I think fantasy novels are pretty epic, don’t you? They can use such a large variety of story archetypes: the quest, overcoming the monster, rebirth, rags-to-riches, tragedy and yet still come out as something completely unique. Sure, a lot of fantasy novels fall short of the “unique zone,” but every once in a while you come across one that goes way beyond unique and somehow lands in the “mind-blowing zone” of fantasy.
The perfect example of this would be A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin, an epic fantasy written in 1968. It has a lot of great stuff going on: wizarding schools, dragons, arrogant-child-to-wise-man character arc, and impressive world building.
But that’s not what makes it so special. This book goes above and beyond the call of fantasy novels by delving into the metaphysical, exploring old cultures to create new ones, and mastering the art of lyrical prose.
Le Guin somehow instilled a fantasy novel with a thoughtfulness and depth that worked to heighten the adventurous storyline rather than bog it down. And, as an active reader and writer of Fantasy, I can’t even begin to tell you what a considerable feat that is. Instead, I’ll start by telling you about the plot:
There was once a wizard of Earthsea: a wise Archmage and powerful dragonlord. Songs have been made of his deeds and stories told of his conquests. But this is no such story. This is a story of the time before he understood the meaning of wisdom or learned how to wield his powers.
A reckless, proud youth, Sparrowhawk is rushed to learn the ways of the wizard. His hunger for knowledge blinds him from recognizing the prudence of caution, leading him to meddle with powers beyond his control. His own pride and brashness causes the release of a terrible shadow, hell-bent on dragging his body and soul into darkness.
This is the story of the makings of a man. The tale of how a foolish boy learned to master the words of power, fell mighty dragons, and face his own follies with courage and strength.
At first glance, A Wizard of Earthsea probably looks like a magician’s origin story. And that’s kind of what it is. Kind of. But not really.
As mention above, this book goes far beyond what most fantasy novels strive for. Le Guin apparently was not satisfied with creating a “coming of age” epic and leaving it at that.
She developed the life-like Earthsea, an archipelago that showed of her love for (and knowledge of) anthropology without being overwhelming.Her narrative style is beautifully poetic, similar to Tolkien’s Silmarillion, but without his tendency to use far more words than entirely necessary.
And, on top of all of that, she somehow wove in a beautiful story of overcoming inner demons and fighting to discover ones true self.
In short, A Wizard of Earthsea is the perfect high fantasy: well developed, thoughtful, thrilling, and completely epic, yet subtle enough to keep one from being overwhelmed by the immense scope of the story.
I’d also like to point out that this novel somehow managed to pull off an “arrogance to wisdom” character arc without making me want to puke. I usually don’t like those kind of storylines, mostly because the main character becomes so arrogant that it’s hard to stomach. While Sparrowhawk’s pride was clearly a flaw in his character, it never made him completely unlikable.
I ended up underlining quite a few passages in this book, mostly because this book contains a lot of profound thoughts, but also because I was so impressed with Le Guin’s tight yet poetic writing style. Here, have a look: Gorgeous, isn’t it? I have a thing for beautiful writing, so you’re going to have to give me a second. Hold on.
Okay. The threat of my going off onto a long fangirl rant about poetic prose has passed. You’re welcome.
I don’t usually do this, but the entire time I was reading this book, I kept thinking about how it could inspire an amazing filmscore.
In fact, if I had to describe this book by picking a song, I’d go with To Glory by Two Steps From Hell. Listen to the song. It will probably make you think of an epic journey, long struggles, strength, and triumph. And that’s almost exactly how the book will make you feel.
If you want to see how high fantasy should be done, then read A Wizard of Earthsea. Not only is it an entertaining story, but it is also contains beautiful thoughts and masterful narration.
Have you ever read anything by Ursula K. Le Guin? Who is your favorite character from her Earthsea Cycle? I have actually never read any of her science fiction and would really like to, so please let me know where you think I should start. I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Hannah Heath – bookworm and author