A Wizard of Earthsea
X Libris: what we make of the books that made us
We were raised by Puffins. With three TV channels and no internet, for long stretches of our lives reading was the best (and sometimes, the only) way to pass the time. In X Libris we return to the books that made us and analyse what makes them great.
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin (Parnassus, 1968)
A 1968 fantasy book telling the story of Ged, a goatherd who turns out to be an exceptionally gifted wizard. During his training, however, his pride and ambition get the better of him and he summons a dark shadow which dogs his footsteps until he can find a way to (literally) face his demons.
A Wizard of Earthsea was Le Guin’s first children’s book. She was already known for her science fiction for adults but it was A Wizard of Earthsea that made her famous. This is because it's tremendous: thrilling, thoughtful and beautifully crafted.
A Wizard of Earthsea introduces us to Sparrowhawk (or Duny, to give him his birth name, or Ged, his true name - names are important in Le Guin’s Earthsea), a small boy who has a natural talent for working spells. He is discovered by a local mage and sent to wizard school1 on the island of Roke, from whence he sails out in his enchanted boat Lookfar to bargain with dragons and battle with shadows.
I was, when I first read it, already a child disposed towards wizards and dragons and books with maps in the front: maps of places that did not exist.2 Gloriously, Earthsea has a map but does not visit all of it; islands and towns are named but remain unvisited. The map is an enticement to the reader to explore on their own, to imagine. Le Guin was the child of two famous anthropologists and she imbues her fictional world with such a deep sense of culture and place that you want to know more, and fully believe that there is more to know.
The illustrations by Ruth Robbins in that edition are done in the style of thick-lined woodprints - precisely the sort of decoration that might come from the pre-industrial society of the book. Part of the charm of a map in a work of fiction is that its prosaic nature bolsters the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief. If you can plot a route from The Shire to the Lonely Mountain just as you might plan a trip to the garden centre, you can come deliciously close to believing that these worlds might actually exist. Both the maps and the illustrations serve as real evidence of the fictional world, as if the author had been there3 and managed to bring back these scraps for us. They reassure the reader that this new world is complete and explorable. They are an invitation, as well as a guide.
In the 70s our local library in South Ascot was in a Portakabin; a shaky little shed that creaked and complained as you moved between shelves. It was there that I found a copy of Le Guin’s The Tombs of Atuan, the sequel to A Wizard of Earthsea, which I had utterly adored. I remember picking it out of the shelves and turning it over in my hands, amazed at its existence. I started to read as I stood there, oblivious to the rest of the library, desperate to enter Earthsea again.
Like Earthsea, libraries present you with a map at the start, showing strange inviting lands like History or Biography, full of mysterious customs and new people. And, as with Earthsea’s maps, the fiddly bureaucracy of the library juxtaposes the extraordinary and the mundane, as transporting stories collide with library cards and book insets and wheeled date stamps; all the dedicated forms and equipment, the power they suggest over the worlds they control, the entrancing ritual and busyness of it all.
What a blessed generation we were. It was recommended in the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act4 that no one should live more than one mile from library services.5 No more than a mile away from books; no map needed. For Generation X children, a trip to the library was as much a part of day-to-day life for the middle-class child as going to the butchers with mummy or trapping your fingers on the swings.
The library itself was, for me, a quiet assurance that the imagination is an intrinsic part of human life; it is so useful and necessary that we created whole public amenities to distribute it. And that somewhere else in the world there were people who wrote words, drew maps, created worlds, did magic.
One of the first spells that the hero Sparrowhawk performs results from him rooting through books above his reading age and not fully understanding what he is at. Later, Sparrowhawk shows off to another student, raising a shadow that then dogs him through his life, following and threatening him wherever he goes. (In my 20s, going off-piste in my university’s library, I discovered a book of coptic Egyptian spells and cast one on someone with whom I was temporarily miffed, cursing his belly to be filled with devils. He immediately went down with a bad bout of food poisoning and I never did magic again.)
Eventually Sparrowhawk finds the courage to face the shadow and pursue it to the far ends of the world, where he discovers its true name: his own, Ged. I was around seven when I first read A Wizard of Earthsea. I’m pretty sure that at the time I did not consciously understand these deep themes of maturity, and how we must face our mistakes and own them as part of us, but it is perhaps the marker of a great children’s book that it quietly teaches us such wisdom while it sings aloud of adventure, and speaks to the adult as much as the child.
There is a deep magic in libraries, real and fictional; unlike bookshops, with their bias towards the commercial and the novel, there’s a serendipity, a randomness, the possibility of finding something dusty and unloved that changes your perspective forever. The magic in the world of Earthsea is based entirely on language, reading and research; on libraries, in other words. Magical power lies in discovering the true names of things, and discovering those names requires reading.
Oh, you can bet Rowling read Le Guin - although Roke is a very different place to Hogwarts.
From the Hundred Acre Wood to Treasure Island to Middle Earth, children’s books are full of maps, after all
Which they have, in a manner of speaking
Always a Labour government, isn’t it? Building things to bolster and foster. What a strange coincidence. It's almost as if there's a link between Conservatives and the wholesale destruction and debasement of the national culture and future.
Unless you lived in the country, but then, when staying with my grandmother, I got to take books out of the library van that visited the village regularly, which was even more exciting than a Portakabin.