J.G. Keely's Reviews > A Wizard of Earthsea

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin
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Dec 15, 2007

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bookshelves: fantasy, novel, reviewed
Read from June 16 to 22, 2012

As a reader of Fantasy, this book felt like a return home, even though I had never read it before. The tale of this young wizard and his hardships and coming to terms with his own darkness is one that has been redone again and again, from Rowling to Jordan to Goodkind, and so far, despite adding gobs of length and endless details, no one has managed to improve upon it.

Though she isn't the first to explore the Bildungsroman-as-Fantasy (Mervyn Peake precedes her), he was an author who eschewed symbolic magic, and so has been duly ignored by most authors and readers in the genre. Le Guin's approach is much more familiar, able comfortably to abide alongside Moorcock, Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis.

Yet her work has none of the condescension or moralizing that mark the last two, nor the wild pulp sentiment of the first. Her world unfolds before us, calmly and confidently, as we might expect from the daughter of noted anthropologists.

As is often the case in her work, we get poignant asides on human nature, but overall, her depiction here is less novel than in, for example, the Hainish cycle. There is something flat in the plot progression, and as has been the case with every Le Guin book I have read, I found myself longing for her to take things a little further, to expand and do something risky. Often she seems just on the cusp, but rarely takes the step.

Part of the flatness is the depiction of the characters, who fall victim to the 'show, don't tell' problem. Again and again, we are told of conversations characters had, of how they reacted, of whether they were clever or unsettling, but we never actually see these conversations take place. Many times, the conversations would not have taken any longer to read than the descriptions of them, so why Le Guin chose to leave so much of her story as an outline of action is puzzling and disappointing.

Fundamentally, what characters do is not interesting. What they do does not differentiate them. What is most important is how they do it--their emotional response, their choice of words, the little pauses and moments of doubt. At the end of the day, the four musketeers are all men in the same uniform, with mustaches, dueling and warring and seducing women, but they each go about these things in such distinct ways that we could never mistake one for the other.

The import of personality is also shown in Greek tragedy, where we know what is going to befall the character (the plot), but we have no idea how they will react when it happens. All the tension lies within the character's response, not with the various external events that inspire it.

So I found it very frustrating that, again and again, Le Guin didn't let the characters do their own talking, and so I often felt estranged from them, that I didn't know them or understand their motivations or interrelationships because the fundamental signs were missing. As we near the end of the story, more and more is revealed in conversation and interaction, but that's the reverse of the ideal: once you have established a character, we can take some of their actions for granted, but it's important in the beginning to let their idiosyncrasies reveal them.

As others have pointed out, Le Guin covers a lot of ground in a short span, and perhaps it was a desire to make things brief and straightforward that caused her to take the words from her characters' mouths, but again, it seems backwards to me. I would rather see a story shortened by taking out specifics and leaving promising implications instead of the other way around. A single, well-written action or turn of phrase can reveal more about a character than paragraphs of narration.

In her influential essay on fantasy From Elfland to Poughkeepsie, she talks about how Dunsany does not really use dialogue the way other authors do--that indeed, she finds it difficult to locate any sustained conversations in The King of Elfland's Daughter . Perhaps on some level, she was trying to imitate his style. But, while it works brilliantly for him, it does not serve her as well.

The main reason for this is that Le Guin is much more a modern, psychological, realist author than Dunsany. Her fantasy setting is sensible, physical--it feels like a different place, a world like our world. Her characters are inhabitants of that world, the product of its cultures and history. So, when she removes their discourse and means of expression, she closes the reader's window onto the character's inner life.

Dunsany, on the author hand, takes a different approach: his worlds are dreamlike, the worlds of fairy tale. His story takes place in the clash between the possible and the impossible, the real and the dream. His characters are not self-contained psychological portraits of individuals, but symbols, appendages of the dreamland he weaves. So it makes sense that they do not express themselves through the dialogue of psychoanalysis, but through the instinctual pre-knowledge of the dreamer.

Indeed, Le Guin herself (in that same essay) talks about the danger of imitating Dunsany's style, that it is so unique, and his pen a master's, so that any attempt to recreate what we has done is bound to end in embarrassing failure. Yet, she also remarks, it's a stage most fantasists seem to go through: attempting to produce that sort of natural, lovely false-archaism. She managed to leave that behind, but now I wonder whether she didn't simply end up imitating another of Dunsany's stylistic modes without realizing it--one just as problematic to a thoroughly modern, anthropological writer.

What is most interesting about her story is how small and personal the central conflict is. Many authors in fantasy have tried to tackle the conflict of the 'Shadow Self', from Tolkien's Gollum to the twin alter-egos of Anderson's The Broken Sword , but none have used it as a representation of the internal conflict of the adolescent which must be overcome in order to transition to adulthood.

By so perfectly aligning the symbolic magical conflict in her story with the central theme, Le Guin creates a rare example of narrative unity in fantasy. Most authors would have made it a subplot of the grand, overblown good vs. evil story, and thus buried its importance beneath a massive conflict that is symbolic only of the fact that books have climaxes. Once again I am struck with the notion that modern authors of fantasy epics have added nothing to the genre but details and length.

If only Le Guin had given her lovely little story the strong characters and interrelationships it deserved, it would have been truly transformative. As it is, it is sweet, and thoughtful, and sometimes haunting--the scenes of stranding on the little island had a particularly unearthly tone--and it lays out an intriguing picture of a young Merlin, but in the end, it felt like an incomplete vision.

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Comments (showing 1-26 of 26) (26 new)

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Matt Interested to see your take on this one :-)

J.G. Keely Yeah, another fantasy classic I missed in my childhood. I always get a little excited and hopeful about tackling influential books, even if most of them turn out to be bland and disappointing. What do you think, does this one match the hype?

Matt I definitely think it does. For such a short book it has what I feel is an amazingly well fleshed-out protagonist.

J.G. Keely Cool, I look forward to it.

message 5: by A (new)

A I read that last year and thought it was pretty solid. Judging from your reviews, I think you'll like it.

J.G. Keely So far it's not up to the level of writing in her Hainish novels, which came out at the same time. It's not bad, but it isn't standing out like some of her other work.

message 7: by A (last edited Jun 20, 2012 01:36PM) (new)

A I've only read a couple of the Hainish novels, but yeah, I like them more too.

message 8: by MrsJoseph (new)

MrsJoseph Have you tackled the Fabulous Riverboat series yet?

message 9: by MrsJoseph (new)

MrsJoseph Nevermind, yes you have.

J.G. Keely By Farmer? Yes, I read the first few. Overall, I felt he had bitten off more than he could chew. The characters he chose to depict were such grand, vivid people that it would take a master author to do them justice. Farmer's versions seemed to be rather generic versions. I feel he might have done better to choose less notable personalities, at least for his central characters.

message 11: by A (new)

A Good review. I think you hit on what works about the book overall, which is that she connects the over-arching external conflict to the internal growth of the character. You definitely have a point with your criticisms, which makes me wonder if I glossed them over somewhat in my own reading. Then again, I'm always a little torn with La Guin and never quite sure how to rate her books.

J.G. Keely Yeah, she's an interesting writer, she definitely has some complexity, but I often find there are aspects of her writing which fall short. Thanks for the comment.

message 13: by Ramsay (new)

Ramsay Clarke You're precisely right in this review. Though, I'm shocked you gave it a 3 star rating considering the major complaints you had with this book. But I do understand it had a great concept and a intriguing story, even though Guin's writing style was underwhelming.

J.G. Keely Yeah, and the fact that the story was focused and well-structured, very uncommon traits in fantasy.

message 15: by Dr M (new) - rated it 5 stars

Dr M A says: I think you hit on what works about the book overall, which is that she connects the over-arching external conflict to the internal growth of the character.

This, to my mind, is the hallmark of Le Guin's early works, and what makes her a great author to me. She is, primarily, a moral writer, interested in how people are transformed by thoughts and events, and in what motivates them. This perhaps most evident in The Lathe of Heaven, which I might consider Le Guin's greatest work of those I have read (which is far from her entire production), but you also see it in the early Hain books and in several of her short stories.

And I have to slightly disagree with Keely, even though I see his point: I think that one of the things Le Guin does well is to sketch characters. She is able to capture their essence with a few pen lines, rather than by meticulously detailed portrait. While the Earthsea books are generally sparse in dialogue -- maybe especially A Wizard of Earthsea, which deals so much with Ged's internal struggles -- we do get to see Ged's mind at work, and we can learn his motivations through his decisions.

J.G. Keely I agree that she creates characters well, I just found her exposition-heavy method in this book to be unsubtle and tedious, especially compared to her better works.

message 17: by Dr M (new) - rated it 5 stars

Dr M Yes, as I said, I see your point. The style just didn't bother me here*, because I thought her way of telling the story and portraying the characters fitted with the general mood she was setting. I guess I'm trying to figure out what separates your perception from mine, when I am willing to go along with almost everything in your review.

*It does bother me with some other authors, such as Lovecraft whose characters largely fail to generate any interest at all.

J.G. Keely Hmm, well, I guess I almost always find narrative exposition to be artificial, and to take me out of the story, so I would tend to critique it rather harshly, as a style. The only occasion where I will excuse it is when it is necessary for the author to describe something that would be extremely complex and difficult to depict through scene and action, but which detail is necessary for the progression of the story.

In this instance, since I don't feel that the things the author was trying to express would be any more difficult or time-consuming to present as scenes, it felt especially obtrusive and disappointing. I guess, for me as a reader, I never want to be told how to react, I want to be shown things and given space to react naturally to what's being presented.

message 19: by Dr M (new) - rated it 5 stars

Dr M Fair enough. As a general rule, I tend to agree with you, but there are exceptions -- such as this one, obviously. Interestingly I do think that "telling the reader how to react" _is_ a problem in some of Le Guin's later books.

I wonder though, do you feel the same way about short stories? I'm thinking in particular about Le Guin's "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas", but there are many more. These stories are nearly only exposition, yet in some of them I find that it works precisely because of the short format, in others I keep waiting for the story to begin.

J.G. Keely Yeah, there are a few styles where exposition works--usually where the author is cultivating a deliberate narrative voice, that the reason we're getting exposition is because there is a figure, a voice actually telling this story to us. It can also feel like the natural form when dealing with a philosophical text, the sort of story that we might get from the midst of a Socratic dialogue, which is meant to be didactic and representative, more about ideas than characters.

Olivia Jackson After reading the book I was sitting down to work on my own novel, and the way in which she addressed her characters and dialog ran through my mind. And I couldn't help thinking pretty much everything you just said. I wanted to hear their words.

David Sarkies Once again Keely, you have opened up a fantasy novel in a way that others do not seem to be able to do. Personally I didn't like it, but maybe I should give it another go sometime in the future (if I end up having time that is).

message 23: by Tina (new) - rated it 4 stars

Tina "The tale of this young wizard and his hardships and coming to terms with his own darkness is one that has been redone again and again, from Rowling to Jordan to Goodkind, and so far, despite adding gobs of length and endless details, no one has managed to improve upon it."

Except LeGuin published her novel in 1968 so all those authors postdate her, so they're actually the ones following her ;)

message 24: by Dr M (new) - rated it 5 stars

Dr M Except LeGuin published her novel in 1968 so all those authors postdate her, so they're actually the ones following her ;)

That would seem to be the point, yes. :)

message 25: by Jamie (new) - added it

Jamie Flower "But I was left with a sense of being unsatisfied"

I think I know what you mean. I have rated a few of Le Guin's books four stars, but their something about even her best books that fall short a full five stars.

LobsterQuadrille I totally agree with this review! I wanted to like this book, but the characters and storyline so often felt flat to me. :(

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