A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin
I was excited to read this book because I really liked The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin’s gender-bending adult sci-fi novel. This is one of those children’s books that I’m not sure how I missed reading as a child, since I was totally into the genre and it was definitely published long enough ago (too long to be on my radar?). The really sad thing is, I probably would have liked it more as a kid.
The most striking characteristic of this book for me was its language. It uses a high fantasy/fairy tale style that is very, very distinctive. There are words and syntax that you can only find in this kind of setting, dealing with this subject matter. It’s a style I like and can appreciate for its poetry, even if it doesn’t say or mean much. It’s kind of over-the-top dramatic and very easy to mock, but there is pleasure in it if you allow yourself to take it seriously for a minute. Here’s one of my favorite examples of the style:
All power is one in source and end, I think. Years, and distances, stars and candles, water and wind and wizardry, the craft in a man’s hand and the wisdom in a tree’s root: they all arise together. My name, and yours, and the true name of the sun, or a spring of water, or an unborn child, all are syllables of the great word that is very slowly being spoken by the shining of the stars.
Pure poetry, right? As much as I liked the style, I somehow felt that the book didn’t have much of that elusive quality critics call heart. I didn’t feel much of a connection to Ged or the other characters, or urgency about his quest, or sympathy with his struggle or his relationships with others. Maybe Ged’s quest was too abstract and solitary for my taste, his enemy too vague and shadowy. Maybe he was too caught up in problems of sorcery and self-recrimination to have relationships and interactions with other characters that were engaging enough to me.
I listened to this novel on audiobook in the car, so it’s totally possible that this method of delivery made it harder for me to follow certain plot elements, drawing my attention instead to language, and ultimately biasing me against the book. While listening to the book, I found myself sometimes simply letting the words wash over me without attending very closely to meaning, reading in much the same way that I read Virginia Woolf. It’s entirely possible that my reading this way was lazy and I didn’t give the book enough of a chance. It would make me sad if it were only my poor reading that made me have this reaction, because I do like this style, and would have liked to read the whole series.