A Wizard of Earthsea – Timeless In The Truest Sense

coverA Wizard of Earthsea, the first book in the Earthsea series by Ursula K. Le Guin, has been around a long time. I knew it was old before I started reading it, but it wasn’t until I opened the book and saw the publication date that I realized it was from 1968. One of the original magical school books, beating out Harry Potter by over 20 years. This is a series that has been on my to-do list for a long time, but I have constantly held off on due to the consistent complaints I have heard about the book: it’s well written, but slow and boring. With Le Guin’s passing this year, I have been making an effort to read all of her work that I have held off on too long. So, do these complaints have merit, or are they just the words of ignorant fools who don’t understand Earthsea’s greatness? Read on and find out.

The plot of A Wizard of Earthsea is very straightforward. Ged, our protagonist, is a boy with great magical potential who is learning to become a wizard. The book follows his life from early childhood, where his aunt helps him discover his powers, to early adulthood where he becomes a wizard of some renown. The book focuses on Ged’s struggle with his inner demons, metaphorically represented by a shadow that he released into the world when he was a young man in a moment of arrogance. The book is split between three time period arcs: Ged’s time with his family and first magical master, Ged’s time at a magical university, and Ged’s first forrays into the greater world and his confrontation with his shadow.

Ged is an interesting character and one whose head I enjoyed spending time inside. Le Guin did a great job of making him flawed, but very likable, in order to make a vehicle to portray the experience of growing up and learning humility. He initially is an arrogant and lonely child with a streak of spite and jealousy in him. However, Le Guin does an incredible job of showing Ged’s simple desire for a place to belong, and it makes his flaws feel both understandable and sad – as opposed to making me irritated with him as a character. His personality is not particularly deep, but I think this was an intentional choice on Le Guin’s part in order to leave as much room for projection from the reader as possible. Instead, Le Guin spends her time going into the philosophy and psychology of Ged’s actions on the world – which makes Wizard a great book for introspection.

The philosophy and psychology is fairly light though. Circling back to my comment in the introduction, a lot of people have told me that these books have beautiful prose but can be painfully slow. I think the prose of the book is pretty good, but it is definitely evident that this is one of Le Guin’s earlier works. While nice, it doesn’t quite live up to the standard of excellence that comes to mind when I think of her later work (understandably). On the other hand, I also think that the claim that the book is slow is overstated. I think the book is quiet, and that is not the same thing as slow. Modern fantasy has a lot of flashy explosive books with some huge fighting set pieces, and A Wizard of Earthsea is nothing like that. The book takes place mostly in Ged’s head as he experiences new places and does great things – and it has a somber quiet tone to it. However, I do not think it is slow at all. In 300 pages Le Guin takes us through a sizable chunk of Ged’s life, jumping from event to event. In fact, I sometimes felt the pacing was a little too fast and wish I could have spent more time reading about various places Ged went and things he did.

A Wizard of Earthsea is an impressive book and I will definitely be finishing the full Earthsea series. When you read classics like this, or Lord of the Rings (for example), it is often easy to see the profound historical impact they have had on the fantasy genre and why they are held in such high regard. It is much more rare for a classical book to feel like it still reads as well as a modern fantasy, and I feel A Wizard of Earthsea reads just as well today as it did 50 years ago. I think that if you were to read Earthsea as a teenager it would have a profound and life changing effect on your outlook on the world. If you missed the boat though, it is still a fantastic read to those of us in our later years and you owe it to yourself to check out this timeless classic.

Rating: A Wizard of Earthsea – 9.0/10
-Andrew

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On Ursula Le Guin – Forever Dreaming

On Monday, one of the co-writers of Quill (Alex) and I had a conversation about a slippery and hard to define quality of our favorite books that we nicknamed “authenticity”. We were trying to find a way to quantify and categorize this certain power that some books have, but were having a really hard time describing it. Initially I described it as “books without agendas”, but that isn’t right as all books have some sort of agendas. In the end, we realized that what we were grasping at was authors who were able to write books without investing their ego into the story. Alex and I both hate it when you get the sense an author is trying to show you “how clever and smart” they are in their book. Nothing breaks immersion in a story faster than feeling like events in a book are happening solely to prove how brilliant the author is. However, on the other side of the spectrum there are some works of writing that feel like they are more forces of nature than an author telling you a story. The best descriptive we could come up for this quality was authenticity, and it is an extremely rare quality to see in people’s work and the number of authors I find reliably authentic I can count on both hands.

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“I had forgotten how much light there is in the world, till you gave it back to me.” 

I say all of this to put into context the level of my despair on Tuesday afternoon when I learned of the passing of Ursula Le Guin and to help contextualize the size of the beacon of inspiration that just went out. Ursula Le Guin was a paragon of science fiction and fantasy and is, in my mind, probably the single most talented author I have ever read. I have only read five of her many novels and was in the middle of planning out time to read more of the Hainish Cycle when I found out she passed away. In some ways it is easy to see how powerful a writer Le Guin was, it feels like almost every single one of her books won every award that they qualified for when they were published. But I don’t think the awards honestly do justice to the power and emotional depth of her stories. I wrote a piece a while back on “Masters of Prose”, talking about a number of my absolute top authors and why their prose is considered some of the best. You can click on that link to see my words on her, but the important part of it is the attached short story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas. At just four pages, this is better than most novels I read in a given year.

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“You have to help another person. But it’s not right to play God with masses of people. To be God you have to know what you’re doing. And to do any good at all, just believing you’re right and your motives are good isn’t enough.” 

There are lots of reasons why her works are so good. For starters she was astoundingly smart and had a better grasp of human nature and behavior than most people on the planet. Le Guin was able to transcribe her advocacy of art as a form of political expression for a more just world to the pages of her novels in a way that feels more conversational than most other authors. She wrote in a way that allows readers to feel enlightened at the same time her characters did, exploring the conversation instead of beating them over the head with high minded oration or teachings. Her writing is beautiful and poetic on the level of any of the other prose masters around, while also being direct and easy to understand. And she is incredibly authentic. Circling back to my first thoughts in this post, if I had to pick a single author who represents authenticity in writing it would be Le Guin. She always wrote like her one and only goal was to make the world a better place by fostering understanding and communication between people who need both. Her works are profoundly inspirational, without feeling pretentious or elitist. You don’t gain status by reading a Le Guin book, you gain enlightenment.

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“It is our suffering that brings us together. It is not love. Love does not obey the mind, and turns to hate when forced. The bond that binds us is beyond choice. We are brothers. We are brothers in what we share. In pain, which each of us must suffer alone, in hunger, in poverty, in hope, we know our brotherhood. We know it, because we have had to learn it. We know that there is no help for us but from one another, that no hand will save us if we do not reach out our hand. And the hand that you reach out is empty, as mine is. You have nothing. You possess nothing. You own nothing. You are free. All you have is what you are, and what you give.” -The Dispossessed

It was hard hearing of her loss, and if it is hard for me I can only imagine what it like for her friends and family. I hope they are coping as well as anyone can with the loss and I hope they know that their pain is felt worldwide. One of my dreams was to meet Ursula le Guin and talk to her about the nature of writing. When I heard of her passing I selfishly thought about how unfortunate it was that I couldn’t fulfill that dream. But then I realized, all I would have to do is read one of her novels and I would be inspired with several more.

-Andrew