At the time of its publication in 1967, A Wizard of Earthsea entered a field of fantasy literature where stories were either relegated to being non-consequential fodder for children, or adult stories dominated by the Arthurian-influenced, western European tradition that informs classics like The Lord of the Rings and its modern derivatives (this includes all storytelling media, games included) including Blizzard’s World of Warcraft, Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls, DnD’s Forgotten Realms, and Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, among many others.
Tolkein is always considered the father of modern fantasy, but to argue he was he most consequential influence on that genre may the subject of academic and casual debate the world over.
Ursula K Le Guin, across an immense body of poetry, stories, novels and essays, showcased a confident perspective that plays to an unquestionable delightful feature of speculative fiction as a whole: that it can be used to challenge our own modern cultural conventions. That it can bring us to reflect on how societies conduct themselves, often through the frame of individual characters with conflicting power and philosophy. Characters that are unrestricted by the conventions and institutions of our real world.
Earthsea was, and remains, for some reason often quietly, groundbreaking in this way. It was one of the first reasonably successful fantasy books to feature a non-white protagonist, and for that matter, a world with a majority population of people of color. The plot focuses around a wayward wizard trying to come to peace with a physical manifestation of his own hubris and internal darkness. There are no great wars; military powers do not populate the scattered setting of Earthsea’s island dotted Archipelago. The light skinned folk in the novel are mostly portrayed as simple and violent. Humility, friendship, perseverance, and self-reflection are, at the end of the novel, what win the day against a great evil that is inextricably linked to our protagonist and virtually no one else.
Le Guin’s omniscient style creates a hypnotizing and meditative narrative frame, evocative of a storyteller reflecting upon a folk-legend that has spawned many different versions across the landscape, but the truth of which is unchanged no matter how it’s told. Ged’s folly and arrogance as a child is one we often come across in ourselves as youth, and continue to see as new generations grow and stumble through their own development. His forced sobriety and repentance for his mistakes after realizing he is not, in fact, invincible and, worse, capable of truly damaging himself and those around him, is something any adult can likely find resonant with events of their own life. This sense of universality and common humanity is one often toted in Le Guin’s other work, and a substantial part of what I’ve appreciated in the likes of The Left Hand of Darkness and The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.
A Wizard of Earthsea is one of the first books my father read to me as a child, and upon my revisiting, I have found it as engrossing and beautiful now as I did then. Any fan of fantasy who is not familiar with this series or Le Guin’s general bibliography, is depriving themselves of some of the best the genre has to offer. She remains among my favorite authors, and I am happy she has left us a long catalog from which we might continue to learn and be inspired from.
5/5 “I had forgotten how much light there is in the world, till you gave it back to me.”