Ursula K. Le Guin, Unsurpassed

Reading the Earthsea Quartet is like tuning into a frequency of awareness just underneath conscious thought. It is easy to become immersed in Le Guin’s world of wizards, sodden barren landscapes and dark ancient cults. Because her characters – even the wizards – are totally human. And their experiences are realised in such detail that, sometimes, I forget I am not them. After reading Le Guin, it’s not unusual to dream myself in her world.

I read The Wizard of Earthsea as a child. Then revisited her when my own daughter began reading longer more complex books. I couldn’t remember much about the book, but still in my memory, the name Ursula Le Guin almost possessed magic power. As names do in Earthsea: the secret true names of things work like spells.

We started with an audio book on longer car journeys. When I heard the description of the witch’s hut in A Wizard of Earthsea, from the perspective of a young boy about to become a wizard in training, it felt like a place I’d actually been before rather than something I’d read more than twenty years previously.

He sat while his aunt bound back her uncombed hair, and knotted the belt of her dress, and again sat cross-legged throwing handfuls of leaves into the firepit so that a smoke spread and filled the darkness of the hut. She began to sing. Her voice changed sometimes to low or high as if another voice sang through her, and the singing went on and on until the boy did not know if he waked or slept, and all the while the witch’s old black dog that never barked sat by him with eyes red from the smoke.

The Wizard of Earthsea

Le Guin enwraps you in the detail of her characters’ experience and thus creates a world of magic that I almost feel I’ve visited.

This must come partly from her knowledge of religion and varied cultures. Le Guin was the child of anthropologists and deeply read in mythology.

At a young age, Ms. Le Guin immersed herself in books about mythology, among them James Frazer’s “The Golden Bough,” classic fantasies like Lord Dunsany’s “A Dreamer’s Tales,” and the science-fiction magazines of the day. 

New York Times, 2018

Her knowledge fed the original world she created where belief is natural and power, concentrated in the hands of those born to it. But Le Guin’s magicians are not noble or obviously important. Her first hero – Sparrowhawk – is a penniless black goat herd. Le Guin complained that, after the first edition, he was consistently depicted as white on book covers commissioned by publishers who clearly paid more attention to their own prejudice than to the text. (“Earthsea was bathed in bleach.” Le Guin, The Books of Earthsea, Gollanz, 2018) The heroine of her second book is a teenage girl of poor parents. The reasons for her character’s powers are strange and deep. We accept their power as we accept all of her world as it comes: cold, harsh and vast; where every stone is charged with significance.

I recommend her as a superior version of (and source for) many of the wizard stories we’ve gotten used to over the past twenty-five years. Though more complex in terms of meaning, her books are not difficult to read. An older child can easily manage The Wizard of Earthsea.

Around the third Earthsea book, her characters get older and their internal lives become, possibly, less accessible or relevant to children. Le Guin gave up writing just for children as publishers usually required fantasy writers to do, preferring instead to follow where her story led:

The notion that fantasy is only for the immature rises from an obstinate misunderstanding of both maturity and the imagination. So, as my protagonists grew older, I trusted my younger readers to follow them or not, as and when they chose.

Ursula Le Guin, The Books of Earthsea, Gollanz, London 2018

Reading these aloud as an adult I have been transported as well as made to see myself and my own world differently through inhabiting the experiences of her characters. It is an enlivening experience for me, though often opaque and turbulent. But children – people – don’t need books to end peacefully. They don’t have to understand everything. Vagueness is part of existence. Le Guin keeps things vague whilst driving at the meaning contained in everything:

When I was young, I had to chose between the life of being and the life of doing. And I leapt at the latter like a trout to a fly. But each deed you do, each act, binds you to itself and its consequences, and makes you act again and yet again. Then very seldom do you come upon a space, a time like this, between act and act, when you may stop and simply be. Or wonder who, after all, you are.

Sparrowhawk, The Farthest Shore

Le Guin gives her readers space to contemplate. She deserves a large amount of shelf space in every school library. Especially as modern publishers push their more recent books in a way that can make it hard for young people to discover classics – or anything written before Harry Potter.

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