Wednesday, June 17, 2015

A Wizard of Earthsea: Ursula K. Le Guin

A Wizard of Earthsea is widely considered to be a classic of fantasy literature. I found the history of how this book came to be very interesting. This is from a review at No Wasted Ink.
In 1967, Herman Schein, the publisher of Parnassus Press and husband to Ruth Robbins, the woman who would later illustrate the book, asked Le Guin if she would consider writing a book “for older kids”, leaving the concept and subject free of her own choosing. A Wizard of Earthsea followed the next year and was published by Parnassus Press. Le Guin based the novel on a pair of short stories she had published in 1964, The Rule of Names and The Word of Unbinding. In these short stories, she explored the concept that wizards were always portrayed as old and wise figures in literature. The author wondered where the wizards might have learned their magic before they gained their wisdom. These two stories served as the groundwork for the Earthsea trilogy that would follow.


The first paragraph of the book provides a perfect introduction to the story:
The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards. From the towns in its high valleys and the ports on its dark narrow bays many a Gontishman has gone forth to serve the Lords of the Archipelago in their cities as wizard or mage, or, looking for adventure, to wander working magic from isle to isle of all Earthsea. Of these some say the greatest, and surely the greatest voyager, was the man called Sparrowhawk, who in his day became both dragonlord and Archmage. His life is told of in the Deed of Ged and in many songs, but this is a tale of the time before his fame, before the songs were made.
The story is told very simply. There are not a lot of characters. The main character is a young, dark-skinned boy who will become a great wizard. The story is about part of his journey to becoming a "dragonlord and Archmage." His name is Druny at the beginning, later he is given other names. His character is almost the only one with any depth in the story. Yet, regardless of its simplicity, the fairy tale quality, and the lack of characterization, I found it a captivating read.

The trade paperback reprint I read included the original illustrations by Ruth Robbins.

Two more books followed A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan in 1970 and The Farthest Shore in 1972. The three books are referred to as the Earthsea Trilogy. In 1990, Le Guin published an adult book set in Earthsea  titled Tehanu. I believe there have been other books published since then. I plan to read books two and three of the original series and then perhaps read some of the related short stories.

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Publisher:   Bantam Books, 2004 (orig. pub. 1968)
Length:      182 pages
Format:      Trade Paperback
Series:       Earthsea Cycle
Setting:      The fantasy world of Earthsea
Genre:        Young Adult Fantasy
Source:      Purchased my copy at the Planned Parenthood book sale, 2014. My son has a copy of the mass market boxed set of the Earthsea Trilogy. That set was what first enticed me to try the series.

23 comments:

  1. You know if you locked me in a room with a chair and this book, I would probably enjoy it, but that would be the only way to get me involved I think.

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    1. I like that image, Col. I don't really think this book is for you, and probably not the rest of her work either since you don't care for fantasy or sci fi, but she does feature some interesting ideas in her fiction.

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  2. Tracy,
    I'm glad you enjoyed this one. I'm not much a one for fantasy or sci-fi. Still, I give an awful lot of credit to authors who can successfully create completely new realities like that. It says a lot about their imaginations and creativity.

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    1. Le Guin is praised for her skill in worldbuilding, Margot. Being a novice at reading fantasy, I could not judge.

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    2. If you were convinced and not too much distracted by the description of the setting, as with historical fiction or sf, she did the job well.

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  3. Tracy, I have actually come across this author and I'm quite sure that I have seen the book with the cover featured right above at a book exhibition. I will definitely pick it up if I see this or any of the books in the Earthsea trilogy.

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    1. I think these books would appeal to you, Prashant. I do hope you find some of them.

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  4. I enjoyed this series way back when ... I also enjoyed Searoad which is a collection of short stories which aren't SF or fantasy. My husband is a big fan, he must have read everything Le Guin has ever written.

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    1. Searoad sounds very interesting, Katrina. I had heard that she had written outside of the SF and fantasy genres. I am glad to hear your husband likes the books, I am planning to read some of her science fiction also.

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  5. I do want to re-read these as I remember loving these as a kid - thanks Tracy.

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    1. I want to read more of this series, some of her sci fi, and maybe some of her non-fiction.

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    2. Try the short story collection THE WIND'S TWELVE QUARTERS, and certainly her criticism and nonfiction about writing collection, THE LANGUAGE OF THE NIGHT. Along with some obvious choices among her novels such as THE DISPOSSESSED and THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS.

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    3. I am definitely interested in THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS. Do you think it helps to read anything before that. And thanks for the recommendation for the short story collection.

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  6. The stories that sparked the novel were first published in a magazine I loved, FANTASTIC, the title of which has been revived as a semipro magazine that isn't up to the level that isn't up to the level of the original run at its best. Cele Goldsmith, later Cele Lalli, was her editor there, and Le Guin would offer her novel THE LATHE OF HEAVEN to its sibling magazine AMAZING SCIENCE FICTION when it was later edited by Lalli's successor Ted White, who was editing FANTASTIC when I started reading it. You win, for least Forgotten book for this Friday! http://socialistjazz.blogspot.com/2012/07/cele-goldsmithlalli-interviewed-by.html

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    1. Le Guin was unstinting in her praise of Lalli...who basically bought her first several fantasy stories to see print, in the earliest '60s...

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    2. Ah. Cut and paste error in the first reply, sorry. Meanwhile, the third volume won Le Guin the National Book Award.

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    3. Thanks for all that information, Todd. Your enthusiasm is catching.

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    4. Caught me in a burbling mood, clearly! And these writers' names might not mean too much to you, despite excelling in forms other than sf and fantasy as well, but here's the contents of the issue of FANTASTIC that featured "The Word of Unbinding":
      Contents (view Concise Listing)

      5 • Editorial (Fantastic, January 1964) • [Editorial (Fantastic)] • essay by uncredited
      6 • The Lords of Quarmall (Part 1 of 2) • [Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser] • serial by Fritz Leiber and Harry Fischer
      6 •  The Lords of Quarmall (Part 1 of 2) • interior artwork by Ed Emshwiller [as by Emsh ]
      52 • Minnesota Gothic • shortstory by Thomas M. Disch [as by Dobbin Thorpe ]
      52 •  Minnesota Gothic • interior artwork by Lutjens
      66 • The Word of Unbinding • [Earthsea Cycle] • shortstory by Ursula K. Le Guin
      66 •  The Word of Unbinding • interior artwork by Lee Brown Coye
      74 • Last Order • novelette by George Locke [as by Gordon Walters ]
      74 •  Last Order • interior artwork by Virgil Finlay
      114 • A Thesis on Social Forms and Social Controls in the U.S.A. • shortstory by Thomas M. Disch (variant of Thesis on Social Forms and Social Controls in the U.S.A.)
      115 •  A Thesis on Social Forms and Social Controls in the U.S.A. • interior artwork by Dan Adkins [as by Adkins ]
      127 • Fantasy Books (Fantastic, January 1964) • [Fantasy Books (Fantastic)] • essay by S. E. Cotts
      127 •   Review: The Sundial by Shirley Jackson • review by S. E. Cotts
      128 •   Review: Stranger Than Life by R. DeWitt Miller • review by S. E. Cotts
      bc •  Last Order [bc] • interior artwork by Virgil Finlay

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    5. I am glad I caught you in that kind of mood, Todd. You are right, I don't know much about these authors although I have heard some of the names. I had thought about trying to find a copy of this. Or other issues of Fantastic in that time period. So thanks for the list of contents.

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  7. Great book. Wonderful writer!

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    1. I have certainly gotten the impression that her books are enjoyed and admired.

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  8. I know so many people love and admire Ursula LeGuin - I tried them when I was a child, and then tried them on my own children, and never really got on with them. We all have different tastes...

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    1. I am coming to them late in life, Moira. I will sample different stages of her writing.

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