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.
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.