Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Vintage Fantasy: “A Wizard of Earthsea” by Ursula K. Le Guin

This past week I found myself stuck on a short story I’ve been trying to craft, and then I learned the news that Ursula K. Le Guin had died. So I stopped writing, and started reading.


I’ve not read as much of Le Guin’s works as I had hoped to at one time, but I decided to re-read A Wizard of Earthsea, her 1968 novel that launched one of the more popular series in her storied fantasy career. I finished the novel in three days, which was not difficult at only 183 pages. And once again, I was reminded of how much this work of vintage fantasy influenced the genre going forward.

Long before Hogwarts, Le Guin gave us the wizarding school of Roke. This was always my favorite part of the story. The novel’s protagonist, Ged, becomes a student at Roke under the tutelage of nine master wizards, all of whom may have helped inspire, at least in a faint sense, the professors of Harry Potter’s school of wizardry and witchcraft. But that is where the similarities end.

This was the cover of my original paperback
Ged is a flawed hero. Fueled by a rivalry with a fellow student, Ged’s pride leads him to show off his power by practicing dark and forbidden magic. He ends up unleashing a shadow, and Ged’s quest to ultimately hunt down this demon drives the rest of the novel. In this sense, the story is deeply personal. Even though it covers years of Ged’s life, there is nothing epic about this tale. The story concerns Ged, and Ged alone.

In 1968, this story would have seemed vastly different than Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings or the sword and sorcery tales of Poul Anderson and Michael Moorcock. For one, there is nothing European about Earthsea. Rather, the people of its archipelago appear more like one might imagine hailing off the coasts of Africa, India, or Asia. Also, there’s nary a sword to be found in A Wizard of Earthsea. Instead, it’s all about wizards, and wizards carry staves.

A story about wizards is naturally all about magic, and Le Guin creates one of the most interesting magic systems ever made, all based on the true name of things. A wizard who knows a thing’s true name has power over it, and Le Guin harkens back to that theme throughout her tale. Reading it, I can’t help but think it inspired modern fantasy like The Name of the Wind, which employs a similar magic system. 

Despite a few bouts of lengthy exposition, and conflict that waxes and wanes maybe more than it should, I was drawn into the story as if I was reading it for the first time. I wish it had not taken news of Le Guin’s passing remind me of these tales, but I’m fortunate it did. A Wizard of Earthsea is a true classic, unique in its day and far ahead of its time. For anyone, particularly those who want to explore one of the roots from which modern fantasy was born, I highly recommend it.

2 comments:

DAN ASUNCION said...

She smoked a pipe... :) Just saw a picture of her from the
1970's, Joseph.
____________________________

THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS: I must admit that I have
not read this, but it was on a list that my Grade 10 English
teacher gave us - we had to choose one, as the subject
of an essay. Her name always intrigued me; something
MAGICAL about IT.

Just learned that she wrote essays ABOUT writing...
Have you read any of these?
__________

Now that she's in the afterlife, in her PRIME, again, I
wonder what kind of stories she's dreaming up, now?

Joseph Finley said...

Dan, thanks for your comment. I've not read any of her essays or "The Left Hand of Darkness" (though I hear it's good). I wish I had read more of her stuff back in the day.