I read Ursula K. LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea again recently when I was on holiday. I have read it every few years since I first came across it in the children’s section of Stranraer public library at the end of the 1960s. I encountered it in my first surge of enthusiasm for SF and Fantasy. Indeed it was probably responsible for it. I am convinced it is one of the enduring classics of 20th Century fantasy.
It has stood the test of time and repeated rereading. No matter what decade of my life I have read it in, I have always enjoyed it. A whole world unpacks in somewhere around 40000 words. A setting as dense and convincing as Middle Earth emerges from a thin volume. As a working writer I looked to see how this was done, and my answer is damned if I know.
It has something to do with the way Le Guin breaks so many of the rules bludgeoned into modern authors. There is a lot of telling not showing, but the information is conveyed entertainingly and brilliantly. The narrative voice is one of the book’s characters. We are listening to a native of Earthsea telling us the tale of Ged as a young man. The narrator slips in all the background we need to know deftly as we need to know it. This is not a story told from inside the heads of a scene’s protagonists, and it is all the stronger for it.
Then there is the compression. Le Guin encapsulates in single chapters what most writers would take a book to do. The training of a Wizard at a school for magic that takes up volumes of Harry Potter is there in one chapter. The thrilling confrontation with the Dragon of Pendor and its children is only part of another, and in many ways not the most emotionally resonant part. This compression adds to the power of the book, as does the fact that stories sprawl out of it. The tale of the two old people abandoned as children on a desert island haunts me. Yet it is just there, unresolved and all the more potent for it.
There are a lot of seemingly unnecessary details– every island has its tale, bits of history are woven around tiny shards of rock in the sea. Entire tragic stories are alluded to in the passing. Of course, none of those details are really unnecessary. All of them add something to our understanding of the world, help convince us of the reality of the place we are entering. We feel an alien culture around us, a place where magic is woven into the fabric of society and the world in a matter of fact manner. This is a world where myths and stories are true.
The other thing that strikes me is that it is a very personal story. It is the tale of a young man coming of age. The world is not at risk. The ring does not need to be thrown into Mount Doom. The Dark Lord does not need to be defeated. A boy must hunt a shadow across the face of this intricate world and in doing so become a man.
Once thing has changed for me since I read the book as a child. It is no longer quite so terrifying. I remember being utterly petrified by the vision of embodied darkness at the heart of the narrative. The whispering shadows and the idea that some evil thing could eat you from the inside out and take over your body kept me from sleep when I was a boy. The book remains tense and taut but I am quite pleased that I no longer find it so scary.
The writing is beautiful and of a piece. I don’t think I have ever come across anything in a fantasy novel quite as evocative as the quote from the Creation of Ea that opens the book, and in many ways contains its essence. Just like the book, it still thrills me every time I read it.
Only in silence the word,
only in dark the light,
only in dying life:
bright the hawk’s flight
on the empty sky.
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