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Monday, March 21, 2016

A Wizard of Earthsea

Fantasy, like science fiction, is a genre that I'm attracted to but often lets me down. There is so much of it out there, and the books tend to be long and just part of a series. I didn't care much for the novel A Game of Thrones, and while I admired Tolkien's Ring trilogy, I didn't swoon at it. I read and loved the first three or four Harry Potter books, but didn't see much point in reading the rest when I could just wait for the movies.

One of the pillars of fantasy writing is Ursula K. Le Guin, and I had never read anything by her until I picked up the seminal A Wizard of Earthsea, published in 1968. It, too, is the first of a series, but is also self-contained--there's no cliffhanger and "to be continued." It's also fairly short and compact, and while she creates a fictional world, she doesn't go into so much detail that you need a glossary in the back.

The story is that of Ged, who is from a mountain village, and learns magic from his aunt. This is frowned upon until he saves the village from attack by casting a fog spell. He is recruited by a senior wizard, and then ends up at wizard school (yes, J.K. Rowling owes a bit to this book). Ged is talented but arrogant, and in a rivalry with another wizard he casts a necromancy spell, which unleashes a demon into his world. It attacks and nearly kills him, and then will shadow him wherever he goes. He must track it down and destroy it.

There is a lot of the standard fantasy elements here. There are dragons (though not for long) and scores of proper nouns that read like music: "Vetch, holding the sail-rope, sang softly from the Deed of Enlad, where the mage Morred the White left Havnor in his oarless longship, and coming to the island Solea saw Elfarran in the orchards in the spring." I'm not sure what any of that means, but it sounds nice.

I guess what I'm driving at is that Le Guin writes fantasy that doesn't sound like a parody of itself, as much of the genre does. She does at times come close: "'I am here, I Ged the Sparrowhawk, and I summon my shadow!'" But mostly it's earnest and heartfelt, a tale for young adults perhaps but without condescension.

I find it interesting that Le Guin, in an afterword, sums up the world of fantasy writing: "Fantasy is now a branch of the publishing industry, with many titles, many sequels, great expectations of monster successes and movie tie-ins. In 1967 it was pretty much nowhere. Kid stuff...they mostly lurked in small secondhand bookshops smelling of cats and mildew. I miss those bookshops now, the cats, the mildew, the thrill of discovery. Fantasy as an assembly line commodity leaves me cold."

I agree with all of that, and I miss those bookshops, too. Not the cats, though. I'm allergic.

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