Originally published on Nerdscape a few years back, I thought that this article was worth reposting, especially given Ursula LeGuin’s sad passing earlier this year.
Ursula K. Le Guin’s output is staggering. From children’s literature to science-fiction classics, from books about writing to impassioned speeches in support of libraries, she has built up the reputation of a giant in fantasy and science fiction circles. Recently rereading one of her best-known novels (and a childhood favourite) A Wizard of Earthsea, it struck me how forward-thinking and influential LeGuin’s book is- and how easy it is to trace its legacy in other popular works today.
The story is of a young wizard living in the Earthsea islands who is overambitious with his magical abilities, and lives to pay the price. Set in an archipelago populated with evil counts, wizards and dragons, our protagonist Ged learns the meaning of humility and duty on his path to becoming a man.
If that sounds stale or clichéd, then it in no ways encapsulates the experience of reading the novel, which is not only gripping and rich, but also an influential text on some of the most popular books of today. Here are four reasons why this 1968 Young Adult Novel was ahead of the curve- and why I think it’s worthy of classic status along with the very best of childhood literature.
A School of Wizards
Once the main character, Ged, is deemed to be worthy, he journeys to a distant island in order to learn his craft. He ends up in Wizard School.
Upon reading the name of the chapter- “A School of Wizards”- I couldn’t help but smile. This is in no way to denigrate the work of JK Rowling, who expanded on the premise to fantastic effect, but it’s undeniably fascinating to see how great ideas can be tackled in similar ways by different authors.
In both texts, the boy wizard has to deal with the universal themes of friendship, bullying and peer pressure, with the added frisson that the protagonist is constantly teetering on the edge of using his powers to vent his teenage frustrations. It’s part bildungsroman, in which we see a young protagonist learn to take responsibility for their actions, part wish-fulfilment- after all, wouldn’t you have liked to conjure up the dead in order to scare the bully at school?
It only takes place over a few chapters, as Ged’s education only endures as long as Harry Potter would have realistically lasted before getting expelled from Hogwarts. However, the appeal of the concept is already there in LeGuin’s text- a taster for the phenomenon to come.
A System of Magic
Patrick Rothfuss, acclaimed author of The Name of the Wind, draws a distinction (based on Science Fiction vernacular) between “hard” and “soft” fantasy. His books, which have taken the fantasy community by storm and topped bestseller lists around the world, are an attempt to give rigour to fantastical concepts- to be a “hard” version of the genre. In his books, magic is presented as a craft like carpentry, with set rules that are not to be broken.
Back in the early days of fantasy, the genre was nearly always in the “soft” category. The magical spells were cool because of their unknowability, and had a mystic quality- we were never quite sure what the magicians were capable of. This made wizards like Gandalf fan favourites, and were handy for authors who could make up new spells in order to suit the plot.
Earthsea, however, sowed the seeds of the “hard” fantasy to come. Despite being in a children’s book, the magic is given logic and thought. Of course, the rules of wizardry are more poetic than scientific, but the very fact that they are explained to us in a way that does not rob the sorcery of its wow factor is to be admired. Earthsea magic, in the end, is not unlike Name of the Wind magic at all: it comes from language, from words and the meaning we give to them.
Earthsea- the fantasy archipelago
One of the things which I loved about the novel as a child was the world in which the story takes place, a set of islands which Ged navigates by boats and dinghies. This, to a reader who spent his summers at the English seaside, was a far more identifiable milieu than the other fantasy books I read, in which all travel was by horseback. One section, in which Ged sails to an island to confront a dragon, comes straight out of the Norse myths which are still so popular to readers of a young age (while also evoking the foundational texts of English Literature such as Beowolf).
It’s also, of course, a direct predecessor of the popular How to Train Your Dragon books and films. They have a similar sense of place- a set of islands in the middle of an ocean, in a world which we can hope to be our own (after all, who knows what’s behind that horizon?), and in which small communities gather together in order to protect themselves from the beasties of other islets.
This setting allows for nautical derring-do along with the familiar duels and dragon-slaying, and disassociates the narratives from the more conventional medieval-European setting we are so used to in fantasy. It also makes for some great set-pieces and imagery, as cliff-tops and raging seas provide the backdrop for the protagonist’s great adventures.
With the likes of Tim Powers and Steven Erikson, nautical fantasy has become more popular over the years- and I suspect that Earthsea had a part to play in the proliferation of the subgenre.
Colour-Blind Wizard Casting
Finally, a small but important point. Fantasy is a genre which is still predominantly white (and male, but that’s a discussion for another time). When I first read A Wizard of Earthsea as a child, I even presumed that Ged was white, because that’s what I was used to from similar books (film adaptations have also made the same presumptions). But it’s clearly stated that Ged is dark-skinned- and that Earthsea contains a whole set of races.
It’s damming that I was so used to white protagonists that I made this presumption. But it’s also testament to LeGuin’s writing that while the characters are from different races, it makes absolutely no impact on the plot. It’s like reading a book from the future, where race is no longer a political issue. It’s rare to have that kind of progressive thinking from fantasy novelists now, almost 50 years later, but if you look closely the seeds of change are just starting to bear fruit.
A Wizard of Earthsea, then, is not only a book which has informed the popular books of today, but we can only hope will be an influence on the novels of the future as well. In today’s Young Adult novel explosion, this is a novel to be cherished and championed, so that authors may draw from LeGuin’s invention for years to come.