Sunday, August 21, 2016

Fumbling Through Fantasy: A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin (1968)

As a young man, Duney demonstrates remarkable magical abilities in a battle in his village. As a result, Ogion, a wizard, wishes to take the young man on as his apprentice, and he gives him his true name, Ged. After some time with Ogion, Ged becomes frustrated, feeling that he is not learning at a quick enough pace, and he leaves his master to attend wizarding school. While still in school, he foolishly attempts to show off his powers, and conjures a dark shadow, an evil presence that will hound and haunt his steps for many years to follow. Wherever Ged travels, the shadow is not far behind, and until he faces down this darkness, he will never be able to rest.

This beautifully written atmospheric novel is not at all the kind of book I could have been convinced to read as a child, but it is exactly what so many avid fantasy readers are looking for in their reading material, especially if they became fantasy fans by way of Tolkien and Rowling. Ged is in a situation very much like that of Frodo, trying to fight off the evil of the ring long enough to destroy it, or Harry Potter, always looking over his shoulder for Voldemort, knowing he must one day face him in a battle to the death. The world of Earthsea is every bit as well-realized as the Shire, or any of the other lands Frodo must pass through, and Ogion is a less whimsical, more serious version of Dumbledore. Despite the old-fashioned look of many of the editions of this book, modern-day kids are already poised to love it, if someone gives them a recommendation and a memorable booktalk.

I listened to the first half of the book, since we were on a car trip, and though Harlan Ellison's narration isn't the most polished, he has the perfectly boisterous, rough-and-tumble quality in his voice to really conjure up the characters and their world, even if he reads the story, rather than performing it. This audiobook edition was a bit strange, because it begins (and apparently also ends) with Ursula LeGuin narrating, and then it slowly fades into Ellison's voice. LeGuin's voice is very distinctive, which is quite distracting, so I was glad she didn't read the entire book, but the change of narrator is so jarring, I spent quite a while getting used to it. Otherwise, though, listening to the audiobook was a pleasant experience, and it really immersed me in the story so that I was motivated to finish reading the hardcover when we got home.

The lyrical writing in this book is very enjoyable to hear, and to read aloud. It is certainly more sophisticated than Harry Potter, and unlike Harry Potter and other magical school stories, it avoids any discussion of dating, crushes, dances, and other things that could turn off certain readers. The focus is solely on those events that inform Ged's quest, and his fate, and because of that, the story moves along quickly, and there is a real sense of being on an adventure. I will be glad to have my children read this book, and I will plan to read the sequels in the future.

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