A Wizard of Earthsea – Editor’s Six Core Questions

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In the final episode of the podcast, we discuss A Wizard of Earthsea, the 1968 fantasy novel by Ursula K. Le Guin with the Editor’s Six Core Questions analysis.

Leslie: This is also a personal masterwork for me. I first read this story at a pivotal time in my life. It immediately resonated with me then, and one I return to regularly.

Valerie: I know that A Wizard of Earthsea is a personal masterwork for many people; it’s part of people’s childhoods. It comes up a lot in writerly conversations, and I can certainly see its influence on books that have followed it. However, I’m coming at this book for the first time. I don’t have any history with it so my comments are purely editorial.

Editor’s Six Core Questions Analysis

1. What’s the genre? 

Global Content Genre: Action – Adventure (person against nature) – Labyrinth (save agency deprived and escape maze-like edifice)

  • Core Need: Survival
  • Core Value: Death/Life
  • Core Emotion: Excitement

Secondary Content Genre: Worldview Maturation

  • Core Need: Self-Actualization
  • Core Value: Ignorance/Wisdom
  • Core Emotion: “Satisfaction”

Subplots

  • Performance – Profession domain
  • Buddy Love Story – Ged and Vetch

Time Genre: Long (about 63,000 words) 

Reality Genre: Fantasy “Generally set in an imaginary and magical past concerning individual development as a force to save the world from tyranny, it is tightly coupled with Jung’s notion of the mono-myth that Campbell expanded into the ‘Hero’s Journey’” and which Shawn has updated in his Heroic Journey 2.0.

Style Genre: Literary (with a focus on “Beyond the Surface” or “Mythopoetic”)

Structure Genre: Arch-plot

 

2. What are the conventions and obligatory moments?

Conventions of the Action Story

  • A disturbed, unbalanced physical and social environment gives rise to conflict: Earthsea is a world like our own with Shadow Agents (individuals, groups, and tribes) who seek to take agency/power from other people. There are different types of power and craft (wizards, witches, blacksmith, shipbuilding). Mazelike edifice: system of magic with luminary and shadow elements.
  • Dueling hierarchies: The Karg nation, dragons, and Serret pursue the power/dominance hierarchy and seek to take agency from others. Ogion, Vetch, the School for Wizards on Roke Island invest in the growth hierarchy.
  • Luminary Agent/Hero: Ged
  • Shadow Agent/Villain: the shadow is an external manifestation of Ged’s shadow agency, which he must integrate or become a powerful tool at the mercy of the shadow.
  • Agency Deprived/Victims: People of Gont, Wizards and students of Roke, people of Earthsea
  • Speech in Praise of Shadow Agent: In Roke, Gensher gives a short speech in praise of the shadow agent. He refuses to let Ged leave because the shadow would possess him and turn him into a gebbeth (puppet doing the evil shadow’s will).
  • Deadline: If Ged doesn’t defeat the shadow before it takes control of him, it will gain his power, knowledge, and skills.
  • Set Piece Action Sequences: (demonstrates development of the protagonist’s skills) Examples include when Ged deals with the dragons of Pendor and when he travels to Osskil.

Obligatory Moments of the Action Story

  1. Inciting Attack: The Kargs attack Gont, and Ged (then Duny) calls forth mist to confuse them.
  2. Sensing disorder: (Active) A shadow is released when Ged attempts a changing spell after being goaded by the daughter of the Lord of Re Albi (later identified as Serret).
  3. Running away to reluctant engagement: Will Ged stay on Gont to learn what he needs or travel to Roke to study what he wants? If he stays, he can learn how to master himself, but he’ll feel like he’s missing out. If he leaves, he will have to find a way to control his emotions on his own but he’ll have access to high learning.
  4. Agreeing to fight: Ged decides to leave for Roke.
  5. Fix it and forget it mission: Ged travels on the ship called Shadow, and a strong wind and storm almost prevents his arriving on Roke. 
  6. A whole new world: Ged arrives at Roke, gains entrance to the school, and makes an enemy (Jasper) and a friend (Vetch).
  7. Protagonist becomes target of antagonist: A shadow-beast is released when Jasper goads Ged into a contest.
  8. Comply or defy? On Low Torning, Ged must decide whether to save Pechvarry’s son’s life or allow him to die.
  9. Shadow agent asserts dominant power: Ged sends his spirit after the boy’s spirit to try to bring him back to life. He fails but finds his shadow.
  10. No way out/point of no return: Ged is able to kill several young dragons and bind the adult. He realizes he can use his powers to destroy but not to save people.
  11. Encounter with unexplained event: The shadow possesses Skiorh and calls Ged by his true name.
  12. All is lost: Serret tries to convince Ged to touch the stone, and he almost does.
  13. How can my death be meaningful? If Ged “turns around” and faces the shadow as Ogion suggests, he may be defeated and cede his power to the shadow. If he tries to keep running, it will find him.
  14. Absolute commitment: Ged decides he must face the shadow, though he’s not sure how to defeat it.
  15. Preparation to enter ultimate arena: Ged obtains a ship and provisions for the journey.
  16. No holds barred: The shadow tricks Ged into running aground on a strip of land.
  17. Someone dies: Ged meets the shadow and forms a bond.
  18. Do the ends justify the means? Ged can meet the shadow alone or accept Vetch’s help.
  19. Luminary agent at the mercy of the villain: Ged and the shadow meet beyond land, and he calls him by his own name.
  20. The reward: Vetch pulls Ged from the water. Ged goes on to become the great archmage whose history is recounted in the Deed of Ged.

3. What is the point of view / narrative device?

  • Point of View: Editorial Omniscient
  • Narrative Device:
    Challenge presented by the story’s premise: Telling the story of a great wizard before he became a wizard requires a broad perspective beyond the individual. Knowing who he becomes, we want to know, how did he get there? We’re looking for insights that he may not have possessed, and it calls for a vantage point outside the character. This is not the Deed of Ged, telling of his great acts, but it’s also not like The Hunger Games when we don’t really know how it’s going to turn out. If not for the note at the end, I would have thought it was Vetch, and it still might be, if that note is meant to mislead us. Maybe someone like Ogion or one of the teachers at the school to preserve this important lesson.

Valerie – Point of View is something that I’ve really latched onto in this book. I completely agree with what you’ve just said, but as I was reading, I was paying close attention to my reaction to the story as a result of the POV.

I’ve said before that I think this editorial omniscient POV is the hardest to pull off, and A Wizard of Earthsea is really driving that point home for me. I’ve spoken a lot about the need to create an emotional connection between reader and protagonist; to create empathy. This POV choice creates a huge emotional gap between the reader and protagonist. I’m not saying it’s impossible to create empathy with third person omniscient, but I am saying that it’s really hard and I don’t think Le Guin pulled it off; at least I didn’t feel empathy for Ged.

She does a fantastic job of presenting the story with this mystical air about it. The voice she uses gives it an almost biblical rhythm. (If she’d written “and so Ged said unto Vetch…” it wouldn’t be out of place at all.) And honestly, I truly appreciate that kind of skill. Steven Pressfield does something similar with Gates of Fire. That technique is not at all in my wheelhouse, so as a writer, I’m in awe of the artistry.

That said, the emotional distance between me and Ged is massive and it meant that at no point was I invested in his journey. This POV doesn’t give the reader an opportunity to share the protagonist’s emotions. I can’t feel what Ged feels, because I’m not shown how he feels, I’m told that he feels. There’s no chance for a visceral connection.

There are many things about this book that I can respect from an intellectual perspective, but I have no emotional connection to it. In fact, I found that lack of connection quite frustrating, and as we move through each of the acts in future episodes this season, I’ll pull out some concrete examples.

 

4. What are the objects of desire?

Conscious Want Power, knowledge, respect

Subconscious Need: “Grow up” and seize agency to prevent being possessed.

 

5. What’s the controlling idea/theme?

The controlling idea is a one-sentence statement that identifies the change in the story and the cause for the change. This is useful because stories are prescriptive or cautionary tales that contain knowledge about how to deal with unexpected change in our own lives.

What’s the change here? Ged saves himself, but we know he goes on to do great things, saving the lives of many people and increasing agency as one of the greatest Archmages. Great leaders like great writers or shipbuilders or teachers aren’t simply born. They become great through a process of actualization. This story is about how that happens.

What’s the cause of the change? How does Ged become a leader? He learns to stop allowing his amygdala to run the show. When he reacts emotionally without thinking things through, he gives up his agency. He can’t make wise decisions until he masters himself. And he can’t be a responsible leader unless he takes responsibility for his actions. This is a process of growing up or maturing.

That sounds like a global Worldview Story, rather than an Action Story, but Ged possesses great power (he can see through illusion and wield strong magic) that takes the stakes to a Death to Life gradient of value. If he doesn’t grow up, the world loses a powerful force to save lives and free up agency in others.

Ged must mature and face his mistakes, but his important insight is that evil cannot take hold if he doesn’t consent to turn over his agency, so he must apply his agency mindfully.

Life prevails when young people choose to apply their agency mindfully.

6. What are the beginning hook, middle build, ending payoff?

  • Beginning Hook: Ged discovers his mage powers and saves Gont from the Kargs, but he’s goaded into releasing a shadow and chooses to pursue his education at the wizard school on Roke.
  • Middle Build: Ged shows great promise at the school but after he releases a shadow-beast, he hides, then runs and eventually decides he must face the shadow before it takes his power for evil.
  • Ending Payoff: Ged hunts the shadow with the help of his friend Vetch and finally defeats it by calling it by his true name.

 

Key Takeaways 

Valerie: I’ve got a couple of high-level takeaways and I’m sure I’ll be circling back to these in more detail as the season progresses.

3PO POV and its impact on other aspects of the story: As I was reading, I was paying attention to the information Le Guin was giving us, and which character she was focused on at any given point. An omniscient narrator knows everything, so why choose to give the reader some bits of information over others? Why jump into that character’s head at that particular time?

I’ve already spoken about how this POV makes it challenging to create empathy in the reader. (One of the few times I was emotionally invested was when the Otak died.) But I also want to know what it does to the narrative drive. There were places where Le Guin jumped ahead in time. For example, something would happen to Ged that he didn’t understand or expect, and she’d write, “in later years, Ged would come to know this as…”. What impact does that have on the readers of the story?

The Importance of the Core Event: I’m going to get a lot of hate mail for this; so be it. I think the core event of this novel, Ged facing his shadow, has not been done well. Now, it might have been revolutionary for 1968, I don’t know, but in my opinion it doesn’t work in 2021. And since we’re all writing our books now, with this kind of approach already in the canon, we’ve got to be very mindful of how this kind of thing plays with today’s readers.

This is an action story. The whole book is leading up to Ged finally facing his shadow. In the last few pages of the book, we finally get to it. I was pumped! I was ready! And, I was robbed. Just as the scene started to get going, it was over and then switched point of view.

Off the page, Ged came to the realization that the shadow was him, and that it shared his name. This was not dramatized or explored in any way. Since it’s the whole point of the book, I think this is a problem. It clearly worked then, but it doesn’t work well now.

Leslie: You’ve touched on something important here that Shawn has been talking about a lot lately, the three macro components that form the foundation of story. If you’re in the Guild or attended the Heroic Journey 2.0 you’ll be familiar with the On the Surface (OTS), Above the Surface (ATS), and Beyond the Surface (BTS), these are fundamental elements that make up stories.

In a nutshell, this is what the characters are doing and saying or OTS, what the characters are thinking or ATS, and the dramatization of deep patterns of human behavior or BTS. Every story that works will contain all three components in addition to the global genre “flavor.” But in some stories one may be emphasized more than the others. Most fantasy stories are a solid balance of all three components or lean heavily on the ATS component. They feel exciting, and intriguing, as they generate catharsis in the reader. Some stories emphasize the other elements.  To a certain extent this can impact empathy, but empathy is often more a function of understanding what the character wants. These decisions change the audience, aren’t aiming for the middle of the bell curve. It’s vital to understand that and adjust your story as appropriate. 

A Wizard of Earthsea has a literary style, and the emphasis is on ATS and BTS. This makes the story less exciting to a certain degree, but the aim of the story is a little different from a typical story. Le Guin’s goal was to show the leader before his future is certain. She’s working with Dramatic Irony, so the rules are a little different (and that’s why it works really well as a story we might reread). We don’t wonder what’s going to happen, we wonder how he’s going to break his maladaptive habits of thought so he can fulfill his potential.

From this perspective, the POV choice makes sense. It’s important not to get entangled OTS because Le Guin wants us to maintain our objectivity as we see Ged spinning in his emotions. Having that bird’s eye view (if you’ll excuse the pun) is how we learn to inhabit that perspective ourselves. We have to be able to experience that distance to know what it’s like.

At the first Story Grid Incubator (week-long intensive where Shawn was teaching the specs for these components to apply to Tim Grahl’s novel), we joked about how the OTS wasn’t very exciting (four people sitting and talking for hours), but 35 to 50 people showed up each day to watch each day. That’s because they were really interested in the ATS and BTS and willing to forgo some excitement. They had different motivations. It’s similar with A Wizard of Earthsea. So if you are aiming for the middle of the bell curve in terms of the audience, you’ll want to adjust your settings for OTS, ATS, and BTS.

This all highlights the importance of figuring out what you’re trying to accomplish with your story and making choices consistent with that.

Your Writers’ Room editors are Valerie Francis, specializing in stories by, for and about women, and Leslie Watts who helps fiction and nonfiction writers craft epic stories that matter.

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About the Author

Leslie Watts is a certified Story Grid editor, writer, and podcaster. She’s been writing for as long as she can remember: from her sixth-grade magazine about cats to writing practice while drafting opinions for an appellate court judge. When the dust settled after her children were born, she launched www.Writership.com to help writers unearth the treasure in their manuscripts. She believes writers become better storytellers through practice, and that editors owe a duty of care to help writers with specific and supportive guidance to meet reader expectations and express their unique gifts in the world.
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