(Or, What I Learned from Ursula K. Le Guin and Jules Verne)
As I peruse Jules Verne’s dramatic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, I am repeatedly struck not just with a case of I-am-not-buying-into-this-improbable-event-in-your-plot, but with actual discomfort. There are certain passages that conform to Nineteenth Century mores but clash with ours. Nowadays, when we talk about the astonishing creatures of the ocean, we are supposed to sound…. well, positive. Admiring. We aren’t supposed to judge them according to human standards of behavior or physical appearance, and to declare some of them (such as gigantic octopi) “monstrosities of nature,” or to decide that others (like sperm whales) are “mischievous creatures” who should be slaughtered in a “wholesome massacre” because of their supposed viciousness toward other, nicer whales. Our modern stories are supposed to focus on the danger that unrestrained humanity poses to the animals, not the danger that wild animals pose to humanity. To read about a scientist who says, “What a magnificent specimen of a rare creature! Quick, kill it!” feels downright awkward. I myself am no foe of hunting, but I am enough of a child of my era to experience unease when the fictional sea runs red with the blood of whales.
The first Earthsea novel is called A Wizard of Earthsea. In it, a young man named Ged travels the difficult path to wizardry and self-knowledge. The story is unconventional in many ways that were, in their day, quite bold. For instance, although not all the book jacket illustrations reveal this, the hero and most of the characters are not white people. For another, instead of engaging in epic warfare (or any warfare at all) the hero endures a long quest that ultimately revolves around facing and accepting his mortality. It is a hero saga and a quest story with a counter-cultural, reflective atmosphere (and without any fair-haired maidens who require rescue).