destroy him. Ged is the only one who can confront and defeat this unnameable evil, and no place will be safe for him until he does.

On the surface, this is a timeless epic tale, a classic Hero’s Journey through the dichotomous battle of good versus evil, light versus dark. A little formulaic, perhaps, but that’s not necessarily a criticism; there are reasons the hero’s journey appears here, not the least of which being that Le Guin was intentionally subverting some of the fantasy conventions she grew up with—as she explains in her afterword to the 2012 edition of the book. Specifically, she says, she questioned the conventions of featuring a white hero—which Ged is not—and using a grand battle to define and defeat the story’s villain. Le Guin pushed past those conventions in A Wizard of Earthsea, adding an unexpected (and thoroughly welcome) nuance to that traditional light versus dark formula: namely, that light and dark exist in balance with one another, and that a person cannot be whole without elements of both.

Such introspective subversion drives the narrative, offering unexpected complexity and realism to this children’s book. Power ought not to be wielded for its own sake, nor is mastery of anything achieved through shortcuts—these lessons are impressed upon Ged as he struggles to control his impatience and pride during his magic studies. But what resonated most strongly with me is the value repeatedly placed on apparent mundanity, and the respective roles all things play to balance the world. Altering even the most trivial of things disrupts the equilibrium and may have untold consequences, and for that reason, everything—rocks, sand, even silence—is equally important. This lends a fascinating dynamic to Le Guin’s world: it is at once complex and simple, huge and small. We learn of the legendary power of dragons and the ancient magic of true-names, but so too do we spend time walking in silence and enjoying fellowship. The quiet, contemplative moments in Ged’s life are just as profound as the grand epic unfolding around him.

As a result, Le Guin does not sacrifice attention to her characters for the sake of the plot—something she discusses at length in her essay, “Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown.”  At the heart of this fantastic narrative is a very human story. Ged is impulsive, proud, and prone to jealousy, much of which arises from his humble upbringing and desire for his peers to value him as an equal. He makes a cataclysmic mistake in boastfully attempting magic beyond his abilities, letting the shadow and its evils loose onto the world. The incident leaves him scarred and shaken to his core, and we watch as he must choose between securing his own safety and that of others, pushing him to the brink over and over again. He struggles, triumphs, fails, and doubts. Like the heroes we love in our stories today, when he is rocked to his very foundations, he finds within himself the strength to rise, and grow, and overcome.

I was pleased to find that most of the characters, and the rest of the Archipelago, are not white, which was a welcome surprise from a book published in the mid-twentieth century. I was much less pleased to discover that very few of those characters are women, and fewer still have any significant role in its unfolding—and I’m not the only one. The women of Earthsea remain in their homes, away from the happenings of Ged’s adventures, so I’d hoped to encounter more dynamic women as the narrative progressed. Thankfully, we meet Yarrow of Iffish, the precocious and witty younger sister of Ged’s closest friend Vetch, but even she appears late in the story and stays behind as her brother and Ged depart for his final confrontation with the shadow.

The words “Le Guin” and “Feminism” had always hovered close together in my mind, and I wondered, disappointed, why A Wizard of Earthsea did not seem to meet those expectations—even if the following novel, The Tombs of Atuan, switches to a young woman’s perspective. But I found the answer from Le Guin herself. At the time A Wizard of Earthsea came out, fantasy stories written about women—and unapologetically by women—were unprecedented. As Le Guin explains in her 2012 Afterword, she had to be “deliberately sneaky” with her subversions of the conventional fantasy narrative.

However, as Le Guin explained in a 2004 interview with The Guardian, she was able to bring a new perspective to the later Earthsea books because of her growth as a writer during Second Wave Feminism: “One of the things I learned was how to write as a woman, not as an honorary, or imitation, man.” And, she has said in an interview with Karabatak, reclaiming her own voice in a male-dominated genre enabled her to explore her Archipelago more deeply and thoughtfully, seeing the world through the perspective of “the powerless.” I’m eager to see how the women of Earthsea appear and develop in the rest of the series, as I now feel certain they will.

Reading her interviews and essays, I’m increasingly delighted by Le Guin’s wit, her passion, and her sagacity. She was a remarkable and talented woman, and it’s no wonder her work has had such an impact on SFF literature. After finishing A Wizard of Earthsea, a pleasant enough read that continues to resonate after setting it down, I’m left wanting to read more of her work. Perhaps it’s time to revisit Annals of the Western Shore, or delve into the ground-breaking The Left Hand of Darkness—or stay in Earthsea for a while longer, which promises to get even better as the series progresses. Regardless, I now have a much longer reading list.

A Review of Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh

Published September 22, 2020 by Gallery Books.

Allie Brosh’s Solutions and Other Problems is the highly anticipated follow-up to the genre-busting, art-blog-turned-New-York-Times-bestseller Hyperbole and a Half (Gallery Books, 2013). Think of it as the narrative-comic equivalent to Alanis Morisette following Jagged Little Pill or Fiona Apple following Tidal. Called “a connoisseur of the human condition” by Kirkus Reviews, Brosh’s autobiographical prose mixed with simple Paintbrush drawings—what Brosh herself has called “stand-up comedy in book form”—is silly, insightful, and poignant. Brosh’s graphic proxy borders on stick figure, with big eyes and a yellow ponytail, and usually wears a vivid pink onesie or, if depressed, a gray hoodie. Indeed, part of Hyperbole’s appeal is Brosh’s candid, humorful, and refreshingly spot-on depictions of her paralyzing anxiety and depression. Solutions and Other Problems is full of Brosh’s trademark whimsy and wisdom and yet is somehow more daring and vulnerable.

I was rereading Solutions while waiting at the doctor’s office purposely ignoring the man who, sitting as close as COVID-possible, kept alternately sighing and commenting about HGTV. I shifted ever-so-slightly in my seat to make eye contact impossible. I didn’t care for the shade of blue they chose for the renovation either but knew better than to say so aloud. I had, after all, just finished Chapter 3, the one about Neighbor Kid, who “gets up at 5 in the morning and hangs out directly in front of [Brosh’s] door like a bridge troll—all who wish to pass must answer her riddles, and the only riddle she knows is Do you want to see my room?” Neighbor Kid does this for “7 consecutive months.” “I have never met anybody,” Brosh writes, “who is this determined about anything.” Anybody, that is, except for Brosh herself. For 7 consecutive months, Brosh avoids, refuses, and outright lies to Neighbor Kid so as not to see her room, no matter how many lamps are in there.

Brosh’s work isn’t just for introverts. However, she makes those of us who’d rather not engage in small talk and have resultantly developed a hard exterior as a coping mechanism, feel a little less alone in the world, and, if I’m honest, a little less guilty. Brosh knows that engaging with others leads to more engaging with others, which is the thing she’s trying to avoid in the first place. Sometimes it’s okay not to engage, even, or maybe especially, in the face of a “5-year-old social juggernaut”: “I mean, what’s going to happen? I go look at her room and then she leaves me alone forever?”

To be fair, Solutions and Other Problems is its own kind of unstoppable force, an unconventional, often nonsensical battle wherein cartoon drawings battle real and imagined fears. I’ll admit that, at first, even though I knew it unfair to immediately start comparing the two, I thought Solutions wasn’t matching up to the brilliance of the sidesplitting Hyperbole. The pacing is different, the tone more somber. Despite both being deeply personal and true about life in ways that only Brosh could illustrate, Solutions isn’t a simple sequel. In one of Hyperbole’s most memorable moments, Brosh compares depression to her fish dying, while her friends keep offering useless advice, like “why not just make them alive again,” or meaningless platitudes, like “fish are always deadest before the dawn.” “Let’s keep looking,” one drawing says, “I’m sure they’ll turn up somewhere.” “No, see,” Brosh’s proxy retorts, “that’s a solution for a different problem than the one I have.” We might, then, reasonably expect Solutions and Other Problems to show us the solutions to the problems Brosh does have. And yet, although Brosh may have created her own rules for Hyperbole, she doesn’t stick to those rules in Solutions.

Maybe Brosh “can’t be contained by the rules” because the rules never made sense in the first place. Heck, Solutions doesn’t even have a Chapter 4, “because sometimes things don’t go like they should.” But that statement turns out to have more significance than a mere explanation as to why she skips Chapter 4.

Brosh’s signature art and philosophical narrative have an effect that’s difficult to capture. The combination of oddly appealing drawings interrupting unique but nevertheless strangely relevant experiences is also profound in ways few authors can achieve. If I were to describe Neighbor Kid, for example, I could say she resembles a skeleton with too many teeth and a lot of brown hair and is wearing a purple t-shirt with a heart on it. While that’s not remotely adequate, it’s not entirely off. How do Brosh devotees explain the hilarity of random “fun facts” during the “serious parts”? Fun facts like, “the Orcish word for hospital is ‘GOREHOSPITSTROON,’ meaning place of one thousand tubes and no answers” or “in a world where fruit was money, it would cost too many grapes to buy a giraffe.” Or consider how Brosh tells us about what she had to do to the 2-year-old who’s “apocalypse-level scared of dandelions”: “I trapped her under a towel and dragged her into the woods.” And, well, we get it.

Brosh has a distinctive way of making you laugh out loud one minute and hold your hands over your mouth with despair the next. In the title, solutions comes before, not after, problems, because nothing is resolved. Some things can’t be resolved because, as Brosh writes, “sometimes all you can really do is keep moving and hope you end up somewhere that makes sense.” From childhood kleptomania to divorce to mutually beneficial hostage situations to unfathomable grief and loss, Solutions and Other Problems may have felt like a long time coming, but it was well worth the wait.

8 Poems Worth Memorizing

What’s your attention span like at the moment? The pandemic has made concentrating more difficult for many of us, and for those who love books, reading novels has gotten a lot more challenging than it used to be. I’ve found that, despite its reputation as a difficult form, poetry has actually become easier for me to read than novels. Unlike novels, poetry needs short, focused bursts of concentration. These brief, intense periods of focus are perfect for reading and remembering poetry. And since it’s associative rather than chronological, poetry as a form is uniquely suited to being memorized. By using patterns of repetition—rhyme, assonance, alliteration, meter, recurrent imagery—poems make themselves relatively easy to remember. It helps too that because so much poetry comes from oral storytelling traditions, it’s a very aural form. I find that, even when I’m not trying, the rhythm of a poem or a few perfect lines gets easily stuck in my head. And so when the world is too much, and reading longform work is difficult, I satisfy my thirst for literature by committing poetry to memory. Here are some poems worth remembering:

Animals” by Frank O’Hara

This wonderful poem bridges the distance between love and loss, showing how all love is a little bit bittersweet and all love poems are a little bit elegiac. At 12 lines, this poem is great for memorizing because it’s short and sweet, and because each stanza works as a discrete whole. If memorizing the whole poem is too much for you right now, start with the perfect final lines:

“I wouldn’t want to be faster

or greener than now if you were with me O you

were the best of all my days”

The Shampoo” by Elizabeth Bishop

“The Shampoo” is a bold and tender depiction of aging love. Bishop pairs the stars and the night sky with the everyday actions and observations of loving someone, in a way that both elevates the quotidian elements of love, and grounds the romance of the night sky. Greying hair gets turned into stars, a tin basin is compared to the moon and intimacy pushes aside the fear of time passing. It’s not a hard poem to memorize because Bishop has such mastery of rhyme and each of the three stanzas follows an ABACBC rhyme pattern. If you’re going to memorize just one section, though, the last stanza is beautiful:

“The shooting stars in your black hair

in bright formation

are flocking where,

so straight, so soon?

–Come, let me wash it in this big tin basin

battered and shiny like the moon”

The Good Morrow” by Jack Underwood (from John Donne’s poem of the same name)

We’re cheating a little bit here by sharing two poems: one originally written by John Donne, and then a modern update of the same poem by Jack Underwood. Both poems are simultaneously earnest and playful, exploring love’s ability to transform and the adventure that comes with loving someone. If you’re just memorizing one section, I recommend the opening lines of Jack Underwood’s version:

“I’m not sure I remember what we did
before we LOVED. Were we gherkins bobbing
in our harmless jars, with vinegar and seeds?
Or were we stuffed in a tube of sleep for years?”

A Small Needful Fact” by Ross Gay

Many of the poems I’ve suggested so far have been about love. Although this poem expresses immense tenderness, it’s an elegy rather than a love poem. “A Small Needful Fact” balances between hope and hurt and should be remembered in its entirety. It’s so compact and every line is so vital that to take only a line or two would do the poem as a whole, and the man it remembers, a disservice.

“A Small Needful Fact”

Is that Eric Garner worked
for some time for the Parks and Rec.
Horticultural Department, which means,
perhaps, that with his very large hands,
perhaps, in all likelihood,
he put gently into the earth
some plants which, most likely,
some of them, in all likelihood,
continue to grow, continue
to do what such plants do, like house
and feed small and necessary creatures,
like being pleasant to touch and smell,
like converting sunlight
into food, like making it easier
for us to breathe.

“The Blue Terrance” by Terrance Hayes

Terrance Hayes revises black identity under his own terms in his poetry. This poem reflects on his writing and sense of what art can do. Hayes’s poetry remarkably captures the strangeness and physicality of personhood. Its smooth end and internal rhymes will make this poem stick around in your mind even before you start trying to memorize it. Here’s a section to start with before tackling the whole poem:

“That’s why

the blues will never go out of fashion:

their half rotten aroma, their bloodshot octaves of

consequence; that’s why when they call, Boy, you’re in

trouble. Especially if you love as I love

falling to the earth. Especially if you’re a little bit

high strung and a little bit gutted balloon.”

kitchenette building” by Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks’s poetry leaps off the page into your ear and into your mouth—it’s such aural poetry, which makes it delicious to speak aloud. Take the opening lines of “kitchenette building,” a poem about art and dreaming and the way the circumstances of real life sometimes leave little space for those things. Brooks’s exploration of these ideas culminates in a merging of the everyday and the artistic. Through the existence of this poem–which interrogates both art and the social systems that force people to live in cramped, unsuitable spaces–she shows that that reality and the dreaminess of language can coexist, and that all aspects of life can make for great poetry. At the same time, Brooks exposes the ways in which being forced to live in spaces like the one described can restrict people’s capacity for creation:

“We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan,

Grayed in, and gray. ‘Dream’ makes a giddy sound, not strong

Like ‘rent,’ ‘feeding a wife,’ ‘satisfying a man.’”

Foreign Body” by Kimiko Hahn

Kimiko Hahn’s poetry is full of linguistic pleasure and strangeness. Memory and female lineage are vital to her work, and her poetry interrogates familial and cultural inheritance. This poem is an exploration of all of these things. If you’re just going to learn one part of the poem, these opening lines are gorgeous:

“This is a poem on my other’s body,

I mean, my mother’s body, I mean the one

who saved her braid of blue-black hair

in a drawer when I was little.

Meaning one I could lean against — 

against not in resistance. Fuzzy dress

of wuzzy one. Red lipstick one.

Kitchen one. Her one to me”

This Moment” by Eavan Boland

Eavan Boland’s work draws upon the magic of everyday life, turning suburbia and domestic life into spaces of suspense and possibility—subjects worth writing about. Boland’s work emphasizes women’s voices, allowing women to exist as complex individuals rather than symbols to bolster a misogynistic cultural identity. Its brevity makes choosing just one line from this poem to memorize difficult, but the last lines are particularly resonant:

“Stars rise.

Moths flutter.

Apples sweeten in the dark.”

Cutting Greens” by Lucille Clifton

“Cutting Greens” is a poem about food and domesticity that does what poetry does best: makes quotidian things strange and new. These lines encapsulate this poem’s interest in the strangeness and ferocity of hunger and care:

“just for a minute

the greens roll black under the knife,

and the kitchen twists dark on its spine

and I taste in my natural appetite

the bond of live things everywhere.”

So, without further ado: let’s get memorizing! (Pssst, if you’re looking for more great poetry, we have a vast treasure trove of poems here at F(r)iction Log!)