There comes a time when I decide that my fantasy-writer credentials are in danger of being revoked, for having lived so long without having read such and such a book. So with Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea novels.
“It’s about time!” you might be thinking. A Wizard of Earthsea was indeed written initially for children, and I’m sure we had a copy somewhere in the house growing up. But part of me wonders, if I had read Earthsea as a child, would I have been so inclined to read it again - and understand it in all its subtlety and political engagement - as an adult? Would I have felt that urgency that led me to these novels at such a fortuitous time in my own development as both a writer and a politically-engaged human being?
There is a lot going on beneath the surface of the Earthsea novels, and 90% of it no doubt would have been lost on me had I read these as a child. For one thing, the scale of the storytelling is different from what we have today, in a way that I only notice because I read so much other fantasy first. This quality is one of my favourite things about the books, too. The pacing is of a kind that I don’t encounter much in contemporary fantasy novels: the conflicts in these books are nuanced, subtle, sometimes world-ending but often hingeing on the disruption of a single character’s world-view or way of life.
And even these miniature, personal cataclysms are given as much attention and rendered in as much care as the bigger, world-scale conflicts, as if to say, the world is made up of individuals and their stories. Far less attention then, proportionally, is given to the (in Le Guin’s words) “white man conquers the universe” mainstays of War and Glory and the Heat of Battle. In fact, though there are small skirmishes throughout which propel the plot along, I can’t think of a single “battle” with more than a few people - bar one at the very beginning, that sets the main character on his trajectory for the entire first book.
The Earthsea books are contemplative, beautifully written, challenging but ultimately kind, lacking the kind of gritty meanness which characterises so many of today’s works of high fantasy. Fundamentally, it is a restful, wholesome series that I found restorative to read. Nature is given pre-eminence, and quotidian details, of carding wool, planting and weeding, the methodical workings of sailing a boat, are given as much attention (if not more) as casting spells. All things in moderation seems to be the lesson.
It’s not all unicorns and rainbows, though: characters have to contend with bereavement, poverty, rape, isolation, impostor syndrome, jealousy, hubris, physical violence and having to kill in a world where murder is not done lightly. The quotidian can be unpleasant as well: characters
can be smelly or unattractive, too, but there is no moral judgment attached to these qualities. The books avoid falling into the trap that I see so many works of high fantasy fall into, in which one thing is assumed to signify another, based on a kind of underlying morality that makes value judgments on the characters and, seemingly, the reader: to be old is to be weak. To be a woman is to be weak. Ugliness or disfigurement is an outward manifestation of inward qualities. The people in power are deserving of their power. You are what happens to you. The fourth book, Tehanu (my favourite of the four), which centres around the relationship between two female characters, one of whom was raped and disfigured at a young age, wrestles mightily with this last statement. Ultimately, as you know she must, Le Guin decides the statement is false, though it might have been easier to accept it.
All of these claims or judgments, which have been used for all time as an excuse to maintain the status quo (and have been unconsciously reproduced in untold legions of high fantasy classics), are overtly challenged in one way or another throughout Earthsea, deftly and without jarring the reader from the narrative. The smelly, unattractive characters can still be demonstrably good and noble, and are always complex - no one is wholly good or bad. An old woman can be the hero of her own story. An old mage’s story is still worth telling after he’s lost his power.
It’s difficult to say why an author’s works are the way they are: Le Guin wrote them that way, of course. But it’s a testament to Le Guin’s skill as a writer and thinker that she could write them, when so many of the influences she must have been drawing from would have had this inherently individualistic, hierarchical quality. But of course, not all of them did: Le Guin drew heavily not from medieval Europe or western mythology as so many of her contemporaries did and so many anglophone fantasy writers still do - or rather not solely from these influences - but also from Taoism, indigenous North American culture and myth, and a general interest in cultural anthropology. She was also a woman, and had an interest in feminism, as well as adjacent fields like environmentalism and political justice.
So while the Earthsea books aren’t perfect, and are in many ways still a product of their time, we can learn a lot from them by studying what they say about the themes they engage with, and by the person of Le Guin herself. Le Guin never compromised on her beliefs, going as far as turning down accolades or resigning from prestigious positions when she felt accepting or remaining was in conflict with her own moral code. And if she was privileged in her ability to do this when financial considerations might have prohibited someone in a similar position from doing so, she used her position to its full potential. Everything she wrote or did was engaged with the higher ethical questions she was interested in, and she never took the easy road.