A few weeks go I was at my wife’s family’s cabin and I was lurking around in a bedroom browsing my in-laws’ old bookshelf. Hidden in the midst of a notable collection of Louis L’Amour novels, with an old framed photograph sitting on the shelf in front of them, I discovered copies of the original Earthsea Trilogy by Ursula LeGuin: A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore.
I believe I have read the first chapter of A Wizard of Earthsea at least three or four times over the course of my life (the first time was probably when I was about 10 years old.) For whatever reasons it never took and I never continued and finished, but its always been on my list to get back to sometime (right up there with Moby Dick, Swann’s Way, and the Old Testament.) So, it appeared the time had finally come for this book, and I spent a good chunk of my cabin weekend reading that old copy of A Wizard of Earthsea. As the time came to leave the cabin, I still had about 15 pages left and the story was completely unresolved. What else could I do but steal the book and take it home? And then since I was already stealing, I might as well steal the whole trilogy.
Although I had various other reading plans, I put them aside to focus on this trilogy. And now that I’ve finished, I am having a hard time finding anything else from those other reading plans that engages me and forces me to make reading a priority like these books did.
So, rather than a review (because I’m bored with book reviews), here are five things I noticed and learned from these books, mostly from a would-be writer’s perspective:
You don’t have to show everything. You can tell some things. And you don’t even have to tell everything. You can skip time, even and especially across volumes of a trilogy, across years, across great deeds only alluded to or sketched out briefly. You don’t have to share the whole history of the world you build or the whole lives of the people you bring to life. You can cover wizard school in three chapters rather than seven books.1
You don’t have to end books with cliffhangers. Not even the second volume of a trilogy. Each book in a series can be a stand-alone snapshot of a much larger world.2
You don’t have to write high fantasy that is obsessively Euro-centric; you can have high fantasy with people of color. These books actually set a precedent for this 40+ years ago that I didn’t know existed. Our hero and the majority of the characters are dark-skinned people. For the most part this isn’t a major focus of the narratives, but it is definitely there and it is intentional. It’s just one subtle detail of her world and character building, which makes me love it even more. I didn’t realize this when I started reading A Wizard of Earthsea as a child; it certainly isn’t reflected in any of the cover art I have seen for these books over my lifetime. Depressingly, that downplay was probably a sound marketing decision for the times. Hopefully the #WeNeedDiverseBooks meme is changing the calculus for those types of decisions and will result in new book covers even for old books such as these. I’m definitely not well-read in fantasy and most of what I have read was a long time ago, so I recognize that I am ignorant and maybe others authors have been engaging in diversity in fantasy for a long time as well.3
The varying ethnic and cultural details are just one example of how LeGuin is a master of using fantasy and other speculative fictions to explore, describe, confront, come to terms with, and rebut ideas we have about culture, race, social norms, politics, religion, sexuality, etc. I had learned this years ago from reading her The Left Hand of Darkness as a teenager, but I had forgotten since then or taken it for granted. Speculative fiction provides such capability and opportunity to explore these kinds of issues in a very real, emotional way without the potential for the story and ideas to get bogged down by all the messiness, politicization, and need for research and accuracy that can come with tying a story or character to a particular place and time in the actual historical or contemporary world. LeGuin is practically an anthropologist of new cultures of her own creation, and I like her approach.4
I love reading paperbacks from the 70s. They just don’t make them like that anymore. But more than just the physical-ness of the books themselves, it is good to read something from a different era with a different writing style that is not really trending. A nice widening of perspective from the more contemporary middle grade novels I have been focusing on in the last year or two. I am reminded that there is so much more to read and learn, I can’t just try to keep up with the new stuff. I need to read what I need to read, even if it is old mass paperbacks hidden behind a picture frame on a bookshelf in someone’s cabin.5