Let’s say you’re reading a book about a boy who grows up to be a wizard. That’s a very familiar story… so do you want exactly what you’re expecting? Or are you prepared for something new and interesting?
Ursula K. Le Guin’s famous Earthsea series started with a boy wizard, but even the first book, A Wizard of Earthsea, was unusual. Each subsequent book in the series got more iconoclastic — it’s surprise after surprise, but if you’re up for it as a reader, Le Guin will win you over.
You’ll see this response over and over again if you check the reader reviews on Amazon.com for the Earthsea books: people expecting comfort food a la Harry Potter instead find a writer who is actively trying to shake things up. Le Guin is telling a story like every other writer worth being entertained by, but she’s also up to something sly and subversive.
A Wizard of Earthsea is the story of Sparrowhawk, a boy who becomes a wizard. A careful reader will soon realize that the cast of characters is far from lily-white and that Sparrowhawk himself has black skin, unusual even now and definitely groundbreaking for the protagonist of a book back then (see the miniseries-related links below for more about Le Guin’s strategy about skin colour).
What’s more, Sparrowhawk is not the ideal lad. Sure, he’s powerful and learns his magic lessons faster than anyone else, as befits a hero. But he’s also proud and short-tempered, and in a fit of competitive rage, he does some magic that’s far beyond his ability to control, releasing a dark being that plagues him for the rest of the story.
The first book seems episodic, but Le Guin is building up to a moment when Sparrowhawk knows enough about himself. That process ties in nicely to the way Le Guin constructs the magic of this world: like many folk tales, true names have power in the Earthsea universe, and Sparrowhawk’s true name, Ged, is the key to story. And true names are secret.
So far so good, if still a bit standard. The next Earthsea book, The Tombs of Atuan, goes much further. It’s the story of Arha, a young girl apprenticed to the “nameless ones”, a type of death cult complete with rituals, underground labyrinth, and, as we find out later, hidden treasure. Her life is essentially sacrificed in the service of death and darkness.
One day Arha catches someone breaking into the tombs — it’s Sparrowhawk, who is searching for a magical trinket. Rather than immediately ordering him executed, Arha relents. The remainder of this slim volume shows how something as simple as Sparrowhawk’s presence and determined integrity breaks into Arha’s routine. She doesn’t have to be a thrall to empty ritual.
How might a person who believes firmly in their religious indoctrination escape the clutches of fundamentalism? That’s another unusual storyline, and a poke in the eye to a few demographics. Le Guin has returned to this story a few times — The Telling is about a planet that destroys its own history, while her latest, Voices, is about a culture trying to regain itself (Voices is a sequel to Gifts, a story about trying to break free from a cycle of violence).
To make Le Guin’s groundbreakingness even more clear, let’s look at the recent miniseries called Legend of Earthsea, an adaptation of the first two books. Basically, the miniseries is horrible, and betrays everything that’s interesting about the source. Even by the first scene! To wit: Sparrowhawk is a pretty white boy, and he’s called by his true name — Ged — by his girlfriend. And it’s downhill from there. Le Guin was forced to take a slightly non-classy response. Even Studio Ghibli, usually a reliable source of great art, seems to have messed up their adaptation called Gedo Senki, which I haven’t seen yet.
Perhaps there’s no way to capture the nuances of Le Guin’s books on film? I think it’s probably good that there hasn’t been a movie version of her books, if this is any evidence. Eragon might be easy to adapt, but not Le Guin. That’s fine by me.
The Farthest Shore wraps up the original trilogy. Le Guin wrote the first three Earthsea books nearly 40 years ago (1968, 1972, and 1974 respectively). She returned to the same world in the 1990 and 2001 with some cool follow-ups, two novels called Tehanu and The Other Wind. It’s been a while, but I remember the short story collection, Tales from Earthsea, as pretty damn good.
I wrote last month about how the audiobook version of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle made me think about the book in new ways. This month was the same thing — The Tombs of Atuan in particular never made an impression on me, but it was just as acclaimed as the other Earthsea books. What was I missing? The audiobook helped me find out.
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