A few weeks back, I decided to revisit Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea series. The decision came after I started listening to this BBC Radio interview with le Guin, where she talked about the history of her writing, the influences on her, etc, as well as listen to other writers talk about how le Guin influenced them. One of the writers interviewed was Neil Gaiman, who can take the award for one of the coolest people alive.
I had tried to read the Earthsea series years ago, but always found the writing style for the first book kinda dull. I think the issue was that as a reader I’m drawn to strong characters. While Earthsea ultimately does prove to have some good characters and arcs and stuff, this isn’t really a huge concern for the first book.
Which is strange, considering the book is a coming of age story.
The story focuses on Ged, a wizard in training who jumps the gun and does something stupid, which dooms him to a fate he tries to avoid. Along the way, he learns how to be a man. It’s a simple story, one that has been told before–but when I reread it, it really blew my mind. There are tons of fantasy stories where the young wizard sets out to set right what’s wrong. The movie Willow, which I also just rewatched, does something similar.
The difference there is that the hero is fighting an external force, not something deep within themselves, conjured up.
I remember listening to an interview with John Carpenter, the director of movies like Halloween and The Thing, where he said that there are, in essence, two narratives. Both scenarios, he described a campfire with a tribe leader talking to everyone huddled around the flames. In one scenario, the tribe leader tells the people that evil is out there. The other tribe. Nature. Something. The second scenario–the leader tells his people that evil lurks within themselves. That they are the monsters.
Carpenter was talking specifically about horror movies when he said that, but this statement applies to fantasy just as well–if not more so.
In Earthsea, Ged’s problems arise when he foolishly summons a spirit, which serves as his darker half. The story, however, isn’t really about slaying a demon or something. It isn’t about confronting a dragon. It isn’t about overthrowing a dark force that controls minds. Those all happen, but they aren’t the focal point of the narrative. The focal point is Ged learning to be responsible for himself, making the right decisions and choices.
And that is brilliant.
External conflict is easy. It’s also a little unsatisfying. I never found the the novel version of The Hobbit very satisfying because I never felt there was any internal issue throughout the whole book. Just a fetch quest for some gold. Stuff happens. Oh well, who cares? That’s one thing I thought Jackson improved upon with his film adaptation.
That’s why I find Moorcock’s Elric series ultimately unsatisfying–lack of depth. That’s why, of all the Dungeons and Dragons books, I kind of like RA Salvatore’s writing–though it is childish and goofy, there is internal conflict, despite how silly it ultimately is.
For le Guin, internal conflict becomes external. The two elements are interlaced and intermingled until they are one and the same. That’s something that is incredibly cool.
I’m halfway through the second book in the series, and plan on finishing it all. I also plan on watching the television miniseries and Ghibli film…and delight in how much both screw up.
Also, just before I sign off…that scene with the dragon in the book was freaking brilliant.