We lost another legend of science fiction in January 2018, Ursula K. Le Guin, at the age of 88. She won all the major awards, more than once, including two Hugo, four Nebula and five Locus Awards, just for novels. Her nineteen Locus Awards are more than anyone else has received and she was a finalist for ten Mythopoeic Awards. As she was known for books written for both adults and children, it's not surprising that she won awards for the latter too, like the National Book Award for Young People's Literature.
And it's to her children's books that I'm going now because, for some reason, I don't have either 'The Left Hand of Darkness' or 'The Dispossessed' on my shelves. What I do have is the Earthsea trilogy, a set of books that I've not read in three and a half decades but remember with fondness. Now, I say 'trilogy' because that's what it was when I was growing upthree novels, published in 1968, 1971 and 1972but now it's a series of five novels, 'Tehanu' showing up in 1990 and 'The Other Wind' in 2001, plus a collection of short stories brought together in 2001 under the title of 'Tales from Earthsea'. These comprise what's now known as the 'Earthsea Cycle'.
'A Wizard of Earthsea' begins this saga and it's a memorable epic of literary children's fantasy, nothing like 'The Hobbit', which started my journey into those fantastic corners of fiction. Le Guin apparently read Tolkien early in life and enjoyed him, but didn't see him as a particular influence; she wrote fantasy from a very different angle.
At heart, this is a coming-of-age story, written in timeless, poetic prose that simply aches to be read aloud. If you read it to your children, before the point when they believe that they know everything, when they're still young enough to believe anything else, you'll make such an impact that, a couple of decades later, they'll be reading it to theirs. I often found myself reading paragraphs or pages aloud just to relish the phrasing, then pondering on Alan Moore's thoughts on magic, namely that magicians are writers who manipulate words in order to change people's consciousnesses. I felt different, more peaceful, reading these words aloud.
As a great example, here's a passage in which Le Guin muses on the name of the Ninety Isles:
'The nearest to Roke is Serd, and the farthest is Seppish, which lies almost in the Pelnish Sea; and whether the sum of them is ninety is a question never settled, for if you count only isles with freshwater springs you might have seventy, while if you count every rock you might have a hundred and still not be done; and then the tide would change. Narrow run the channels between the islets, and there the mild tides of the Inmost Sea, chafed and baffled, run high and fall low, so that where at high tide there might be three islands in one place, at low there might be one.'
Only one word in those two long sentences exceeds two syllables, yet the result feels deep and insightful and somehow hypnotising, as if the words themselves conjured up another island just to confound expectations.
This coming-of- age story follows a young magician, born Duny and nicknamed Sparrowhawk, but soon given his 'true name' of Ged by his first master, Ogion the Silent, to whom he's apprenticed after he saves his village on the island of Gont from Kargish raiders. Ged soon leaves Ogion to study at the school for wizards on Roke, as unlike Hogwarts as you can imagine. His teachers are very aware that his potential is immense but they fail to instil in him enough respect for the balance that wizards are responsible for keeping in the world.
He makes friends, like Vetch, but not with everyone and it's his odd relationship with Jasper that sets us on the path to the pivotal moment. Jasper isn't an enemy or a nemesis, but he is a counter to Ged and the two of them together are abrasive, bringing out the worst in each other. When Jasper idly challenges him to summon up the dead, Ged's pride forces him into attempting it and his power makes it possible. He succeeds, momentarily, in summoning the legendary Elfarran, but 'through the bright misshapen breach clambered something like a clot of black shadow, quick and hideous, and it leaped straight out at Ged's face.'
This ill-advised act leaves Archmage Nemmerle, the leader of the wizards, dead and Ged himself blind, deaf and mute for four months, in slow recovery for seasons and scarred for life. And, at the end of it all, he realises that the shadow is still out there, outside the protective boundaries of the wizard's school on Roke, waiting for him. He completes his training, a much changed man, and he takes up a modest position on the island of Low Torning, one of those Ninety Isles mentioned above. It's here that he realises that the shadow won't let him be and he flees before it, fearing for the safety of those around him. Eventually, returning after many adventures, to Gont to seek Ogion's counsel, he's advised to confront the shadow and find its name.
'A Wizard of Earthsea' is such an original take on children's fantasy that the constituent parts seem misleading. There are wizards here, and dragons, and ancient evils, but this is not like what you're imagining. It's not J. K. Rowling, it's not J. R. R. Tolkien and it's not H. P. Lovecraft, to name just three sets of initials. Le Guin was a Taoist and there's a strong sense of eastern philosophy here, even as there's nothing of eastern culture and the novel could be described as an epic quest in the Greek style, with Ged sailing his way across much of the map of Earthsea, which is an archipelago containing many islands, passages and cultures, either fleeing from or in search of the shadow that haunts him.
It's quite stunning to realise that this was Le Guin's first attempt at writing for children and it was published a year before her first adult masterpiece, 'The Left Hand of Darkness'. The maturity here is palpable, most overt in the avoidance of much of what we expect. While we are provided with maps, we're not provided with a firm background to the lands of Earthsea; we discover that as Ged does, though we are let in on some of what he'll achieve in the future. In this, as much as the language, it feels like a time-honoured story read aloud to us as a sort of fictionalised history, like the latest version of millennia-old epics of gods and men.
One other reason that this feels at once ancient and contemporary is in Le Guin's concept of names rather than objects holding power. Children in Earthsea are given one name when they're born, but another when they're old enough to be worthy, around puberty, and this 'true name' is only ever shared with those deemed worthy of such a trust. Everything has a true name, from plants to dragons, and knowing it gives you power over it, that can be used in collaboration with magic to gain an effect. Wizards can create tailwinds with spells, only because they know the true name of the wind. This is deceptively simple, as is everything in this book, but really profound, an idea that will resonate with us, whether we've delved into Alan Moore's magical theories or not.
I've gone back before to books, or films or TV shows, that I loved as a kid, and often been disappointed. What felt like the stuff of wonder to my ten-year-old self often becomes clichéd nonsense to my adult cynicism. It's the exceptions that are special, those works that still invoke that sense of wonder, and 'A Wizard of Earthsea' is perhaps the best example of that that I've yet found. I adored it as a ten-year-old and I can only wonder if I adore it even more now when I'm old enough to have a teenage granddaughter, who I suddenly realise won't have read this book and so has missed out on its wonders. It's surely time to rectify that sorry state of affairs.
Ursula K. Le Guin, RIP. ~~ Hal C F Astell
For other Earthsea titles click here
For other books by Ursula K Le Guin click here