Reviewing ‘A Wizard of Earthsea,’ also Blargsploring Archetypes vs Personalities

I finally got around to reading me some Ursula K. Le Guin. And this feels like cheating because I got some of my talking points from the afterword she threw in for the edition of the book that was Kindle-ized.

From dinking around, I hear some people are underwhelmed by A Wizard of Earthsea, and I can understand why. Most of it is fairly conventional, and things that were new in the sixties aren’t so much anymore, like wizards that include young men instead of just the Merlin-and-Gandalf Graybeard WizardTM. Other things were revolutionary then and unfortunately still pretty uncommon now, but subtle enough to be glossed over in the mind, like main characters who are brown shading to black (Apparently she couldn’t get the goddamn publisher to put a brown Ged on the cover for years) or eschewing the typical Tolkienesque medieval setting for the Bronze Age. Or that the plot wasn’t hinged on a war.

But the biggest obstacle I see is that Le Guin wrote her characters as types or archetypes and not personalities or individuals; the top Amazon reviews of Wizard all mention Jungian archetypes. We actually spend hardly any time on Jungian archetypes in my lit classes, and the one we did hit on was the feminine/maternal one when we talked about Frank Waters’s People of the Valley in the cowboy fiction class. So right now I’m gonna skip the Jungian part and just blarg about the general use of archetypes over the more modern and more popular use of idiosyncratic personalities.

I’m gonna pull in CS Lewis and Tolkien for some compare-contrast. Narnia was actually pretty strongly archetypical. The characters performed more to roles than they did as distinct personalities. Peter played a noble ruler role that’s pretty familiar to those of us who’ve read the older Arthurian tales, as did Edmund in Horse and His Boy. Reepicheep really does follow the chivalric hero tropes. Lucy was the sympathetic one who was specially attuned to Aslan vibes: since I’ve been watching too much anime, it’s easy to think of her in a miko role. Poor Susan was just a completer of the set. If someone had to be the token forsaken character, of course it would be Susan because it’s not like she occupied a distinct space in the Narnian mythos. She was the most disposable. Poor Susan.

Even when Lewis breaks from straight archetype and does something more idiosyncratic, he still tends to treat that character as representative of the entire class. Like Eustace as the modern (by fifties’ standards) nancyboy asshole who checks off all the bingo boxes like going to a progressive school that doesn’t use corporal punishment and calling his parents by their first names. (Hey, come to think of it, we never find out if Eustace converts to calling his parents by a “proper” Mother and Father after he’s redeemed.)

As for Tolkien, well, most of the page-mileage is taken up by archetype, but the Shire as a whole is the major break from pattern. Tolkien may have spent a lot of time explaining why hobbits would talk like rural Englishmen, but it’s easy to see that it’s ex post facto justification. He wanted to write the Shire as a mini-English countryside, and so he did, with the more personable gaffers and gammers and Gamgees, as opposed to the noble hero-ruler Aragorn and noble lady Arwen and graybeard wizard Gandalf and token racial representatives Legolas and Gimli.

So in this compare-contrast, Le Guin resembles Lewis and non-Shire Tolkien. She wrote Ged as a typical bildungsroman protagonist who in this book grows and learns and junk. I’m not even going to summarize the plot because it’s so bildungsroman-y. He has mentors and friends and a rival and even the classic flaw of hubris. Like I said, I can get why people don’t like this, because it has been done a million times, but it doesn’t bother me that much because Le Guin threw enough subversions and new takes to keep me happy.

Like, brown people aren’t automatically lesser or evil.

I can’t really blame you, Lewis, Tolkien, because you were pretty old-white-mannish even among your contemporaries, but that doesn’t mean I’m just gonna let it slide anymore. I still love you, but my criteria for being impressed have grown. Yes, Lewis, despite Token Redeemed Brown Dude in The Last Battle. Nice, but just not that impressive anymore.

But what I really find interesting about Wizard is the style. Le Guin can write a really good epic style, as in the style of the old epics. The syntax and word choice are interestingly archaic, but what really strikes me is how natural it sounds. Some authors just really don’t have a grasp of how Ye Olde-Timey Speake worked. But I think Le Guin was thoroughly familiar with it in its natural habitat, like Lewis and Tolkien did as professors of dusty old literature.

So, I haven’t gotten to the feministy parts yet, but apparently that comes more in the Atuan book that I can’t remember the full title off the top of my head, with the female protagonist. Looking forward to that, because feminist analysis is my jam, if only from sheer practice.

In other news, I saw local writer potential-bro W. Eric Myers at his book flogging at the coffeeshop where I most regularly mooch Wi-fi. And maybe I can just call him “local writer bro” now that we’ve actually met in person. Anyway, my next review is likely to be Galendor Ye Dude From Yonder Forest, and don’t lie and tell me you don’t want to hear about that. The second book is going through the editorial grind-mill, and he’s currently working on the third. And the extra-good news is that he’s pretty hardcore about continuity, which I can appreciate after The Archives of Anthropos. And that fucker George Lucas.


One thought on “Reviewing ‘A Wizard of Earthsea,’ also Blargsploring Archetypes vs Personalities

  1. I’ve been intending to read Le Guin for years. Maybe I’ll actually get on it.

    An interesting analysis. I enjoy archetypes, although I usually fall back on the Monomyth, or even the Christian messiah-figure, even though both of those schemes may be overused. (I don’t know anything about Jungian psychology.) I think a character should be able to be both an archetype and a realistic portrayal of a believable person.


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