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September 19, 2012

Old School: A Wizard of Earthsea

As I grew older and out of children's chapter books, all those years ago, I kept only a handful of favorites on my bookshelf. I'm not sure I knew why, exactly, even back then—because I thought even as a high school student I might want to refer back to them? Or (deep down) because I wanted to hang on to them for my own kids someday? The reason was certainly sentimental in some way, and at a certain point I stopped winnowing entirely; what survived high school stayed on my shelves into adulthood.

These were mostly venerable classics of the kid genre, even at the time—the Narnia seriesThe Phantom Tollbooth, A Wrinkle in Time—with a few relative newcomers like Ellen Raskin's The Westing Game and Walter Wangerin Jr.'s The Book of the Dun Cow. I didn't care if they were classics, though—these were the books that were in some way or another important to my childhood. I don't always remember exactly why. But these were my books—I remember the surge of feeling I had about each of them very clearly, which must have been at the root of why I kept them.

One of the series I kept about which my memory was cloudy was Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea books. Another classic series, of course—being reissued in handsome new hardcover editions this month by Houghton Mifflin, in fact. The feelings I associated with these particular books years later, having mostly forgotten the plotlines, were less of warmth and affection, as I recalled Phantom Tollbooth, say. It was more like a vague sort of awe and reverence.

And those aren't feelings that drive nostalgic re-readings. So it had been many years since the Le Guin books had come down off the shelves when my seven-year-old, Dash, started showing interest in books with magical themes beyond Harry Potter. (Not, I should hasten to add, that he finds anything at all lacking in Harry Potter.) I remembered Earthsea, my memory perhaps jogged by the news of the reissues, and we took my dusty old copy of A Wizard of Earthsea down (both noticing right away that it's sure a lot shorter than a Harry Potter book).

It only took a page or two for the vague memories to firm up. And I don't mean just the storyline, though that certainly came back, too: the journey to wisdom of a young, brilliant but arrogant sorcerer-in-training. I don't even mean just the amazing world Le Guin has created as the setting for this series, a land of hundreds of small islands and a full, rich culture that's as vivid and fully imagined as any of the best fantasy worlds of children's literature.

I mean the language itself. The Earthsea books are written in a flowing, almost Homeric style that's simply mesmerizing to read (or read aloud). Words and their power are the lifeblood of this series—the source of the most powerful magic its wizards have, in fact. In Earthsea, to know someone's or something's true name is to have power over that person or thing, and everyone accordingly has both a name they go by in the world, and a secret "true" name that they reveal only to those they trust most—the book's hero, Ged, always introduces himself as Sparrowhawk, for example. It's an old conceit that words and names hold magical power, but Le Guin weaves her whole world around it, giving it weight and even a feeling of importance, or reality. (It's one of the things that has always stuck with me from the book.)

Le Guin's is almost certainly the finest writing Dash has encountered since graduating to chapter books, and I could see the effect on him immediately—he was quietly fascinated (unusual, since his enthusiasm about books is usually more amped-up and vocal), with a sort of reverent awe that was very familiar. I think the Earthsea books may have similarly awakened me to a level of writing I'd previously been unaware of, when I first encountered them, which would more than explain their staying power on my shelves all these years. Maybe Dash will feel the same way about them someday.

[Cover image courtesy of Houghton Mifflin]

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