Jan 27 2010 11:48am

“Bright the hawk’s flight in the empty sky”: Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea

A Wizard of Earthsea is one of the most beautifully written books in the English language. It’s also one of the very few fantasy novels that succeeds in feeling like a legend. It was published in 1968, when I was three, and I read it in 1974 when I was nine, and again every year or so since. It isn’t a book I get tired of. Looking at it now, it’s a fantasy novel, looking at it then it was a children’s book. It promised me magic and sea and islands—I fell in love with it before I’d read a word of it, because I fell in love with the map. I could draw the map from memory, and the reason for this isn’t because it’s an especially good map but because Le Guin is so wonderful with names—Selidor, Iffish, Havnor, Osskil, Gont, Pendor and the Ninety Isles.

My problem with re-reading it now is that I loved it before I understood it, and that can come between me and seeing it clearly. There’s also Le Guin’s own criticism of her Earthsea and the revisioning in the later books. It isn’t possible to read “as weak as women’s magic” and “as wicked as women’s magic” and not take notice of them.

This is a very unusual book whether you look at it as a fantasy novel or as a children’s book. It’s unusually dark, and while it’s certainly a coming of age story, it’s about coming to know yourself and the darkness in you. There’s adventure, and danger, and joy, and dragons circling on the wind above little islands in a wrinkled sea, there’s magic of illusion and naming and changing shapes, but what it’s really about is the sin of pride. There’s a lot here for a child who wants the story of a boy who can turn into a hawk, but it’s altogether more serious than that. It’s on a very small scale for a fantasy, too, the danger is a personal and individual one, not a threat to the world.

From the first word, from the names on the map, Earthsea is a very realised world, named and called up. Le Guin’s writing is very sure here. The book’s written as if it’s a retelling of a legend, or the early life of a hero—she passes easily from what people say, what isn’t spoken of, the distance of the teller of fairy-tales to the very close. Whether she’s inside or outside she has a tremendous grasp of the story she’s telling and where the teller is standing in relation to it. The story is told entirely within the world, but after the story—the implied reader is assumed to know about the great deeds that are referenced. And the real reader, child or adult, can be completely absorbed into the world.

This is a world where words have power, and it is a world made out of words. It’s a world with a lot more in it than appears on the page—a history, of Elfarran and Erreth-Akbe, other countries, the Kargs, and it’s a world with a clear line drawn around it—“only in silence the word”.

The characters are well done too, all of them are real in their motivations and comprehensible to child or adult reader on different levels. Jasper mocking Sparrowhawk and Vetch making friends with him, it all rings true. This is a very certain book, it knows what it’s doing.

The thing that I really didn’t notice on a conscious level when I was a child is how gorgeous the prose is. There’s never a wasted word, and all the words are right. It’s like poetry. This is one of the best books for reading aloud—I read it aloud several times when my son was of an age to like a chapter at bedtime.

I read the first three (canonical) Earthsea books when I was nine, and I read the others when they came out, but I’ve never read the whole lot through together. I’m going to try that now and see how it goes.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

Fabio Fernandes
1. fabiofernandes
I always wanted to read Earthsea but I was mustering the strength for undertaking such an enterprise - please let us know how it went when you finish it. Maybe you could even do a Re-read it here, what about it? Or that was already the idea?
Jo Walton
2. bluejo
Fabio: What I do here is post about what I'm re-reading, and issues arising. So yes.

I'd highly recommend you read them -- Le Guin is always worth reading, and A Wizard of Earthsea is work at the top of her form.
Rich Bennett
3. Neuralnet
Such a classic book, and I totally agree it is almost like reading poetry. by today's standards it is surprising how short it is. And of course the concept of true names having power has been recycled countless times by other authors now.
4. reattmore
And of course the concept of true names having power has been recycled countless times by other authors now.

That was hardly an original concept on the part of LeGuin. (Rumplestiltskin)
Matt Wright
5. matty42
I know you haven't gotten there in your re-read yet, but I first came across this series when I found an old used copy of The Tombs of Atuan, so I read them out of order. I still remember hiding in my closet and devouring that book. I was fascinated by the temple culutre and the danger that lurked in the tombs.

It took me quite a while to find and read the other books, and they remain some of my favorite and most recommended to those looking for somethingin the fantasy genre to read. Now my fingers are itching to get my hands on the series again!
Nelson Cunnington
6. NelC
Reatmore @4: It's fortunate that LeGuin never claimed to be the originator of the concept, or, boy, would she be embarrassed now you've pointed that out.
7. Rush-That-Speaks
This book is one of my foundational books, though not as important to me as Always Coming Home.

I still remember once when I was in high school going to volunteer at a local tutoring program for low-income kids who were having problems with literacy. Their artwork was all over the hallways as one of the things they traditionally did was to read a book as a group and then draw the things they found interesting in the book (and then talk over the pictures as a means of sparking discussion, the teacher judging comprehension, etc.). They basically never took the art down, and it was grouped by title. For most books, there would be bunches of pictures of the main character, maybe some of an animal if there was one, no particular backgrounds, usually a fight scene.

For A Wizard of Earthsea, every single one of them drew ocean with islands, large expanses of water, maybe some boats, birds, maybe Lookfar but sometimes Ged as a hawk. It was like coming into an open space suddenly, this amazing breadth of landscape.
Elio García
8. Egarcia
Absolutely, 100% agreed about how beautiful the prose is in this novel. It's pretty awe-inspiring. I still have very vivid memories of my first read. It was not my first introduction to Le Guin, but it was the first that really just blew me away.
Tudza White
9. tudzax1
The one little book kicks the whole Harry Potter series to the curb.
brightening glance
10. brightglance
read the whole lot through together. I’m going to try that now and see how it goes.

This makes me so happy - I'm always interested when you write about books I haven't read, but the real joy is when you write about books I love.

And people, I know it's a while off, but I think Jo's posts deserve a fanwriter Hugo. Those who will be able to nominate should keep this in mind.
11. lampwick
It's interesting that the later books don't have this "re-telling of a legend" feeling, and yet they're terrific in their own right. _Tehanu_, especially, is all about ordinary people and domesticity. Well, and dragons.
12. Bluejay
I love this book, and this series. Although I enjoyed Harry Potter, when the story became about the young wizard entering a wizards' school I just kept thinking "But Ursula Le Guin has already done this--and better."

The first time I read it, I even made up a melody to go with "The Creation of Ea." And I still remember how it goes...
13. selidor
One of my favourite things to do is to read the whole Earthsea set through together. Seeing an author as good as Le Guin change and even improve: oh, wow. These books form such a part of my mental mythical landscape. One of the most important things about them, to me, was that they do not feel Celtic or European: I found them probably about the same time as I found Margaret Mahy, and both had the feel of the landscape of real places.
dave t
14. dave_t
I adored the initial trilogy both when reading it as a teen and revisiting it as an adult. But the two additional novels were far less satisfying for me, almost as if they were written by a different person. I'm sure that reflects the 20+ years between the third and fourth books, and LeGuin's developing worldview.
Jo Walton
15. bluejo
Brightglance: Thank you for the compliment, but I am paid for doing this, it is professional writing and so not eligible.
16. sam voy
Thank you for this. And thank you to Rush-that-speaks: as a teacher, that keeps me going.
17. afterthefallofnight
The points you make about the story being personal and small scale (for a fantasy) ring very true. I remember the same feeling when I first read the Wizard of Earthsea (about a hundred years ago). I had a similar reaction to Wolfe's "Wizard". In both cases there was a sense that most of the "epic" action happens off stage.

The Wizard of Earthsea was one of the first fantasy novels to really stick with me. The sin-of-pride theme was particularly powerful.
Robert Barrett
18. rwb
I'll be teaching Wizard, Tombs, Farthest Shore, and Tehanu later this spring--will be interesting to see how the students (most of whom have never read Le Guin before) will handle the transition from the first three books to Tehanu.
Elio García
20. Egarcia
@12 Bluejay,

My one and only attempt at anything calligraphic was "The Creation of Ea". It was very inspiring.

Speaking with my fianceé about it, she loves the book as well, but the thing she took out of it is a certain bleakness to the setting which leaves her feeling a bit depressed. I think it's the journeying across the empty sea, and then coming across quaint islands and nice people, but nothing really epic or grand, for much of the story. It's definitely a small-scale setting.
21. a-j
A favourite of mine. I was introduced to it by the BBC childrens' programme 'Jackanory' in the early '70s. A cheap show, it was on every weekday and consisted simply of an actor reading a childrens' novel. 'A Wizard of Earthsea' was the choice one week (and I'd love to know who read it) and I was so taken, especially with the ending, that I immediately got it out of the library.
The sexism, ah. When the Potter Phenomenon erupted I returned to 'Earthsea' to compare and contrast and found I had to give it up, being unable to get past the 'woman's magic' stuff. I'm male BTW. I tried again a few years later and was totally wowed by the sense of a legend/old tale retold and the glorious use of language. Only read the original trilogy, will attempt to locate and read rest.
May I finally make a small defense of JK Rowling? *Ducks*. IMHO, the Potter books really derive from the boarding school tradition of childrens' literature (Billy Bunter, Jennings, Chalet School, Malory Towers, Angela Brazil et al) rather than from le Guin and I always felt the comparison was unfair.
22. Bluejay
@20 Egarcia:

"...nothing really epic or grand, for much of the story. It's definitely a small-scale setting."

Yes, and to me, that's another aspect of the book that makes it more like poetry, as Ms. Walton says. Compact, no unnecessary gestures, every moment serving a purpose, every word carefully chosen. Much as a wizard must carefully use words and names in the story itself.

@21 a-j:

Re: your defense of Rowling--fair enough. I'm not familiar with many boarding school books apart from Earthsea and Potter, so I suppose I couldn't help but compare. For the record, I like the Harry Potter books. While I recognize that other such books are superior in some respects--the Earthsea stories, for instance--I enjoyed Rowling's tale and got to genuinely care for her characters (one of the highest compliments I can pay to a storyteller). And I'm enjoying the books all over again now that we're rereading them with our daughter, who's coming to them for the first time. Yes, there are better books out there, but HP isn't anything to sneer at.
Paul Andinach
23. anobium
NelC @ #6: It's fortunate that LeGuin never claimed to be the originator of the concept, or, boy, would she be embarrassed now you've pointed that out.

Same to you, with the appropriate substitutions to indicate that the person you're snarking at never claimed LeGuin did any such thing.

(Did you not notice that reattmore was quoting and replying to the immediately previous comment?)
Paul Andinach
24. anobium
a-j @ #21: I was introduced to it by the BBC childrens' programme 'Jackanory' in the early '70s. ... (and I'd love to know who read it)

Googling, I find somebody else making the same remark and being informed that it was Edward Fox.
René Walling
25. cybernetic_nomad
When it comes to authors I really like, I am a completist and I love LeGuin, if it has her name on it, I will buy it. Also, to put it nicely, I am also not fond of the infinitylogies that are so common of the fantasy genre. Therefore, I had the Earthsea trilogy on my shelf for over a decade before I dared read them -- I was that afraid of being disappointed. It didn't help that many friends would say things like "it's a great fantasy trilogy"; things that, for me, would raise red flags all over the place and make me delay reading some more. In the end, when I finally did read them, the only thing I regretted was waiting so long to do so.
26. Intertext
I love all these book posts of yours, partly because we are of a similar age (I'm a wee bit older) and seem to have read and loved all the same books at about the same stages in our lives. I read the Earthsea trilogy as it was published, more or less, so read Tehanu when I was in my early thirties and was teaching a course on women in mythology - it was absolutely perfect timing. A Wizard of Earthsea is still one of my all-time favourite books: dark, serious, thoughtful, beautiful. Can't wait to read more as you reread!
27. Nicholas Waller
The Wizard of Earthsea and the other books certainly bear re-reading and I must do it again soon. But I'd like to veer off a bit... my favourite film-makers are Powell & Pressburger (famous for The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus, though my personal favourites are A Matter of Life and Death and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp).

Powell read a glowing review of Earthsea when it came out so read the book and wrote to Le Guin, saying "'It's great!' 'Who are you?' 'Who did the map?' and 'Why are you being published by Puffin?'* This started a correspondence that went on for the next ten years", during which they met only a couple of times but collaborated on a script by post (the 1981 interview I quote from was while this was still going on).

Ursula Le Guin seems to have been equally happy with him - while talking about the possibilities for a future film she said : "Well, a filmmaker with genuine imagination, who is also actually able to read a book and understand it, will have to come along. Every now and then there is one. Michael Powell was one. He wrote a lovely little script for the first two books, years ago; but fantasy films were out of fashion then and he couldn’t sell it; and then Coppola, who was backing him, went broke. Since then nobody of any stature has come along, except Hayao Miyazaki, and he handed it over to his son".

Powell was in his mid-70s by the time of his interview above, and Earthsea became, obviously, one of his unmade projects. It would have been fascinating to see. Most of his and Pressburger's movies had a hint of the otherworldy and fabulous, but Powell was also pretty rigorous and logical when coping with the fantastical... for instance, the medical condition - arachnoid adhesions - that David Niven's character suffers in A Matter of Life and Death that cause his "heavenly" hallucinations was thoroughly researched and integrated (there's even a book on the film, by Diane Broadbent Friedman and with the subtitle 'The Brain Revealed by the Mind of Michael Powell', which explores the neurological underpinning of the film in detail).

*Puffin being a kids' imprint and Powell thinking the book should be for everybody. BTW Powell was also keen on maps.
Jo Walton
28. bluejo
Nicholas: That's one of the greatest films never made. I also love Powell and Pressburger.
Velma deSelby-Bowen
29. VelmadSB
I don't remember when I first read it, but my reactions were very much like yours, Jo. I must confess that I hadn't tracked on Ged's race until my second reading -- after all, all fantasy heroes were, by default, white -- but it made me happier with the books when I noticed that.

And the prose... it felt like being told stories of my family, and the world. I think I want someone to tell my story that way.
30. a-j
anobium @ #24 So the Jackanory reader was Edward Fox? Thank you so much for tracking that bit of trivia down. I have to say, I'm startled. Not sure why.
31. Scribbly
I saw 'Wizard of Earthsea' on Jackanory, complete with shadow puppets and accompanying paintings. It was brilliant. The reader was not Edward Fox but Nigel Terry, who played Arthur in Boorman's "Excalibur". Halfway through it I realized it was a one-time thing and started recording, so I have 3 episodes on VHS. I wish I had the rest! But it's definitely Nigel Terry, and he's perfect, puts real soul into it.
32. dr. Thanatos
I loved this book; especially because I read it just before heading to medical school; anyone who has sat through Gross Anatomy and the sheer drudgery of memorizing every part of the body can empathize with the scene in Kurremkarmeruk's tower...

The other books in the trilogy were good, especially the last; I didn't really cotton to the followup short stories. I might also note that the movie DID NOT WORK FOR ME!!!!!
33. Joan Stribling
Which Jackanory during the 1970's was Edward Fox the story-teller ?

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