For three years I have taught the beautiful novel A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin to high school seniors in a science fiction and fantasy literature course. A few weeks ago, one student asked me, “Mrs. Thomas, how many times have you read this book?” Now, it’s important to note that the look on the student’s face expected several readings of the novel–like he could not believe I would have the super-human ability to reread a book. So, no one was surprised when I guesstimated over ten times. Of course, the student sighed and replied, “How can you just read something again and again? Isn’t it boring?” I believe I chuckled and replied with the typical comment about loving the book, but the student’s question led me to thinking about the novel in more depth. More specifically, I began to explore WHY I love the novel… not as an English teacher, but as a reader. So here go my thoughts…
Reason #1: Beauty of Language.
Most students grumble and say things like… “Why are the chapters sooooo loooong?” or “Why does she describe things sooooo much?” So, as a writer, I asked myself those questions–not rhetorically like many student questions are posed, but in search of the actual answers. Every artist has a reason why their creation is formed in such a manner. So why not break up the chapters into smaller sequences of events? Because, to me, each chapter serves as a tale within the larger concept of the work as a whole. Each chapter has a beginning, a middle, and an end–even a short story arc. But wait, I’m starting to sound like the English teacher again. Back to the description, then. World building is an incredibly difficult task, and the amount of detail required in order to do so is in the realm of epic proportions. This is why many fantasy novels, to me, are even more detailed than LeGuin’s Earthsea series. But I don’t mind her level of description. While the syntax and phrasing are awkward at times (because they actually make a person think), they are simply lovely.
“He was born in a lonely village called Ten Alders, high on the mountain at the head of the Northward Vale. Below the village the pastures and plow lands of the Vale slope downward level below level towards the sea, and other towns lie on the bends of the River Ar; above the village only forest rises ridge behind ridge to the stone and snow of the heights” (2).
This passage draws me directly into the scenery–into this world which LeGuin weaves throughout the novel–and while she tends to name-drop locations throughout the novel, I have to appreciate her intricate details and thought-out world. Another one of my favorite lines is from Ogion–because of its simplicity–“To hear, one must be silent–” (Chapter 2).
Reason #2: Archetypes
Ged fits archetypes, thus making him comparable to other characters with whom I am familiar. Now, not all people are into analyzing literature and movies to the point of nausea, but something about archetypes and finding symbols intrigues me. Always has and always will. Every times I read Earthsea, I find myself thinking things like “Ged is as immature as Luke Skywalker! Would someone slap him already!” or “Ogion is the wise sage… just like Obi-Wan! Even their names sound similar!” But this type of analysis is just one of those nerding-out things I do.
Reason #3: Other Symbolism
I know I kind of mentioned symbols above, but who cannot look at the use of light and dark throughout the novel and NOT start to analyze a deeper meaning? LeGuin bathes the novel in references to good/evil, dark/light, etc., leaving the reader to wonder which side is which. The Kargish warriors are light-skinned, but from the perspective of the Gontish, they are to be feared–after all, the Kargish warriors bring suffering, destruction, and death to the other isles. So if that which is light is evil/bad, then that means dark is good? But the shadow is dark, and that is the very thing which Ged fears! This is where LeGuin uses Taoism (of which I am not an expert) to put the reader at ease. Every time I read the book, I find new little bits of wisdom or symbolism which relate to philosophy and human nature.
Reason #4: Life Lessons
Patience. Becoming whole. Humility. Finding the self. Listening. Respecting balance. Compassion. The list could go on and on. A Wizard of Earthsea is laden with wisdom one can relate to the self. In the end, one of my favorite lessons I found in the book is to not run from problems or who I am as a person. To face myself head-on (including my flaws, habits, strengths, weaknesses) and then accept all of those things which make me a whole person is what makes one an adult. Running from the world and from the self are a part of adolescence. This also includes facing the reality of my mortality.
Lastly, I read A Wizard of Earthsea because I love the characters (especially Ogion), the setting, and the complexity of both. I read it because it speaks to me every time.