A Wizard of Earthsea (A Re-read)

The following is a re-post of a review that I put up on Goodreads. Five stars!

I read A Wizard of Earthsea probably 15 years ago, and just now, re-read it. My gosh, I had forgotten; it is sooo good. The prose is almost like poetry. But not in a way that makes it hard to read; quite the opposite.

Ged is a young man with an incredible talent for magic. Even in a world where many people have that talent, he stands out. Consequently, he is arrogant, hard to teach, impatient to get on with things and to realize his greatness. The main danger in this book comes NOT from some dark, ancient force outside of Ged, like Sauron, but from within his own ignorant, arrogant, immature young heart. But this doesn’t make this book boring. Ged’s flawed nature takes on a creepy, demonic reality outside of himself, and he must fix the evil he has unleashed before it destroys the people he loves.

Ursula Le Guin isn’t a Christian, and I would say this book flirts with the Jungian idea that we all need our shadow side and need to “embrace” it in order to be whole. But there is so much wisdom in this book as well. The novel recognizes that the human heart is deceitful and desperately wicked, and that humans must face this fact. This is a fact about the world, taught in Judeo-Christian doctrine but also observable to anyone. And Le Guin has observed it.

Another big perk of this book is the worldbuilding. Earthsea is a world of oceans, archipelagos, and “far reaches.” Each island has its own distinct culture, and the fact that some of them are more remote and you of course have to sail to them, gives that expansive feeling of exploring exotic new territory that readers of high fantasy look for. Although islands, the world seems to be temperate to Arctic in climate. So it doesn’t give the feel so much of the Pacific as of ancient Britain. A lot of scenes take place in the snow or in the cold rain.

“Only in silence the word, only in dark the light, only in dying life: bright the hawk’s flight on the empty sky.” 

Two Short, Clever Books on The Writing Life

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, Black Irish Entertainment, 2002 and Wordsmithy by Douglas Wilson, Canon Press, 2011.

Both these books are pamphlets (165 pages and 120 pages respectively). Both have short, punchy chapters that are easy to dip into or re-read as desired. Wilson ends his sections with a takeaway point and recommended reading. Both, as they are written by seasoned pros, have plenty of self-deprecating humor, laugh-out-loud moments, and pithy bits of wisdom. I aim to keep them on hand (as a writer should) as reference books, to be dipped into when I need good quotes about writing or need to have some starch put into me.

The authors are professional writers and also manly men. Pressfield is a former Marine; Wilson, a Presbyterian pastor. Interestingly, it’s Pressfield whose writing-about-writing is more mystical by far.

Pressfield’s The War of Art

The main thrust of The War of Art is that an aspiring writer (or, really, anyone aspiring to do anything good) will encounter Resistance.

The following is a list, in no particular order, of those activities that most commonly elicit Resistance:

1) The pursuit of any calling in writing, painting, music, film, dance, or any creative art, however marginal or unconventional.

2) The launching of any entrepreneurial venture or enterprise, for profit or otherwise.

3) Any diet or health regimen.

4) Any program of spiritual advancement.

5) Any activity whose aim is tighter abdominals …

In other words, any act that rejects immediate gratification in favor of long-term growth, health, or integrity.

The War of Art, pp. 5 – 6

Pressfield then discusses the characteristics of Resistance, the fact that everyone experiences it, and ways to combat it. This is extremely helpful, because we tend to think we are the only person experiencing it.

When I began this book, Resistance almost beat me. This is the form it took. It told me (the voice in my head) that I was a writer of fiction, not nonfiction, and that I shouldn’t be exposing these concepts of Resistance literally and overtly …

Resistance also told me that I shouldn’t seek to instruct, or put myself forward as a purveyor of wisdom; that this was vain, egotistical, possibly even corrupt, and that it would work harm to me in the end. That scared me. It made a lot of sense.

Ibid p.30

About two-thirds of the way through the book, you get some Jungian explanations and you find out that according to the author, God, just like Resistance, is Within. Obviously Pressfield can’t develop all these ideas in this little pamphlet, so I’m still not 100% sure precisely what he means by some of his short essays. But you don’t have to completely buy Jung to benefit from this book because it tells us some shrewd psychological truths and confronts us about our character. The things it says are true, whether or not you also think (as I do) that God and Resistance both exist not only within but also outside of us. Some day I may do a post that explores more deeply how my understanding of Resistance compares and contrasts with Pressfield’s.

Doug Wilson’s Wordsmithy

Wordsmithy, being less Jungian than The War of Art, is aimed at a more specific audience. It addresses young people who want to be writers about the various things they need to do in order to become one: read widely, get some life experience in something besides writing, practice, play the long game, accept criticism, familiarize yourself with English grammar, vocabulary, and classics, learn at least one other language and more if you have opportunity, etc. It has much more content than War of Art (which is really just about one topic), despite having a lower page count. War of Art employs a lot of white space, sometimes with only a few sentences on a page. Wordsmithy is packed.

Much of what is in Wordsmithy is stuff that I have already been doing for years, some of it by accident, some of it by design. Some of it is stuff that I do, but not in the exact way that Wilson recommends. (For example, he suggests writers keep a “commonplace book” in which to jot quotes and ideas as they come to you. This is something I’ve done from time to time, but don’t currently feel the need for.) So in some ways, I’ve moved past the need for this book. However, I still plan to keep it around to mine for gems like these:

Read books of complaints about the decline of our language by word fussers and who-whomers, and read the hilarious refutations of those word fussers by word libertines. You can learn a lot from both. Anyone who can’t learn from a word fusser ought to have their head examined. A word fusser is anyone who would have a problem with the previous sentence.

… [perhaps] the reason your query letters are all getting round-filed is because of that apostrophe in the return address. It would violate a decent editor’s conscience to mail anything to “the Smith’s,” even if doing it with a self-addressed, stamped envelope. The Smith’s failed writing career is not stated, merely implied.

Wordsmith, pp. 54, 56