“The Earthsea books were my absolute favorite as I was growing up.” So said a coworker of approximately the same age as me. I was reading fantasy back then, constantly, just like him. But I never ever heard of Ursula K. Leguin’s Earthsea novels. A Wizard of Earthsea is the first, and I read it last week after our conversation.
At the same time, I had been listening to a lecture from the Modern Scholar series called Rings, Swords, and Monsters: Exploring Fantasy Literature. In these lectures, Professor Michael C. Drout uses Leguin’s series as an example of a fantasy author who managed to do something out of Tolkien’s shadow.
To dumb that down a bit for people like me: she managed to do her own thing.
I’m not entirely sure I agree with that, but let me get into the book review. Whether it’s derivative of Tolkien just isn’t that important to me.
Summary of A Wizard of Earthsea, book on of the Earthsea Cycle
A young man who winds up with the odd name of “Ged” finds himself in a situation like many other young boys in other fantasy books. It is said that he is Destined For Great Things.
Ged lives on an island in the archipelago (a cluster or group is islands, isles, islets, etc). Shortly after the book begins Ged is being whisked away by a bearded mentor and eventually goes to wizard school.
There is very little of the charm or lightheartedness of other fancy magic schools for kids, like Hogwarts, for instance. If Wizard is any indication, Leguin’s series is not going to be very lighthearted.
Through methods I am not going to spoil, Ged brings a “shadow” into the world. The shadow then proceeds to follow him everywhere he goes, seeking to destroy him. He, naturally, spends the rest of the book trying to figure out what to do.
I know that none of that sounds particularly remarkable. But Leguin does some very interesting things here that set Wizard apart from many other fantasy books I’ve read.
Magic and linguistics
Most intriguing to me was that all magic in the land of Earthsea is based in language. There is something called the Old Speech, and if you know the name of something in the Old Speech, you can control that thing and command it.
This reminded me of Patrick Rothfuss’s book The Name of The Wind, in which a great deal of pages are spent with Kvothe trying to figure out how to call the wind again–the answer? By learning its name.
Back to Earthsea. Ged can’t defeat the shadow because he doesn’t know its name. And because of some other stuff I won’t spoil, he doesn’t think he is capable of learning what its name is.
Courtesy of Professor Drout, I’ve had a peek at the following books in the series, and it looks like language becomes every more important. If Freshman lit theory was a while back for you–it certainly was for me–a lot of what Leguin is doing seems based in the Saussure’s ideas about the signifier and the signified.
If knowing something’s name mean that you could command it, what would the implications be if some sort of cosmic balance was upset and the signifiers were no longer attached to the signified? What if everything became totally arbitrary and you could do great damage by getting something’s name wrong?
I know, these are not earth-shattering questions of great import, but I do think they made for a fun, thought provoking story that I breezed through quickly. The book is also beautifully written, with some truly lovely and frightening scenes.
I’ll definitely be reading the others.