A Wizard of Earthsea

Mike Grist Book / Movie Reviews 6 Comments

I first picked up this book when I was a kid. I read probably only a few pages, then put it down again, thinking it was boring. I recently picked up the whole series of 4 books at the Blue Parrot (2nd hand book store) and decided to give them a second chance.

It`s the origin story of Ged, a Gontish kid who will (in later books) become an awesome wizard. He has issues with power and his peers- always wanting to be the best and most respected amongst them. That character flaw (uh, arrogance) leads him into a very difficult situation when his showing-off releases a Gebbeth demon from the other side, which will stalk him until it can suck out his marrow and take over his body like a zombie. If Ged wants to escape it`s clutches alive, he`s going to have to seriously man up.

Let`s get into it.

It`s not the way we write now…

The first thing I noticed was the way it`s written. It`s not the way we tend to write now, which is understandable since it was first published in 1968. The way we tend to write now is perhaps a new invention, inspired by the immediacy of film, spurred on by thrillers and detective stories that crackle with conflict. Though we are telling stories as writers, we try to avoid actually telling them directly. Now we get our characters to tell the story for us. We get inside their heads (inspired by reality TV?) and see the story from their viewpoint. The world is bounded for us by their bounds, by their timeline, by what they know and don`t know.

This style lends immediacy, puts pressure on every scene has to pop, and (done well) constantly gives us another hook to follow to get us to read on to the next page.

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin felt quite different from that. It felt much more like an omniscient bard sitting comfortably by the fire, telling an old tale. This results in a diffusion of conflict and tension. It reduces the amount of dialogue. It smoothes every peak and trough of the story out with the narratorial voice.

That`s probably what turned me off as a kid. At no point am I given a reason to care about this character. For the first 30 or 40 pages Ged (or Duny as he begins) is just some kid watching goats and developing some rudimentary magic skills. He shows twinkles of greatness, but who really cares at this stage? There was no hook, just a kind of implied understanding that `hey, you know fantasy, this is a fantasy, it`s your kind of thing, so read on…`

It`s your kind of thing…

In fact, the only hook given to us comes in the blurb on the back cover-

Ged was the greatest sorceror in all Earthsea, but once he was called Sparrowhawk, and …

OK. So at some later point he will be great, but we won`t be hearing too much about that in this book. This book is a creation myth, a prequel, that presupposes we`re already interested in Ged. But as a kid I wasn`t, so didn`t read on. Lord of the Rings opens with about 100 pages of nothing too, but I was able to plough through that because I`d heard such great things about it. Earthsea always seemed like the poorer cousin.

So, that aside, how is the book? Well, it`s very nice, though I don`t feel that it ever really kicks much butt. Ged is a kid, he`s poncing around with magic, he gets a rivalry with a guy called Jasper which he never really settles, he picks up an evil shadow, and eventually deals with it. I spent about a half of the book waiting for something to happen, then the second half waiting for it to be done with. The world and the magic were very interesting, but still, throughout I kept on waiting for the big reason I was supposed to be reading.

If anything, it feels like a prototype. An early model with lots of potential, but not really able to do the hard work, more a synopsis of what could be than the actual product itself. Of course I know it`s the first in a series, so I won`t judge fully until I`ve read them all. But…

Harry Potter and Alvin Maker

But let`s look at it as a prototype, upon which others have built great works. It has undoubtedly been the inspiration for lots of other stories. Most recent is the school for wizards in Harry Potter. There`s somethign very similar in Earthsea, with the various types of classes, weird school locations, the rites to become a wizard, the beneficent arch-wizard who dies, and so on. Of course Rowling took the idea and really fleshed it out.

Another is Orson Scott Card`s Alvin Maker series, about a magic boy born in the US who has a bright destiny foretold, but also a shadow constantly seeking to kill him. Tension comes in that story right from the boy`s birth, as the shadow seeks to choke him as he comes out of the womb. Throughout it continues to strike at him, through alligators, fallen bridges, and so on. It was a great series until a few books in, when Card seemed to lose his way and the shadow became pretty pathetic (and repetitive. Alligators again?)

Of course this is a very common trope- good guy has an evil counterpart, and through needing to fight it he becomes stronger and greater. It`s an underpinning thread in my Dawn Cycle too.

So, yes, I think nice is as strong (and as damning) as I`m going to get, at least until I read the rest.

Comments 6

  1. The Earthsea Quartet is a classic, at over 40 years old it’s still a good read.. although it might lack the punch of the modern novel. Like Lord of the Rings it was written for readers that liked to read, that appreciated a slow development. Modern novels are different, they’re written for an audience with much shorter attention spans and that have grown used to CGI and special effects in their films and computer games.

    Anyone reading Harry Potter after reading Earthsea first will have a strong sense of deja vu.. JKR has taken the plot of Earthsea and combined it with the public schoolboy fiction of Jennings and Billy Bunter. Which leaves an interesting niche unfilled (as far as I am aware).. it would be interesting to see Goodbye Mr Chips re-worked to the fantasy genre (although Terry Pratchett comes close on occasions).

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      Hi Alastair- thanks for sharing your thoughts. I think it would be an interesting debate about whether writing styles now could be classed as categorically `better` than old styles. I`d probably come down in that camp. Would you?

      I guess there`s the argument to be made that modern thrillers (Da Vinci Code is an exemplar) are shallow. But I don`t think that means they have to be. It would be possible to write Earthsea in a more modern style, with all the backstory and world-building either injected with more conflict from the off, or chopped up and sprinkled throughout the later story as chunks of manageable flashback/exposition.

      I`d like to see a rewrite of Earthsea, actually. It`s strange that we remake movies but never rewrite books. Earthsea could definitely stand some creative reinterpretation.

  2. I read this series when I was lived in Hawai’i and enjoyed it, though it didn’t really stick with me. As you say, it was pleasant but not terribly inspiring.

    With that said, The Left Hand of Darkness, another book by Ursula K Le Guin, is an absolute masterpiece. This book is set in the future where anthropologists are sent to new worlds as diplomats, sometimes for the entirety of their lives.

    Le Guin’s father was the eminent anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber and his influence is clearly visible in that work which gives one a real sense of the despair that can come with feeling completely out of place as you sometimes do when conducting ethnographic fieldwork.

    Add it to the queue!

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      Hi Bradley, thanks for this tip, I`ll definitely look out for it. I have vague memories of reading LeGuin`s `Lathe of Heaven` as a kid and thinking it was impressive- I`ll look out for that too.

      As a fan of Orson Scott Card, hearing about this book about anthropologists sets me to wondering if this isn`t where he got his inspiration for Speaker for the Dead and Xenocide, bearing in mind his Alvin Maker series feels pretty similar to Ged and Earthsea.

  3. The Earthsea series is one of my favorites ever. I think you’re doing it an injustice if you read it solely as a magic-n-dragons fantasy romp; Le Guin manages to go a fair bit deeper than that. (She does similar things in her sci-fi; see “Left Hand of Darkness” for a book that is truly amazing but guaranteed to disappoint anyone looking for raw space alien action on the planets she creates.)

    “Tehanu,” the fourth book, is a bit of a letdown coming off of the original trilogy; but get through that and you’ll be able to fully enjoy all the follow-up stuff she published more recently, “Tales from Earthsea” and “The Other Wind.”

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      Hi Durf- I`d love to hear what you mean by Le Guin going a fair bit deeper than just magic-n-dragons. I looked up some reviews online and found they talked some about how she treats gender, but even there it seems she was pretty patriarchal until Tehanu, when she tried to empower the women more (I haven`t yet read Tehanu, so can`t comment). So yes, I`d like to hear what you mean, or perhaps give me a link to where someone else has made that argument. Cheers.

      Left Hand of Darkness is now top of my reading list after I get done with Earthsea!

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