Oct 4 2011 3:02pm

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

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.

Pamela Adams
1. PamAdams
My own nine-year old self managed to miss these, and my inner nine-year old hasn't made it up since. Time to add to the Read Soon list!
Barb in Maryland
2. Barb in Maryland
Jo--I was 20 when the book came out and I read it then. I quite enjoyed it and liked it enough that I read the next two. I probably re-read them at least once, though I can't remember. I keep meaning to re-read them but it never happens. Mayhap your posts will jog me to doing that.
At least I didn't take a total dislike to them as I did with the Narnia books (Which I read for the first time at about the same age--)
Barb in Maryland
3. Alan T
I first read it at a similar age and it has been my favourite book ever since. I haven't re-read it for a while but it's a book that's always with my somehow (as is Ged). As you say, the prose is sparse but beautiful, and it almost demands to be read aloud.

My eldest daughter will be 8 soon and I'm hoping that she'll be caught in Earthsea's magic just as I was.
Barb in Maryland
4. Petar Belic
I'm going to read my girls Earthsea soon. But I'm not going to bother with Tehanu. That, to me was one of the biggest dissappointments of LeGuin's career. I didn't like it, but it committed the ultimate blasphemy in fiction; it was boring. I don't think I'll bother with the others after that on Tehanu's account. For me, the standout in the Earthsea series is the second book 'The Tombs of Atuan'. There is a sense of menace and dread absent in some ways from the others that add an enormous amount of atmosphere.

Jo, you're right about one thing (amongst many!) - Earthsea is written a 'mythic' style, it's really like the first chapter of a legend in the making. Ged's story might not be quite Campbellian, but it has heart and it's an adventure that children of all generations can enjoy, along with adults! And that's a rare book that can do both.
Barb in Maryland
5. Dr. Thanatos
I loved this book from an early age . The multiple levels of symbolism, the mythic quality to the narration as if I was reading Greek legends, the "oh no" moments interspersed with the "ha ha" moments .

I liked the later books less mostly because that air of legend was gone; it was like reading the Silmarillion first and then Lord of the Rings. That's the issue I would take with the statement that Earthsea is written in 'mythic style'; I would qualify that to say Wizard of Earthsea is written that way; Atuan and Shore much less so. I was not bothered much by the "women's magic" business because I realized it was about a different culture .

Read it to my daughters; despised the TV adaptation. Careful to pronounce Ged with a hard G because he ain't no Clampett.

Looking forward to re-read and thoughts on the next two books...
Fake Name
6. ThePendragon
I was first introduced to the series by the TV adaptiation, I think it was by SyFy(Sci-fi then). I enjoyed it and told myself I'd read it and the series someday. Fast forward to years later, last year actually, I picked it up on audio book. It was narrated by Harlan Ellison. It almost completely ruined the experience for me. If it wasn't such a good book his annoying constant panting and melodrama would have made me stop. I almost did, but he wasn't enough to deter me. Sadly, I've not been able to continue the series as for yet, but I will. Hopefully in the near future.
Stephanie Stein
7. stephaniestein
I didn't get around to reading A Wizard of Earthsea until I was 19, but I fell in love with the style and the world all the same. The story really is much more of a psychological one than the typical children's fantasy adventure plot, which is what made it stand out for me as a college student (along with the prose, which as you said is stunning).

Surprisingly for me, I wasn't very bothered by the patriarchal nature of the society. Maybe the mythic tone lent it the kind of distance classical legends have for me--they might induce eye-rolling for their sexism, but never very serious frustration. That, and I came to Le Guin from The Left Hand of Darkness, so I knew she wasn't serious about the slurs to "women's magic" in the same way that many classic children's authors (*cough*CS Lewis) really were.
Barb in Maryland
8. vcmw
I loved A Wizard of Earthsea madly as a kid. Patricia McKillip's The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is the other most precisely and lyrically written book of dark fantasy often aimed at children that I can think of. And they do such different things.
Corey Sees
9. CorwinOfAmber
Jo- I had a very similar experience! I read it as a kid, before I was old enough to understand what was really going on, but fell madly in love with it (in large part due to the map!). I re-read it just a year ago and was blown away by the beauty of the prose; I even read a few chapters out loud.

As to the comment about women's magic: I took that as in-world sexism. I think it's more about how women's magic is viewed in Earthsea, not the actual quality of women's magic.

"Careful to pronounce Ged with a hard G because he ain't no Clampett." - Thank you, Dr. Thanatos, one of the best comments have read in a while.
Richard Boye
10. sarcastro
I looooooooooooooooooooooooooooooved these books when I was high school when I was introduced to them by the kid who sat in front of my Sophmore Religion (Catholic school, dontcha know) who must've seen me reading Dragonlance and just turned round one day (we weren't friends) and brought me in his copies and suggested I would enjoy them.

I loved them - I loved the "authentic" blunt nature of the names (Gont, Havnor) - like real Anglo-Saxon names with the real "ethnic" edges rubbed off - plus, for many years, I considered naming (prospective) my son "Ged."

I loved the nature of the magic system and I loved the "Tombs of Atuan" which was so private and cryptic and intimate, and a real change of pace for me, who was used to the world-changing cataclysmic sprawl of the fantasy I was used to reading (LoTR, DragonLance, etc...)

More importantly, I loved the covers - like the one you have displayed up there - the delicate, minutely detailed pencils. I wish I knew who that illustrator was.
Tim May
11. ngogam
According to this page, the cover art for the pictured edition is by Yvonne Gilbert.
Barb in Maryland
12. Raskos
I've often thought that Earthsea is, basically, the Gulf Islands writ large. LeGuin lives in that part of the world, after all.
Barb in Maryland
13. skinnyiain
One of my favourite books.
Fun fact: if you pay close attention to the lessons in the Old Speech that Sparrowhawk gets from Karremkarrmerruk you learn that in the language of the making 'Earthsea' is 'Tolkien'.
Barb in Maryland
14. Queen MyrdemInggala
Read all three when I was in High School, loved every single one. It was one of the reasons why I never did particularly well at High School. Who cares about mouldy facts about X, Y, and Z, when you can dream of seeing dragons in flight catching the morning sunrise on their wings?

I loved the language side of it too. I've heard through the grapevine that she had a provisional grammar and dictionary of Hardic, but she seems to have lost it ... more's the pity.


Queen ConegUndunory MyrdemInggala
Barb in Maryland
15. rea
Oh, god, now Dr. Thanatos has done it! The "Beverly Hillbillies" theme song is replaying itself in my head, over and over, with a hard "G". First thing you know, old Ged's a millionire . . .
Barb in Maryland
16. a1ay
if you pay close attention to the lessons in the Old Speech that
Sparrowhawk gets from Karremkarrmerruk you learn that in the language of the making 'Earthsea' is 'Tolkien'.

Oh, that's terrific. Very nice Easter egg. Did you notice that yourself or is it something that Le Guin pointed out in an interview somewhere?

I think the key to its appeal- and what gives Earthsea the same depth as Middle-Earth - is that the world has its own vague legends. We're literally present at the creation of Narnia, so there aren't any mysteries, but Earthsea has Erreth-Akbe and Elfarran and so on, whom even the wizards in the books regard as awesome legendary personages.

A similar book: Peter Dickinson's "The Blue Hawk". Dickinson is worth reading; I got into Dickinson and Earthsea and Diana Wynne Jones more or less simultaneously. Happy days.
Barb in Maryland
17. a-j
Discovered this book thanks to the excellent BBC children's TV series Jackanory (for those unfortunate to have missed it, it consisted of an actor sitting in a chair reading out a book with occasional illustrations and was brilliant) and remember liking the way le Guin did not talk down to me as a child. Re-read it about ten years ago and it was the mythic/poetic feel of the language that really struck me.
Brian R
18. Mayhem
@4 Tehanu is one of those books that completely splits audiences.
It is a good book, it won the Nebula & Locus awards after all, but it is extremely different in tone to the first three.
Personally I hated it when I first read it as a teenager, but coming back to it as an adult it is far far more accessible, and both it and The Other Wind delve into many of the underlying philosophies which the first three mostly brush over to keep the action moving. I now find myself liking them much more than the first three, although my rereading of those is tinged with a fond affection from how much I liked them when I was young.
Barb in Maryland
20. Dr. Thanatos
Perhaps that would be Ged's too-obvious solution to the shadow that pursues him: trick it into falling into the cee-ment pond...
Barb in Maryland
21. Michael S Schiffer
And speaking of Tolkien, I've always been sure that the name "Selidor" was taken from his observation that:

"Most English-speaking people, for instance, will admit that cellar door is 'beautiful', especially if dissociated from its sense (and its spelling). More beautiful than, say, sky, and far more beautiful than beautiful."

Assume a non-rhotic accent, and "Selidor" looks pretty close. (I've likewise figured the city of Selerdor in Larry Niven's A World Out of Time derives from the same source.)
Barb in Maryland
22. Eugene R.
Because I read science fiction, I had a copy of The Wind's Twelve Quarters. Because it contains two stories set in the Earthsea universe ("The Word of Unbinding", "The Rule of Names"), I was exposed to Le Guin's magic. So, I had to grab the first three Earthsea books. Their mythic feeling, coupled with the covers and illustrations by Ruth Robbins (and later, Gail Garraty), brought me over to fantasy. "Weak as women's magic"? A very ironic turn of phrase to me, indeed.
Cathy Mullican
23. nolly
I read them in college. In a way, that led to the demise of the relationship I was in at the time, and they will forever be associated with that, for me. It was almost certainly for the best, but it was still a dream popped, and that lends them a strange resonance.
Jo Walton
24. bluejo
Michael S. Schiffer: I have also long felt sure of the same thing!

"Tolk" is a pebble and "ien" is a wave, IIRC, not all of the Earth and all of the sea...
Barb in Maryland
25. (still) Steve Morrison
The Wikipedia article on "Cellar door" (yes, there is one!) does list Le Guin's Selidor with a large number of fictional proper names which sound like "cellar door". From what it says, though, Tolkien wasn't the first to point to the phrase as an example of phonological beauty.
Another hat tip to Tolkien is in the herbs Ged's aunt kept: "mint and moly and thyme, yarrow and rushwash and paramal, kingsfoil, clovenfoot, tansy and bay"

@5: Le Guin's FAQ agrees with you about pronunciation; this is what she says:
I think the reader has the right to pronounce a made-up name or word just the way she or he wants to. But lots of readers would like to know how I, the maker-up, pronounce it. And since it does have an effect on the sound and rhythm of a sentence, and since names are magic in Earthsea, I am glad to say how I hear them. The two most often asked about are:

Genly Ai — hard "g" as in get— Ai pronounced like I or eye or Aiieee!
Ged — hard "g" as in get.

I feel rather strongly about that one, as "Jed" sounds like a Mountain Man from Kaintucky more than a wizard from Gont.
Pamela Adams
26. PamAdams
I found that the 'legend' quality worked against the story for me. It took a few weeks of steady perseverance to get through. I could see how beautiful the prose was, but the style left me cold.
Aaron V. Humphrey
27. alfvaen
This was also one of the favourite books of my childhood, though when I reread it last I discovered that, as with many books I read back then, I had apparently skimmed over some parts of it, like the whole Terranon segment (which I had to go look up the details for on Wikipedia just now). Sort of like I used to skim over the dull Aragorn bits of Lord of the Rings, because I was only interested in Frodo's story. I still love it, though, much better than the rest of the series.

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