Luscious, Moody Prose: On A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula LeGuin
by Rachel Creager Ireland
I read A Wizard of Earthsea as a kid. I was a big fantasy geek, and it was in the school library. I didn’t remember much, though. I liked it enough to read it twice, and to go on to love other LeGuin books; but the language was a bit challenging for me in grade school, so I mostly remembered a dark moodiness pervading the book, and a lot of sailing between islands.
Last week I happened to find myself wandering the stacks of the Emporia Public Library, and this book appeared in front of my face, so I checked it out and reread it, and it’s now my new old favorite.
I still love the luscious, moody prose. It would be a great book to read aloud, or listen to as an audiobook.
“In winter it was different. He was sent with seven other boys across Roke Island to the farthest northmost cape, where stands the Isolate Tower. There by himself lived the Master Namer, who was called by a name that had no meaning in any language, Kurremkarmerruk. No farm or dwelling lay within miles of the Tower. Grim it stood above the northern cliffs, grey were the clouds over the seas of winter, endless the lists and ranks and rounds of names that the Namer’s eight pupils must learn. Amongst them in the Tower’s high room Kurremkarmerruk sat on a high seat, writing down lists of names that must be learned before the ink faded at midnight leaving the parchment blank again. It was cold and half-dark and always silent there except for the scratching of the Master’s pen and the sighing, maybe, of a student who must learn before midnight the name of every cape, point, bay, sound, inlet, channel, harbor, shallows, reef and rock of the shores of Lossow, a little islet of the Pelnish Sea. If the student complained the Master might say nothing, but lengthen the list; or he might say, “He who would be Seamaster must know the true name of every drop of water in the sea.”
But what struck me more was the shadow. Unlike, oh, just about every fantasy book ever, Earthsea doesn’t have a real villain. There are plenty of bad people, but the real evil is merely a shadow. It hunts hero Ged, until he turns to hunt it. No one knows exactly what it is, but it is believed that this entity’s will is to take over Ged and do evil through him. And what is its name? Maybe it has no name at all. If you’ve done any Shadow work, you’ll guess the answer to the question.
I’ll try not to spoil the book for you. I’ll just say that I think I was a little disappointed in the ending as a child, or maybe dismayed; but as an adult, it is perfect. Because evil doesn’t really come from some Other person, and one might wonder if LeGuin was the first fantasy writer in history to notice this.
A Wizard of Earthsea is a relatively slim two hundred pages, but it’s rich, dense, and never falls into fantasy cliches. Nearly fifty years after its first publication, it’s far less dated than the books of Tolkien or Lloyd Alexander. (The latter being the author of another series I loved, The Prydain Chronicles. They’re still good, but . . . dated, particularly in the characterization of male vs. female characters.)
It’s a wonderful experience to reread a book I loved as a child, and find it even better than I remembered it.