Le Guin, Ursula K.


The description of magic, and the underlying concept of it, is variously tackled in many a fantasy book. What does it feel like to use magic? Is it a tool, a technique? An external force? Or is it an art? A gift?

Tolkien wrote (in an undated letter, probably in 1951) that in Middle-earth, in The Lord of the Rings, there was a sort of machine-like magic used by the dark forces, used like a bulldozer to dominate or coerce, to gain Power. And in contrast, he offered the more wonderful high art of the immortal Elves, whose powers were simply “more effortless, more quick, more complete” than ordinary abilities of mere mortals.

To find an insightful description of magic and how it feels to use it, look to the writings of Ursula Le Guin, author of the famed Earthsea series, and more recently, an excellent series (Annals of the Western Shore) that includes the novel Gifts (2004), Voices (2006), and Powers (2007).

About Powers, a reviewer in Canada’s The Globe and Mail said:

What if there were a writer who exhibited all the inventiveness of genre fantasy but played out the action with a cast of nuanced, gritty, convincing characters in a prose style that was as lean, distilled and rhythmical as poetry? What if there were a writer who could invite all those readers who duck at the mention of dragons into a fantasy world that was as compelling and familiar as any in realistic fiction? . . . Peer as you might, you can’t quite see how she does it. Events from the past reappear, the future is foreshadowed and every incident is deeply rooted in character.

Gifts, the first in the series, introduces the Upland tribes, strong in magical powers that are different for each family group, gifts passed down from father to son, mother to daughter – power to see, command animals, destroy . . . with “a glance, a gesture, a word.” It focuses on a young teen, Orrec, who has a wild gift, and his friend, Gry, a girl whose powers to work with animals is taking shape.

What does it feel like to use the great powers of magic?

“But what does it feel like, to use it?”

He [Canoc, Orrec’s father] frowned and thought a long time before he spoke.

It’s as if something comes all together,” he said. His left hand moved a little, involuntarily. “As if you were a knot at the center of a dozen lines, all of them drawn into you, and you holding them taut. As if you were a bow, but with a dozen bowstrings. And you draw them in tighter, and they draw on you, till you say, ‘Now!’ And the power shoots out like the arrow.”

That’s a description of magic . .  rich with the tangible imagery and cadence of poetry . . . the kind of writing that those who read Le Guin’s novels are hooked on.

(Blog post on the Creeping Past Dragons blog by Philip Martin, director of Great Lakes Literary and author of A Guide to Fantasy Literature.)

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I have great respect for much of what J.K. Rowling has done:

  • succeeding as a first-time published author;
  • weaving a complex plot;
  • selling gazillions of books;
  • getting kids (girls & boys) and adults excited to read;
  • possessing the sheer courage of committing to 7 books.

But . . . I have problems with the series. My concerns aren’t that of a fan, who enjoys (legitimately!) every scrap of info, every paragraph (strong or weak), doesn’t want the series to end (ever), etc.

My concerns are how good the series is in overall quality. Especially when held up to other comparable series by great authors such as Ursula Le Guin (Earthsea), C.S. Lewis (Narnia), etc.

Frankly, in my opinion, the Harry Potter series started off strong. But the latter books suffered in the writing quality. Drawbacks:

1. The small group of main characters and settings.

Perhaps the series suffered from the weight of the author’s bold commitment to write a series of 7 books, following Harry through each year at Hogwarts. The pace, trying for 1 per year, was daunting. And Rowling decided to focus the 7 novels on the same main characters, following them from beginning to end. And she used the same settings, and the same overarching threat from Lord Voldemort and his minions, more or less. (Other great series writers – Le Guin and Lewis, for instance – did similar numbers of books but varied the settings and characters.)

By the second half of the series, less of Rowling’s immense creativity, storytelling ability, and humor comes forth. The latter books are bloated in length and dragged down by the demands of the complex plot.

Personally, as a reader, I found myself losing interest in the repeated scenes within Hogwarts; with the Dursleys, the similar conversations amongst Harry, Hermione, and Ron; the creeping around with the cloak of invisibility, etc.

Perhaps the series could have been better had it been done in fewer volumes, and had the second half of the series been done in shorter books instead of the mammoth doorstops that they became.

2. The complexity of the plot.

Like a grand tournament between chess masters, with move and countermove, stratagem and defense, ruse and revelation, game after game, the Harry Potter series is densely plotted, with all sorts of twists, turns, surprises, connections. The problem: it requires so much to spin it all out. By the last book, there are pages and pages and yet more pages of characters explaining to each other what really happened.

By the end of Book 7, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows . . . sure, it’s fascinating how J.K. Rowling ties everything up as an intellectual challenge. But it just wasn’t as well-told as the first books in the series. The plot with all its puzzles has become an albatross, along with, perhaps, all the distractions of fan speculation, and the movies, and all the hoopla about what was going to happen next to whom, instead of just letting Rowling focus on writing a good story.

3. Huge plot holes.

Book 7 has some of the worst clunkers, holes big enough to drive a Gringotts armored truck through them. The most extreme occurs midway, when Harry & Hermione & Ron have taken off on their own, hiding out and moving constantly around the English countryside, camping in an invisible tent. Unfortunately, they have cut all ties with everyone else, and don’t know what to do next or where to go.

They are mystified . . . until finally Rowling has to create a fishing party of acquaintances who show up (amazing coincidence) to go fishing in the middle of nowhere right next to the (invisible) tent; they proceed to talk loudly about what’s up, so that H, H, and R can overhear the needed clue about what to do next.

Okay, that’s just lame, plot-wise . . . and suggests to me that Rowling had written herself into a corner, and came up with this desperate deus ex machina device to move her story forward.

As an editor, I wouldn’t let a new author get away with it. But Rowling was beyond reproach, or perhaps just under a tight deadline, and she and her editors were confident (and correct) that this would not affect sales, fan appeal, etc.

Sure, many fictional stories benefit from some luck, but that was a bit far-fetched. England is a big country, and the chances of hearing the needed clue while sitting inside your tent are pretty slim. You can’t let a plot depend on some random people showing up in the middle of nowhere to tell the protagonists what they need to know.

If this were the only instance . . . but other similar too-lucky or convenient magical things happen time and again, bailing out the plot. The explanations don’t really hold water, even given all the magic involved.

As many authors have said, especially in fantasy, the magic needs rules and limits, believable enough to create the proper dramatic tension, so that the good characters face real challenges. It’s a problem when magic (with its ability to produce the revealing conversation, letter, clue, homing device, secret weapon, or whatever) bails them out, time and again.

Rowling just goes to the well too often, coming up with fantastic ways that things work out. After a while, like watching a stage magician, we tend not to get too emotionally involved, suspecting that if trouble brews, the author will just pull another rabbit out of the hat.

4. Harry’s likability.

As the series progresses, Harry becomes more and more a chess piece, moved around by others, by greater and greater powers, by the grand struggle between good and evil, and by his own loose emotions.

Most of all, he undermines his own likability by getting angry, over and over, at his closest friends, Ron & Hermione, and at his likable mentor, Dumbledore. In Book 4, Harry is just angry a lot of the time, acting irritated and often mean to his friends.

In Book 7, he is still angry and argumentative. And he lets it get the best of him. He wants “the truth,” which means he doesn’t always seem to care if things do or don’t work out well. And he doesn’t always care about the trouble he gets his friends into. In fact, he does a number of fairly stupid things that gets them into major trouble, even when they are supposedly working together as a team. And when those excursions don’t work out well, and bad things happen like Hermione is tortured and cut by a knife-wielding maniac, Harry never really acknowledges what an idiot he was to give way to his personal anger and interests, and he doesn’t apologize.

I found myself feeling sorry for Harry. Sure, I hoped things worked out. But I stopped really rooting for him to get what he wanted. Instead, I began to identify with Ron and Hermione, who are so patient, and supportive, and truly kind, and in Hermione’s case, far more sensible.

Crossword Puzzles, Cricket Matches, and a Fantasy Series that Was Stretched Too Long

So in the end, I read all the books, and enjoyed many parts: the page-turning dense plot, the early humor, the wonderful place of Hogwarts. In the end, though, while at first a fan, I drifted away from true enthusiasm as the series progressed. For me, the series didn’t really live up to its earlier promise of grand appeal.

By the final volume, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, that book, and the overall series, wasn’t exactly something I’d recommend to others.

It was more like how I enjoy a bit of chess, or the occasional crossword puzzle . . . or watching baseball or other games like tennis without time limits, back and forth, back and forth, appreciating the skills and athleticism . . . but in the end, being bored by the repetitive game happening over and over on the same court.

In length, the Harry Potter series is like a cricket tournament. Intriguing, but it goes on far too long, to the point of being interesting mostly to its true fans.

As an editor, I think Rowling would have had a better series, had it been tightened into four, maybe five volumes. Seven books focused on the same characters and the same struggle was excessive. And the length of the latter books . . . ho, boy. The excessive length was probably connected to tight deadlines (“If I’d had more time, I would have written something shorter,” as a famous author said).

So, while commercially successful – a gigantic fan phenomenon, and all power to Rowling for that – the series slid downhill in quality over time, in my opinion.

All this may undermine how enthusiastically the series is recommended, and revered, by new readers a decade from now, let along in forty or fifty years . . . as is true of the novels of Le Guin (first Earthsea book in 1968), or C.S. Lewis (first Narnia book in 1950), or the books of Madeleine L’Engle or Lloyd Alexander, who also wrote high-quality fantasy series but more succinctly, with far more variety, more literary appeal, and (I suspect), a more lasting readership.

Time will tell. That’s just my guess, based on what I know about good writing and fantasy literature.

[Part 2 to come]

(Blog post on the Creeping Past Dragons blog by Philip Martin, director of Great Lakes Literary and author of A Guide to Fantasy Literature.)

Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.
— G. K. Chesterton

The name for this blog, Creeping Past Dragons, is a variant of a passage by C.S. Lewis, writing about creativity, the “Fairy Tale” form, and the power of fantasy to “steal past those watchful dragons” of normalcy or dogma in religion, in “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to Be Said” (1956, 1966 in Of Other Worlds):

In the Author’s mind there bubbles up every now and then the material for a story. For me it invariably begins with mental pictures. This ferment leads to nothing unless it is accompanied with the longing for a Form: verse or prose, short story, novel, play or what not. When these two things click you have the Author’s impulse complete. It is now a thing inside him pawing to get out. He longs to see that bubbling stuff pouring into that Form as the housewife longs to see the new jam pouring into the clean jam jar.

Lewis goes on to write how “the Fairy Tale seemed the ideal Form for the stuff I had to say,” and how it occurred to him that stories so clearly made of fantasy, perhaps, “could steal past certain inhibitions which had paralyzed much of my own religion in childhood.”

But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons?

In a 2000 essay from her website, “Here Be Dragons,” Jane Yolen began by noting, with echoes of Chesterton, that:

Ursula Le Guin once remarked during a censorship battle that revolved around fantasy literature that we shouldn’t banish dragons from our stories because then we banish the possibility of St. George.

Yolen added: “I would like to remind us that while dragons are mythical, they are also metaphoric. They stand for something beyond the page and beyond the actual story.”

In her own essay on the subject, “Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?” (included in The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction, 1992), Ursula K. Le Guin wrote, in a critique of American society that tried to reject fantasies with dragons, that nonetheless the dragon:

is alive: terribly alive. . . . It frightens us because it is part of us, and the artist forces us to admit it.

So . . . dare we try to creep past dragons?

Shhhh!

Remember this advice from one who managed to pull it off, just barely:

Never laugh at live dragons, Bilbo, you fool!
— Bilbo Baggins