Reading between the ripples – A Wizard of Earthsea

Posted: February 24, 2014 in reading
Tags: , ,

Do you ever feel disappointed in yourself for not enjoying a book more? That was my feeling this weekend after finishing Ursula K. Le Guin‘s A Wizard of Earthsea.

I first read this book when I was about ten years old, when any fantasy fiction was precious to me. I re-read it this month as part of the Sword and Laser book club. And while there’s some really interesting stuff going on in this book, I have to admit that it didn’t live up to my hopes.

A wonderful world

A Wizard of Earthsea is the story of Ged, a young man growing into a powerful wizard, and of his mission to face a darkness he himself unleashed. It has a mythic atmosphere and is strong on theme, with the description and dialogue both helping to develop the feeling of following a quest from legend. It has powerful messages about darkness and about personal responsibility.

Wizard of Earthsea

Earthsea is an intriguing setting. A series of island nations whose culture seems rooted in Europe’s dark ages, yet evokes elements of other island cultures. Wizards play a significant role in the world, to the point where the sort of nobility seen in the real world is far less significant.

And all of this is achieved in a relatively brief novel, something that was common in the 1960s when this book came out, but which is a rarity these days.

Not feeling but watching

Despite Le Guin’s undoubted skill in crafting a narrative, I never felt fully drawn in by Ged’s story. Rather than experiencing the adventure with him we watch it as if from one remove. This is fitting with the tone of the book, which seeks to portray the ancient legend of a world, but meant I wasn’t drawn in and didn’t care as much about what happened.

The brevity that kept the book moving also meant a lack of detail, which was a shame in a book with such a rich world to share. I felt like an opportunity was being missed to show this world more, rather than briefly tell us about it.

The huh factor

So while I enjoyed the book I found myself wishing I’d enjoyed it more, and actually disappointed at myself for not getting more out of it. Which makes almost no sense, but there you go. I’d read a classic, it hadn’t shaken my world, and I was somehow blaming myself. What the hell brain?

Of course my brain’s missing the point. Le Guin wrote this book in a very distinctive style, and it’s not going to be for everyone. In addition the world of fantasy literature has moved on in the 45 years since A Wizard of Earthsea was published. Authors have developed new tricks for engaging with readers. The expectations and experiences of readers have changed as a result. I’m not the audience Le Guin was aiming at decades ago, but I still benefit from her impact on the genre.

I suppose it comes down to hating Skaespeare. If you say you hate Shakespeare (I don’t) people might look at you like you’re a philistine. But that’s rubbish. No book will appeal to everyone. No-one will like everything. There’s no sense beating ourselves up for not enjoying the books that we feel we ‘should’ like.

The ripples not the splash

I’m glad I re-read A Wizard of Earthsea. I’m glad that Le Guin wrote it, and I’m extremely appreciative of the positive impact diverse voices like hers have had on the genre. But I won’t be carrying on with the series. There are books out there that will thrill me, that will set my brain on edge and my pulse racing, and this series is not those books, though it helped pave the way. I missed Earthsea’s big splash, so instead I’ll just enjoy the ripples it sent through the pond.

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Comments
  1. Ben Hodgson says:

    As a fan of the series I’m intrigued by your disappointment. These books were an important beginning for me in exploring the subtle magic that permeates reality and fundamental relationships, learning about responsibility, the vicissitudes and perils of power, all within an engaging narrative. I’m happy to discuss this if you like, as I’d be curious to see if I have overestimated the series.

    • glenatron says:

      Something that I think comes through the trilogy is that the books are quite distinctive and each has it’s own voice and sense – Ged is a relatively minor character in the Tombs of Atuan as I recall and although the third novel is closer to the first his role in the world is quite different by then. They are relatively subtle stories, though, not full of fireworks. I think I may have enjoyed them more re-reading as an adult, certainly the later ones. I have never found Le Guin that engaging as a storyteller though, for some reason. She doesn’t hold me as much as other writers do, but some of her books of short stories I read in my mid teens have left an enduring and indelible mark on my idea of what short fiction is capable of.

      In fact thinking about it the only books I read and loved when I was young that I still love equally now are probably the Chronicles Of Prydein. A few books I grew into, many others I grew weaker as I got more of a sense of the world and started asking more difficult questions of them.

      • Glenatron, several times now I’ve had that experience of books not being as good on a return visit. It’s interesting that you found more in the books as an adult, as my experience was the other way around. I wonder if I had more patience for less engaging writing styles in my youth, or was still just in awe to the sense of wonder fantasy brings.

    • I’m always up for discussing this sort of thing.

      I think that those themes were definitely there, and maybe they’re expanded further later in the series. I think what was missing for me was a sense of immediacy, of living inside Ged’s journey and feeling what he feels. It’s a book that leans on telling rather than showing in a way that fits the old storytelling traditions but is uncommon in modern fantasy literature, and that for me created a greater sense of distance from Ged’s struggles. It’s the thing that stopped me engaging as much as I would have liked, despite a plot that really cracked along.

      The relationships between the characters also aren’t very well fleshed out. They have a lot of potential, but it’s mostly hinted at rather than explored.

      What about it did you find so engaging?

      • Ben Hodgson says:

        Ah – I see. I agree with you, and here is the fun part. The narrative opened my eyes to a subtle mode of being in which secret wisdoms are revealed through attunement of the mind – which in turn was exactly the kind of approach required by the story. Yes, it leans on telling rather than showing, and hints aplenty. I guess I found this tantalising rather than discouraging.

        • That’s really interesting. Telling generally gets treated as a less sophisticated and subtle approach than showing, whereas Le Guin was perhaps trying to do something more subtle and evocative here through telling. I can see how that would work in theory, even if it didn’t hit the mark for me.

  2. skudssister says:

    I often feel that there are some books which you need to read at the right age. You say that you are not Le Guin’s target audience, because you were born too late, but it may also apply that you bring too much of an adult view of life to feel the same way about the book as you would as a teenager. We all like to think we have retained our youthful view of life but we do live in adult world (which may also involve dressing up and playing with pretend swords, whatever….) and it is virtually impossible to ignore the knowledge we have accumulated.
    That said this series is still on my personal ‘to read’ list and nothing you have said has put me off!

    • I’m glad I haven’t put you off – it’s worth reading, and the discussions in the reading group have made clear that some people get a heck of a lot out of this book.

      Your point about an adult world view makes sense in theory, but I’m not sure it applies in this case. I’ve read a lot of books for younger audiences that I’ve enjoyed far more – works by Philip Reeve, Philip Pullman and Suzanne Collins among others. Bringing an adult view if anything added richness to those books. And on a less meaty series, I was able to engage my sense of wonder long enough to enjoy all of Rowling’s Harry Potter books (which would have been better with more Neville, in my opinion).

      So I see where you’re coming from, but I’m not quite convinced this time.

  3. Lynda says:

    Funnily enough I was just thinking I ought to give ‘Wizard…’ a second go. I loved ‘The Tombs of Atuan’ and ‘Tehanu’ when I was a teenager but just couldn’t get into the first book and (on the basis of that) never really gave the third book much of a chance. At the time I put it down to me hating books that don’t have female characters in but recently thought that maybe with a bit more maturity I’d like it more. Perhaps not?!

    I’m now going off on a tangent in my head about the fact that although early on I needed Angua to make the ‘Guards’ books interesting, I don’t need that female presence in Pratchett anymore. Nor is Carrot essential either, given how much I enjoyed ‘Snuff’. There’s probably something in there about Pratchett’s increasing skill with characterisation or narrative or something but I’m not sure if it’s related to my Earthsea issues.

    • If you enjoyed other books in the series then I think it’s worth giving it a try. As Glenatron pointed out, it’s not a big commitment in terms of book length, and the story of Ged and his shadow is an interesting one.

      The gender balance of characters in the book did surprise me reading it now, though it was lost on me as a kid. Given some of Le Guin’s other work the female characters are given surprisingly little time or influence in this story. They’re varied, though stuck in quite traditional roles – village witch, younger sister, beautiful princess. I wonder if this was a confidence thing, Le Guin doing what was expected of such a story early on, then trying to balance things out in later books.

  4. What an honest review!
    I read this book for the first time this year and had a very different reaction to the sparse descriptiveness and folk tale-esque storytelling of Le Guin’s language. As the book’s projected audience was children (written before we had a genre “young adult”) I thought she showed a lot of respect for her reader by not being overly descriptive. As a kid I read mostly adult fantasy because the YA books at the time made me feel talked down to, and part of me wishes I had read Earthsea sooner.
    I look forward to reading more of your reviews! Thank you.

    • I think you have highlighted why this worked better for me when I was younger. Then I was happy with sparser prose and didn’t want things that were too drawn out. Now I crave a little more detail.

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