One thing I really appreciate about my little book club is our desire to push our preferred reading boundaries and fill the gaps so to speak. My next post will cover the first book in our official “Fill the Gaps” project, but I think for all of us, Ursula K. LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea fit that title as well. The choice was born out of a desire to read a genre (traditional fantasy) that not many of us read currently by an author none of us were particularly familiar with. After reading an interview with LeGuin and loving her feisty responses, we were excited to start with her first “young adult” novel and one of her most famous.
Well, I appreciate it, but I can’t say that I loved it. It is, in fact, a very traditional fantasy novel in the style of Tolkein and Lewis, which means a lot of detail around world-building and the plot covering years and years very quickly (along with some other standard features which will be discussed briefly and not necessarily expertly below). A Wizard of Earthsea tells the story of young Ged, a boy with promising magical powers who is apprenticed to a mage and ultimately sent to wizarding school before going out into the world to fight the evil force he accidentally released into the world, after which he becomes the greatest wizard in all the lands (the subject of later books in the series). Does this sound a bit like Harry Potter to you? Well, supposedly, quite a bit of Harry Potter is directly influenced by LeGuin’s tale. Honestly, though, that plot blurb is the only thing really connected.
The story is told in fits and starts of action and conversation interspersed with paragraphs superficially describing the passage of time. Something like, “After the incident, Ged was sent to the silent tower where he was grateful for the study and the silence of his fellow students. After a year, he returned to the school, where he was behind in some classes and ahead in others. After several months, he was caught up and left to earn his next level.” etc. (Clearly, that is not a direct quote from LeGuin, but you get the idea.) As such, I felt more like a viewer than a reader, observing passively from my spot high above the characters and story, especially when Ged ventured out into the world to defeat his nemesis and much of the text was dedicated to describing the islands and people he passes and the sea he crosses. That being said, the last section of the book where he and his best friend start their journey to his final battle of wills with the evil spectre increases in its immediacy, and I felt like much more of an active reader, engaging with Ged and the story, in that last section.
Here is what I do appreciate about LeGuin’s addition to the genre. She set out specifically to bust up some stereotypes. She was very specific in what she chose as well. Though her book features no women in a hero or lead role (fairly typically, her women are supportive or evil in some way), Ged is one of the first protagonists of a traditional fantasy novel to not be white. In fact, Ged is described as having “red-brown” skin, despite being white-washed on many early (and even later) book covers. (Check out this article on author Rick Riordan’s recent battle to have his Kane Chronicles characters portrayed ethnically accurately on his international book jackets. It also references LeGuin’s struggle with her Earthsea book covers.) Her goal, put a little less bluntly that she has, was to show that anyone could have an adventure, complete a quest, and make a difference, and despite some protests, she did with a highly successful series.
The other trend LeGuin decided to buck was that fantasy novel automatically means war novel. In her letter to the reader at the end of the novel, LeGuin says, “War as a moral metaphor is limited, limiting, and dangerous. By reducing the choices of action to “a war against” whatever-it-is, you divide the world into Me or Us (good) and Them or It (bad) and reduce the ethical complexity and moral richness of our life to Yes/No, On/Off.” Whether or not you agree with her, LeGuin’s decision to take that element out of her novel leads to a much more philosophically compelling look at the good, bad, and in between inside ourselves.
So here’s the deal: I’m the kid who hated The Hobbit, did ok with The Fellowship of the Rings, and only read the Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli half of The Two Towers because Frodo was just too damn whiny before chucking the whole series. A Wizard of Earthsea is too close to that vein for me to really go gaga over, even as an adult. However, having read enough of that old, British guy fantasy as a kid, I absolutely appreciate that LeGuin successfully made that kind of fantasy accessible to more children. She is a gifted writer, and she made a name for herself as really the female fantasy writer of the 20th century by bucking the trends while still celebrating the genre. And that’s pretty cool.