A Wizard of Earthsea

Last night I finished reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea and I’m quite impressed. It’s one of those books that I’ve started and stopped reading three or four times in the past (once even getting halfway through it) but have only just really read. This is surprising because it’s really a very short novel (192 pages in my edition).

What threw me off I think, was, first, the writing style. It isn’t written like The Hobbit, probably my favorite of these modern short fantasies. It doesn’t have that knowing warm, grandfatherly narrator telling about a little hobbit going off on some crazy adventure. It’s written like an old fashioned folk tale, or maybe even the most interesting history you’ve ever read. Le Guin is almost journalistic in her tone here, by which I mean she packs a lot into a short amount of space. I realized at one point that when I had picked up my book after setting it down, I had skipped a paragraph that took up about half the page. In that half page, I had missed the main characters landing on an island, being received coldly, and setting sail again before the day was over.

Like I said, pretty packed.

The second thing that through me off the first few times I tried to read it, which was when I was 17 or 18, I was too old/too young for it. I was too old to enjoy a the simplicity of it. I remember I thought it was very childish. But I was too young to hear what it was trying to say about responsibility and pride.

Part of what made the book so good was that it was such a powerful morality tale and it never tried to hide that. So often stories try to sneak in the moral as if the reader, especially if the target audience is children, were too stupid to notice. But it also treated me, the reader, with a level of respect that I don’t always see in contemporary young adult literature. I tried to read China Mieville’s Un Lun Dun a while back and it drove me nuts. He decided to throw out everything he knows about prose (and if you’ve never read him, he’s an excellent writer), apparently because he felt his audience was too stupid for the “Show, don’t tell” rule. I was told everything explicitly over and over again. I couldn’t get away from it. But Le Guin avoids that because she respects her readers, young and old alike.

I’ll recommend the book to anyone who likes a good tale, although I imagine that many people will, like I did, have trouble if they’re introduced to it between the ages of, say, 16 and 20. And for those who don’t feel like they can stomach learning about patience and the dangers of pride, I’ll suggest Le Guin’s equally great novel, The Left Hand of Darkness. Very different, but it contains a world just as exciting and wonderful to read about as Earthsea.