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?