The last couple of days I have been talking about buying books, and have not mentioned reading books! I have just finished ‘A Wizard of Earthsea’ by Ursula Le Guin. It took me a while to get into it, but I ended up quite enjoying it once it got going (about halfway through a dragon appeared, and we know how exciting dragons can be).
One thing that struck me was that, unlike many authors, I felt that Ursula Le Guin emphasised that books were not the same as living, and that you needed to get your head out of words and into the big wide world, and starting living through experience. I find this a bit odd, since so many authors, who obviously love reading as much as they like writing, often filter their love of books into their works. Off the top of my head, I can think of a smattering of picture books that are about how fantastic reading is: Dog loves Books, Look! A Book, Again!, The Children Who Loved Books… And it is the same in children’s fiction. Roald Dahl’s Mathilda. Most of Edward Eager’s characters. Even out of the books I have read recently from my list of ‘1001 Children’s Books I Must Read Before I Grow Up’, Charlotte, from Charlotte Sometimes, likes reading and is thought to be standoffish and quiet, a ‘bookish’ type. (I am sure that there are hundreds more that I just can’t think of right now.)
But Ursula Le Guin… not that she says books are bad, but she seems to portray that reading about things are different than doing things. Vetch, the main character Ged’s best friend, says to him after he explains he is scared to venture back out into the world after a terrible accident, but wants to stay and study at the wizardry academy, ‘I am no seer, but I see before you, not rooms and books, but far seas, and the fire of dragons, and the towers of cities, and all such things a hawk sees when he flies far and high.’
Later, when Ged does decide to venture out into the world, he thinks to himself that he ‘had learnt all he could of dragons at the school, but it is one thing to read about dragons and other to meet them.’
This perception that she projects is interesting, especially since the type of magic that she has created in the world of Earthsea is one based on the power of words, and true names. You could think that, as a writer, she has a love of words, and giving them special magical power is her way of showing how important words are, but towards the end of the book, Vetch’s sister asks Ged, ‘I don’t understand: you and my brother both are mighty wizards, you wave your hand and mutter and the thing is done. Why do you get hungry, then? When it come sot suppertime, why not say Meat-pie! and the meat-pie appears, and you eat it?’
‘Well we could do so. [said Ged] But we don’t much wish to eat our words, as they say. Meat-pie! is only a word, after all… We can make it odorous, and savourous, and even filling, but it remains a word. It fools the stomach and gives not strength to the hungry man.’
I don’t know what to think… are words just words? To me, I think they are so much more. And since I probably will never get to meet a dragon, getting to read about one is almost as good. Probably less frightening, too.