Each Tuesday, in honor of The Center for Fiction’s Big Read of Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic Wizard of Earthsea series, we’re posting a Jo Walton article examining the books in the series.
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.