A Wizard of Earthsea. Earthsea Book 1. by Ursula K. Le Guin. Narrated by Rob Inglis.
My parents were big Le Guin fans, so I’d read this book and many others by her as a child, though I confess I never loved her as much as my father especially did. I was recently in need of a digital audiobook to listen to while washing dishes, and found that my love had bought it for our son. It is a classic, first published in 1968. It is the story of a poor boy, Ged, who finds out that he is a wizard. Given a choice between a slow apprenticeship to a great wizard and a faster tutelage at the school for wizards on a small island, he ends up choosing the school for wizards. But at one point, goaded by pride and the need to show himself as better than the rich apprentice wizards, he accidentally allows an evil passage into the world. The rest of the book narrates his journey towards maturity and his struggle to defeat the darkness before it uses him as a stepping stone to take over the world.
I remembered some of the central scenes of the book, but I know that this wasn’t a favorite, regularly reread series. I had issues with the book at the time. And wow, rereading, I have different issues. As a child, I was a very conservative Christian. I believed in the victory of light over dark and found Le Guin’s central, explicit message of the need for balance between light and dark uncomfortable. Now I find myself much more sympathetic to her ideas on balance. But the sexism – boy howdy! Not only are all the wizards male, all the people of power male, but there is only one sympathetic female character in the book, a naïve younger sister. There are, however, two or three witches, all unfavorably depicted. It’s explicit that women aren’t as powerful as men, that their magic is crafty and manipulative in a dishonorable kind of way – they’re just messing around with forces that they know they ought to be leaving alone. And Ged starts off an extremely arrogant young man, and I find I have very little patience for that.
And yet – Amy over at Rockin’ Librarian was asking me if I thought she shouldn’t read it based on the sexism. I can’t really say that. The language and the world-building are fantastic, all told in a rich, formal style that I think is very difficult to pull off successfully. Rob Inglis, narrating with a rich, older-sounding voice, read the story beautifully to capture this aspect of it. This is also one of the earliest, revolutionary examples of multicultural fantasy that I know of: there are only a few light-skinned people, all considered suspicious. Most of the people range from medium to dark brown, Ged and his best friend included. His best friend, a wise and caring soul, was my favorite character in the book. Also, I only read the original trilogy, not the books that were published in 1990 and 2001, and I know that Le Guin revisited the topic of sexism both in Tehanu (1990) and in published lectures on the topic. I still find books with troubling lack of agency in the female characters, but reading this just brings home to me how very far we’ve come since 1968. Did Le Guin herself really have such a poor opinion of women, or was she fitting in where she felt she needed to in order to sell her also-strange ideas on race and good vs. evil? I guess I could read the other books to find out. But what do you all think of Earthsea? Do you read it? Do you love it, hate it, or, like me, feel torn between the two?
I have read the Earthsea trilogy multiple times, only as an adult, and it always fascinates me for its uniqueness. It is a flawed world with a flawed hero, and the magic itself is no cure-all. After so many “happily ever after” stories involving magic, it’s good to see that sometimes you need to keep working at things, even after great accomplishment. I remember recurring struggle without an overly dramatic showdown at high noon with the obvious enemy. I haven’t read them in awhile, though, so evaluate my recollections generously.
As a male reader, I was aware of the sexism, and uncomfortable with it, but the story is rich enough for me to want to look past it and continue. I believe the second book in the series was less sexist, with a stronger female character taking the primary role and narrative point of view.
It is not a series I seek out to read, but when I open the cover for no particular reason, I almost always end up rereading it. I don’t feel artificially happy at the end of the stories, but mostly thoughtful. I recommend reading all three books of the original trilogy. They don’t lead to one another, but merely build upon each other.
Thanks for sharing, Gregg! I did feel like there was a lot of depth to this book… and I’m sure Le Guin can’t actually be that sexist, so I’ll try continuing with the series.
You know, I honestly didn’t notice the sexism when I read the series as a kid! Which surprises me, because even back then I was pretty sensitive to it. That being said, I imagine it was in part because I read the whole series in one go, so I got the later books in the mix too. In fact I didn’t know it was originally only a trilogy until just now! And I have to say the world building and really just the series in general makes it worth overlooking (as much as it makes me cringe to say you should ever overlook sexism haha).
I will say that I think it is in part a genre thing. It is rare to find female characters at all in fantasy, particularly high fantasy. I’d say that leading ladies in fantasy is a relatively new trend in comparison to the genre as a whole, with authors like Tamora Pierce and Robin McKinley being big game changers in how women are featured in fantasy novels. (I’m sure there are earlier examples as that only really goes back to the 80s, but I don’t know of any others…if you do please recommend them to me!). Interestingly enough it occurs to me that all the examples I can think of are YA novels – partially because that’s predominantly what I read, but I honestly can’t think of high fantasy novels for adults that feature awesome female leads (or even just really great women, not necessarily a lead.)
I’m glad you enjoyed the series a lot more this time through! I’ve tried some of Le Guin’s short stories, but I didn’t like them nearly as much (probably because I prefer novels and YA novels at that haha)
Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts! I’m so much more versed in YA and youth fantasy than adult! I wonder, too, why I wasn’t bothered by the sexism as a child, as I spent all my time lawn-mowing thinking up fairy tales with Strong Female Leads. Now I am pondering high fantasy with strong women and wondering if there was any earlier than the 1980s. Lessa of Pern, for example, is earlier – she’s strong, though the world is sexist, and it’s meant to be sci-fi rather than fantasy. L’Engle didn’t write high fantasy, and The Ordinary Princess is neither high nor before the 80s. Dealing with Dragons wasn’t published until 1990. It feels like somebody must have been writing those strong female characters in fantasy earlier – but I can’t think of who. I shall have to ponder more.
Hi! You see I’m a bit behind on the blog-reading.
I do remember being bothered by the balance of light and dark issue as a child, too! And I didn’t particularly pick up on the sexism– maybe because it was so pervasive, I was just used to it. But whatever issues the book had, it didn’t stick with me (issues or plot or characters or anything).
Also I wouldn’t say I wondered if it wasn’t worth READING as much as it wasn’t worth REVISITING. I’d probably still feel compelled to try it if I’d never read it before, but I don’t need to go BACK, apparently.
I am perpetually behind on blog reading, so no worries. It sounds like we had very similar experiences reading this as children! Certainly there’s no need to feel pressure to go back – I don’t know that I would have if it hadn’t been on my iPod (without my putting it there) when I needed a book to listen to.