A short week this week and a short post; not because Ursula Le Guin has written much less than Diana Wynne Jones – near contemporaries, they each have at least forty books, essays and story collections to their name – but because most of Le Guin’s books are not by nature children’s books. Thoughtful, serious, fascinating books, yes, but dealing in demanding ways with adult notions of duty and responsibility and roles and actions and their consequences. Even the beguiling Catwings series for younger readers (who could resist the idea of a family of flying cats?), published and more readily available in the US, has a grave shadowy grown-upness to it, for all the stories are short and the sentences simple and the illustrations frequent and charming.
It’s as invidious to compare Wynne Jones and Le Guin as to compare painting and sculpture: both are now recognised as pillars and pioneers and true craftsmen of fantasy writing for children (though knowing Le Guin, I use that “men” uncomfortably, and only because nothing will do better) as for adults. Both write with a beautiful, believable fluency that belies all the intellectual rigour it takes to make a workable fantasy world – one where magic is organic and unpredictable, with its own rules and rhythms and repercussions, and not just a means of getting things done conveniently with the minimum of physical effort.
So it is with Le Guin’s most famous book and series, A Wizard of Earthsea. At glance, this might seem to be Tolkien territory: there’s even an introductory map full of flinty, rough-hewn placenames like Paln, Havnor and Gont. True, there are no hobbits, dwarves nor elves, but wizards are present from the first sentence and they turn out to be very much the cloak-wearing, staff-bearing, invoking sort. What interests Le Guin, though, is their making and training, the discipline of learning to use unnatural and disruptive power, and she starts not with a seasoned staff-bearer but with a wild country boy, gifted and awkward and quick to take offence. When Ged is admitted to the great wizard’s school on the isle of Roke, his first guide is Jasper, the older boy who’s also a nobleman’s son, and whose urbane manners and magical prowess shame and goad Ged into a terrible act: the release of a Shadow that threatens the land just as it constrains and undermines Ged, until a final confrontation becomes inevitable.
The Tombs of Atuan is an unexpected sequel, leaving the quests and high deeds of Ged for the stifling protocols of a remote temple cult, and the little girl Tenar who is initiated as hereditary high priestess Arha, “Eaten one”, her human life consumed by the rituals she must learn for the unforgiving Nameless Ones in their underground tombs. Lonely and frightened, Tenar is both in thrall to her cruel cult and ready to question and resent it; when she finds a man, a wizard, trespassing in the Nameless Ones’ labyrinth, she is intrigued enough not to give him away and effect his death straight away, and to begin to understand the possibility of her own escape. A powerful, atmospheric tale with an affecting, brave and conflicted heroine in Tenar.
The Farthest Shore was initially intended to end a trilogy, and while it makes a deeply satisfactory conclusion, it’s less tidy and more challenging than one might expect of such; many readers come to appreciate it the most of the Earthsea books, but not right away. It finds Ged in full middle age, installed as Archmage and greatest wizard of Earthsea – from the realms of which come frightening reports of magic failing and witches and wizards forgetting their spells. Arren, prince of Enlad, brings the news to the wizards’ island of Roke, and Ged undertakes to discover the cause of the failing with Arren as his companion. As they cross the archipelago of Earthsea, the signs become more troubling: towns are ungoverned and lawless; the people look for oblivion; the dead walk, and even the dragons are troubled. Le Guin’s archipelago is compelling in health and decay alike, from shiftless Hort Town to the raft-dwelling, seal-swimming Children of the Open Sea beyond the edges of the map and the limits of Archipelagan knowledge. Ged and Arren will, eventually , find the source of the malaise: but what will it take to cure it?
Seventeen years after The Farthest Shore, Le Guin returned to Earthsea with Tehanu. Beautifully written as always, it was and is marketed as a children’s book, but arguably isn’t one: the hurt to the child Therru is shocking, the misogynist malevolence of the wizard Aspen hard to comprehend, and the delicate later-life relationship of two former heroes arguably beyond the care and patience of younger readers. It’s been argued, persuasively enough, that Le Guin became angry with the male-dominated wizardry she had woven through the earlier Earthsea books, and Tehanu became part of a rebalancing (later to include the story collection Tales from Earthsea and final Earthsea novel The Other Wind). Then again, many writers do find that characters they think have reached satisfactory conclusions will insist their stories aren’t done, and needs must be brought back and played out in other stories. Tales from Earthsea gives Le Guin time to explore, elegantly, some of the founding myths and customs of her world, while The Other Wind is also a means to engage more fully with the uneasy, precarious relationship between living and dead. Both have unmistakeable storyteller magic alongside a deeper seriousness; but for the child of 10-11, I’d recommend the original trilogy first and foremost.
So many Le Guin books recommend themselves for older readers (12+): the recent Gifts, Voices and Powers explore another imaginary kingdom, from the wild hill tribes of Gifts with their fearsome bloodline magic (a spare, almost unbearably bleak book for much of its course, with a bright blaze of hope at the end) to the sophisticated, dangerously complacent Latinate people of Powers. Very Far Away from Anywhere Else, lamentably out of print in the UK, is a perfect young adult novella without any of the strident melodrama of dystopia or supernatural creatures, but with an uncanny empathy close to ventriloquism for the bright, imaginative, convention-stifled protagonist Owen and his fragile friendship with Natalie. Most recently, Lavinia gives life and unforgettable voice to the Latin princess destined to marry Aeneas and given such an incidental, bloodless role by Virgil (something Le Guin has the poet regretting). It helps to know a little about the narrative of the Aeneid, but I got by with distant GCSE Latin and others, better qualified, have confirmed what I felt as a reader: unshowily researched, the historical detail is utterly convincing and adds to the great human depth of the story – rather like Robert Harris’ Cicero in Imperium – while Lavinia’s measured, wry cadences, observant and overlooked, bring to mind Robert Graves’ Claudius.
Le Guin took to science fiction and fantasy writing at a time when, as a woman, she’d never have been indulged to examine the demanding themes that she chose within mainstream fiction. Hearteningly, the law of unintended consequences means that without doubt she has had a greater and more lasting influence as a fantasy writer than she ever would as a conventional novelist.