A Wizard of Earthsea #1968Club

I was a huge fan of the Earthsea Trilogy and Ursula Le Guin more generally when I was a child, but I have never reread them since. I bought a copy for my children, but they haven’t taken to them as much as I expected. So when the opportunity came to reread the first book in the trilogy, which was published in 1968, I jumped at it. And discovered perhaps why my children are less enamoured than I was.

In fact, I’m quite surprised that I enjoyed it so much back then (I must have been 10-11), as the language is old-fashioned. There is often far more third person omniscient narration than dialogue, the pace is slower than what the younger generation might enjoy. It is now obvious to me that it is a half-way house between the long passages of lore/ going off-tangent/ harking back to Nordic heroic sagas of Tolkien and the convoluted storyline but relatively simple, direct language of Harry Potter. At the time, I hadn’t read The Lord of the Rings so the similarity was less obvious. I had read the Narnia books, and this felt like something different, far more grown – up.

Yet there is something familiar and soothing about the cadences of this prose – so reminiscent of Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe – something which built up my ulterior love for poetry and theatre.

Stout and wizardly was the staff Ogion had shaped. It did not break, and buoyant as a dry log it rode the water. Still grasping it, Ged was pulled back as the breakers streamed back from the shoal… Salt-blinded and choked, he tried to keep his head up and to fight the enormous pull of the sea…He had lost sight of rocks and beach alike, and did not know what way he faced. There was only a tumult of water around him, under him, over him, blinding him, strangling him, drowning him.

While the sharper, clearer prose of Harry Potter, more succinct descriptions (which does not necessarily result in shorter books, however) and the strong first person narratives of much of current YA literature is more suited perhaps to the present-day world of blogging, essay writing, opinion pieces and social media.

First edition cover.

I was surprised to find it far more frightening this time round, believe it or not. Although an imaginative child, I was not an easily scared one – except of dogs. As an adult, I realise of course that this is more than a simple battle between good and evil. Ged’s struggle against the unnamed shadow seems much more earnest, bitter and deadly than when I was imagining it as an actual physical devil. It now sounds familiar as a struggle with depression, with the demons inside yourself – you never quite know where it is, but it stalks you and waits, ready to pounce and extinguish you and your true nature. The final battle, when it does come, is perhaps not quite as much of a climax as the creeping menace which leads up to it made you think. Or perhaps we have come to expect too many CGI explosions.

I was also far less accepting of Ged as a hero this time round. As a child, I unquestioningly saw him as the hero of the story, even though he is arrogant and tempted by power to begin with. He learns things the hard way and not all in one go (in fact, it takes the whole trilogy, much as Frodo and Sam develop slowly over the course of hundreds of pages). He becomes heroic – it’s a continuous process and none of the wizards are all-knowing or flawless. Very realistic and complex and not typical of children’s literature of the time. My favourite characters, back then and now again, is Ged’s friend Vetch and the little sister Yarrow.


16 thoughts on “A Wizard of Earthsea #1968Club”

  1. An interesting post (as always, MarinaSofia). It was what you said about style which arrested me, and comparing the change in, for example, Rowling. There is, to me, something wonderful in the poetic rhythms of Le Guin. And made me think again – so many earlier writers will probably have studied Latin in school, and may indeed have chafed under the rules of grammar. But…do you get to meaningfully and arrestingly break rules only when you have an inherent awareness of structure? There is something inherently satisfying (to me) at least, in the rhythm of the extract you cited

    ‘Stout and wizardly was the staff Ogien had shaped’ is fundamentally different in Tone, Mood, Effect, from the colloquial’ Ogien had shaped a staff which was stout and wizardly’ – or similar prosaic forms, lacking the music of Le Guin’s – which immediately has an elevated, invitation to – something out of the ordinary is happening here. I like and did, also, as a child) something which prickled the hairs at the back of my neck because it was different to ‘everyday’ – not just subject matter, but style. It harks back to the origins of language. Naming things, both real things – sticks, rabbits sex and unreal things which cannot be held – stout, happy, rhythm etc, was a potent thing – in the beginning was the word – . We devalue the extraordinary nature of language and our species evolution in using, creating it, when all we expose ourselves to is ‘language as flat, one dimensional and easy’

    It is, I guess, a difficult balance. Make things too tough and difficult and alien and you might turn children away forever from the beauty and excitement of powerful writing. But give them only the plainest easiest fare and you may have denied them entry into that magical place where art touches something truly (not in the often devalued way the word is now used) awesome. I do think we are slowly stripping away the sinewy texture of language.

    1. Thank you for your very perceptive comments and in-depth reading, That was precisely what struck me about that passage – particularly that sentence with its inversion and rhythm, There is a hypnotic rhythm about all of her work which I didn’t notice at the time, but which must have penetrated my subconscious and led to my subsequent enjoyment of rollicking long sentences and iambic pentameters and poetry in general! I used to teach ‘Writing Plain English’ – and while that is certainly useful in international business, it is not the language I want to see in my literature…

      1. Ps reading back what I wrote, I have absolutely no idea what word SHOULD have come after rabbits, but it certainly wasn’t sex! Though the predictive insertion is very funny. I really Should read what The Tablet inserts – Now it has decided to capitalise every first letter and I am consciously having To Undo, word by word, till i Forget.

  2. I had this down for the #1968club too. I think because she wrote for children and wrote fantasy and sic-fi Ursula Le Guin is unjustly neglected. Her essays on writing are brilliant.
    But so is The Wizard of Earths which I first read as an adult. Thanks for reminding us of her many qualities.

  3. Very interesting, Marina. I read these books back in the day but as an adult and although I think I loved them I can’t recall specifics. If only there were more time to revisit all those books I read back then…

  4. This is really interesting, Marina Sofia. I think what’s particularly fascinating is the differences in your reaction to it as a child, and your reaction now. Of course, we see things differently as adults, and it’s always interesting to see how our change in perspectives impacts what we think of what we read.

  5. My partner loved these books as a child, but our children did not find them very appealing either. They didn’t find the story or setting particularly engrossing – possibly a result of them growing up in an era with a myriad of fantasy literature & TV/films to choose from & compare to these.
    I haven’t read these, but I’m interested that your favourite characters Vetch & Yarrow are named after plants that grow in poor soils & help to improve it as they grow.

  6. You do know, right, that Earthsea is now (to quote Douglas Adams) a trilogy in five volumes? I loved every single one of them, the last two possibly more than the rest. But then, I’m sure I’d probably read with pleasure even UKL’s shopping list.

    As for her writing style, I’m not proficient enough in English to comment on it, but I find it beautiful if not always easy. My first attempt to read a book of hers (the wonderful The Left Hand of Darkness) ended less than fifty pages in, due to an Italian translation that failed to do justice to the original.

    1. I know it’s expanded beyond the original 3 – bu t this happened to be the edition that I bought for my kids. It makes me want to reread all of them, to be honest, I’d forgotten how much I’d enjoyed them.

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