Review of Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea
One of the celebrated classics of the fantasy genre, Ursula Le Guin’s “A Wizard of Earthsea”, is my final choice for inclusion in this “location” focussed series of book reviews. It’s Le Guin’s first novel of the Earthsea series (four books in total) and, I’m sorry to say, a perfect example of how one can have too much of a good thing.
This is a fantasy author who has so fallen in love with the fictional world she has created, she treats us to endless descriptions of island after island that make up Earthsea’s vast archipelago. I had to force myself to read to the end, caring neither about the protagonist Ged’s fate nor that of Earthsea. Clearly, there was only enough plot to fill a short story, not a novel. To disguise this fact, Le Guin enlarged her meagre story with endless descriptions of island locations.
At Sea without a Paddle or a Compass
Plot: Young Ged, a mage with unrivalled powers, makes a terrible mistake as a young boy, summoning a dark and evil shadow from the realm of the dead, which now haunts him and threatens the safety of Earthsea, unless he can find a way to send the thing back to where it came from. To keep him safe and give him a chance to rid himself off this shadow, his mentor sends him to Roke Island and a wizard school, where Ged promptly summons the beasty again, which then mauls him and escapes into the world of the living.
It’s really a modern morality play, with Ged finally discovering his own true self and that too much power invariably corrupts. Puffed up like a giant puffer fish, the story takes us from Ged’s home island of Gont right across to the West Reach and then back again to the East Reach and finally to The Open Sea, as Ged and a variety of handmade little boats flit around the Earthsea world. He meets a few dull characters and an evil sourceress and king, has his pet killed and finally meets up again with an old school chum, Vetch, before confronting the dark thing that haunts him.
As dry as an Icelandic Fish
If this book had been published in the mid-70s and not, as it was, in 1968, I doubt it would ever have become the bestselling fantasy classic that it is today. The only thing, in my opinion, that lifts it out of mediocricy, is that all protagonists are non-white, an utterly new and astonishing concept back in the days when apartheid blighted the planet and race relations in the USA were pretty bad.
Since Ged is not a very likeable hero, it is hard to feel any compassion for him or to identify with this proud, jealous and hot-headed wizard. The reader is forced to constantly leaf back to the map so thoughtfully provided by the publishers, since Ged flits from island to island during his quest and it’s easy to get muddled. All of them are rather boring places, excepting two, where Ged has his greatest adventures. The rest are windswept, barren rocks in the sea or places with a few fields and small towns where nothing ever happens. What was this author thinking???
Almost devoid of dialogue and certainly devoid of all humour, the novel bobs along like Ged’s little boat on the open sea, now and again throwing up an Earthsea legend like a flying fish, before sinking back into paddleboarding pace. Reading this book is like chewing on dried Icelandic cod without the hope of getting one’s hands on a life-saving pint of ale.
Spoilers ruin the briny Broth
Towards the end, when there’s finally a bit of tension and build-up of drama, Le Guin spoils the briny broth she serves up by informing us that Ged’s future holds various famous adventures. Great, he survives and so does Earthsea? Thanks a bunch for this spoiler, Le Guin, I might as well close the book at this point and read something a bit more entertaining now!
As empty as a sucked-out Lobster’s Claw
Fantasy authors are often accused by non-genre writers, who believe they’re far more literary worthies, that they are obsessed with location. While it is true that location plays a far greater role in fantasy novels – the writer has to invent a whole world with its own rules, political and religious environment, animals, plant life etc – endless descriptions of locations will not please readers and certainly shouldn’t be used to substitute plot.
Le Guin’s story lacks content, it is as devoid of substance as a seagull-mugged oyster. And I fear, Le Guin falls squarely into the quarter of accused fantasy writers who have chosen fluff over meaty content. Every time when she should be moving her plot foward, she meanders off into Earthsea legends or songs or yet more descriptions of rocks in the sea.
It is the protagonists that readers engage with, the action and drama between them that make readers turn the page. No matter how lyrical a writer thinks their prose it, the reader will always choose action over location descriptions. In fact, I remember passing over the lengthier descriptions in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Philip Pullman’s books, leaving such trivial matters for a second reading.
Location should always serve to enhance the reader experience and catapult the plot forward, not stand in for the plot or help the author to puff up a short story into a full length novel. For that reason, I won’t bother reading Le Guin’s remaining Earthsea stories. Having experienced about 60 locations of the island’s archipelago during the course of the first novel, I prefer to read something a bit more earthy.
While I apreciate that this first volume was supposed to introduce the reader to the Earthsea legends and magical archipelago, endless flitting about from island to island without any kind of action happening, once Ged gets there, is really not my idea of a ripping good yarn. Location, location, location, in this instance, is just a step (sea mile) too far.