So what is this blog about?

These are the books I would insist everyone read if I were Queen of the Universe. I am not Queen of the Universe, so you don't have to read them, but hear me out. Most book reviews are about new books, but most books are not new. How else are you going to find out about what's out there? Anyway, aren't you just a bit curious about WHY I think these books should be read by everyone?

Monday, September 19, 2011

A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. LeGuin

Ok, you want something light and fun for a change? Well, here you go. Wizards and dragons and sailing. On the other hand, if you want to keep going in a deeper vein of principles and concepts, this book is for you, too. I read it for the first time when I was twelve or so, maybe younger, and I must have read it twelve times, maybe more, since then. This is the book that gave me ecological awareness, spiritual confirmation, and a larger context for the smaller details of graduate school. I find something new in it each time I read it. And yet, I promise you that if you read for pure enjoyment the big issues will not intrude. Except maybe later; I don't promise the book won't deepen your thinking, just that reading it won't seem like work. And it won't take a lot of time to read. It's only 163 pages long.
This double-headed quality, this equal comfort with the depths and the shallows of fantasy literature, is typical of Ursula K. LeGuin, and distinctive particularly of the Earthsea trilogy. While I am less familiar with the other two books, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore, (I've only read them five or six times each) they also have their thought-provoking depths and their fun, sunlit shaEartllows. You could treat these three as Holy Writ, elaborating an entire spiritual tradition from them, though I suspect Ms. LeGuin would have the grace to object to such abject trust. Or, you could use them as rich, delicious food for thought. I won't ruin the fun for you by telling you the details of how my own thoughts have fed on this.
In recent years I've heard A Wizard of Earthsea compared to the Harry Potter books, and I admit there is, at first glance, some obvious similarity. Both belong to the young adult fantasy genre, and a school for magic figures heavily in this first of the Earthsea books. In both there are dragons, and in both some humans have magical power while others do not. But on closer inspection the similarity fades rather than grows. The moods of the two are strikingly different, to begin with, for even at its darkest Harry Potter touches on the silly; there is a comedic undercurrent to that world even when there is nothing whatever to laugh at in the plot. Earthsea is fun, but never funny. There are other differences. Probably it is only the current dominance of J.K. Rowling in the genre, combined with the fact that not all fantasy novelists decide wizards must go to school, that suggests the comparison at all.
It's worth noting that there are more than three Earthsea books. There are at least six, at current count, five of which I have read, yet I consider the first three a distinct trilogy. I do not know whether LeGuin does so, but the later books show a radical shift. Most strikingly, they do not ignore sex, as the first three books do. There's nothing even close to a sex scene, at least not in the ones I've read, but the characters think about it, talk about it, seek it, and decline to seek it, just like adults really do. I would not bar a child from reading the later books, and I actively encourage adults to read the earlier ones (read this book!), but a prepubescent child would probably not be interested in the characters' sexuality, especially in a book that is fundamentally not about sex or romance. The adults the later books appear to be written for would naturally have questions about it. A less obvious, but perhaps more important shift is that the later books explore gender politics as their central theme; the author's voice as a woman is very much part of the later narratives, while the earlier books could just as easily have been written by a man.
Ursula K. LeGuin does a lot of things very well. I could be here all night if I tried to write about all of them, and, frankly I have other things to do. So I will pick the one least likely to come up in discussion; she is fantastic at creating a world. Not just the social world, an impressive feat, but not an usual one among successful fiction writers. No, LeGuin also creates an entirely believable physical and even biological world using only a few sparse words; there are no extended expositions, just clean economy of language and a little animal called an otak hunting in the late afternoon for creek-crabs.

LeGuin, U.K. (1968). A Wizard of Earthsea. Bantam Books: New York, NY

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