A Wizard of Earthsea

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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16 Replies to “A Wizard of Earthsea”

  1. It has been my favorite Fantasy novel ever since I first read it at the age of twelve. I re-read it every couple of years, and like Le Petit Prince, it seems to have a different effect on me every time.

  2. I agree completely. It is astonishingly good. Although generally referred to as a children’s book, it stands comparison with – and surpasses – many adult novels.

    I think part of its power lies in the way that it inhabits a space between the novel and the folktale. Many of the things that you point to as being uncommon or generally disapproved of the in the modern novel – telling not showing, passing reference to other stories, extreme concision of storytelling – are all commonplace in fairy story, folk tale and legend. Le Guin brilliantly and beautifully captures these aspects of traditional storytelling and weaves them into her story. In doing so, she creates a background that feels as rich and diverse as the worlds of our past we explore through true fairy tales and legends.

    For me, it is more impressive than Tolkein’s storytelling style, which more obviously draws on similar antecedents (though I greatly enjoyed that too). The voice is clearer and simpler yet more effective.

    My only slight sadness is that the world of Earthsea has suffered badly from diminishing returns. If A Wizard of Earthsea is brilliant and the next two books almost as good, the follow up novels and short stories have tended to lack any of the brilliance of the first stories. But the original is, as you say, good enough to return to again and again.

    1. I think you’re definitely right about the connection with the folk tale. One thing I took out of the original post because I could not express it well was the way in which the storytelling mode feels so right. Reading Earthsea feels like reading a fantasy novel set in Ancient Rome written by an ancient Roman. Only it’s not a fantasy novel– gods and oracles are just the way the world works. Mmm– I am still not expressing it very well :).

      1. I think I follow what you are getting at. It is more than the fact that it does a great job at immersing us in the world of Earthsea but that it does so in I a way that appears so completely natural that the artifice involved in world building and storytelling is quite unnoticed.

  3. I didn’t read this until I was in my 40’s but it certainly didn’t read like a children’s book to me. As said my another correspondent this is the best of the series and can be read as a stand alone. Just returned from a short break walking the pennines and was pleased to see a young lad staying in our B&B reading this book. If I wasn’t too busy reading new stuff I might be tempted to read it again myself.

    1. I think the beauty of the book is that you can come to it at any age, Stephen. I must have been about ten when I first read it and I found it utterly compelling. I am 55 now and I still do.

      On a completely unrelated note, I was reading Simon Armitrage’s Walking Home at the weekend. It was about walking the Pennine Way. Made me want to do it.

      1. Thanks for the recommendation. I picked up his “All Points North” in Hebden Bridge but hadn’t read it before your reply. Just finished that book and “Walking Home”. You are a braver man than me if it made you want to do the whole walk, especially without all the logistical support Simon received. I will go back but only for a few sections.
        Made me think about the writing style of Poets when writing prose, as a couple of my favourite authors, Peter Straub and James Lee Burke have a similar style and both have written poetry in the past (Straub for certain, Burke I’m a bit vague on). I refer to authors who are enjoyable for the way they write as much as for what they write. There are good storytellers who are functional writers at best (back to Lin Carter?) and others who tell the story and write so well you don’t notice the writing (Stephen King, Ed McBain) but few who delight you with the writing itself.

        1. I have enjoyed Kathleen Jamie’s books and poetry. I highly recommend Sightlines which is a really beautiful collection of essays, mostly about travel in Scotland.

          I’ve never read Straub although I’m starting to think I should.

          I’ve always liked Burke. In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead is one of my favourite titles ever. The book’s pretty good too :).

          I know what you mean about writers whose prose delights. In SFF for me Gene Wolfe and Roger Zelazny are probably the great examples. Ian McDonald too.

          I also have a soft spot for writers like Lawrence Block whose writing seems so simple until you really look at it and you think *how the hell did he do that?*.

  4. Mm. I agree completely. I read A Wizard of Earthsea when I was fourteen, and the experience was transcendental. The prose was simple but beautiful, and the story was a bildungsroman at its finest form in fantasy. I never realised exactly how much could be done with the fantasy genre until I read this.
    Am I right in saying there was a little influence from Le Guin in the Stealer of Flesh?

    1. Hey George–I wish! It’s possible that I’ve read Earthsea enough that it’s influenced my writing on a subconscious level. I think most writers are influenced heavily by the books they read when young and I can’t think of any books I’ve read as much as this one except perhaps The Lord of the Rings and some of Michael Moorcock’s stuff.

      1. By the way Bill, have you ever read any of Le Guin’s science fiction novels like The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed? They’ve won a fair bit of acclaim over the years, ranging from accolades showered by the highbrow critics to your average reviewer.

        1. I read the Left Hand of Darkness a long time ago but it did not have the impact that a Wizard of Earthsea had on me. I am more of a fantasy fan than an SF fan which may have something to do with that. I’ve read a lot of Le Guin’s short fiction and The Word for World is Forest when it first came out in Again Dangerous Visions when I was a teenager– which dates me.

          1. Yeah, I’ve got to agree with you on that one Bill. The Left Hand of Darkness is pretty good, but (IMO) Wizard of Earthsea is Le Guin’s best work – not just for its beautiful prose and brilliant story, but because it shaped so much of the Fantasy genre that we see today. The only two bildungsroman works in fantasy that can possibly seek to challenge it are The Princess Bride and Harry Potter.

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