As To Kill a Mockingbird, Harry Potter, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and The Fault in Our Stars battle it out in our “Best YA Novel of All Time” bracket, we’re unveiling our picks, which didn’t advance as far as we would like. Here’s the case for Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle.
Ursula K. Le Guin is cool. She’s written pretty much every kind of book there is, not to mention inventing a few new ones. She has opinions and does not keep them to herself. She doesn’t like how Hollywood turns all her protagonists into white dudes. She thinks Google is the devil. Here’s what she said about J.K. Rowling: “She has many virtues, but originality isn’t one of them.” She’s not afraid to rassle, in life or in her far-flung fiction. Her books deal with big topics in big ways.
So at first glance, A Wizard of Earthsea would appear to be one of her less explosive works. Over forty years since it’s publication, the Earthsea story sounds a bit like Fantasy Heroism 101. An average boy from a remote village discovers that he has magical powers; he goes to wizard school; his pride leads him to make a mistake that will constitute his primal wound forever after; he spends the book questing around a fantasy landscape chasing an unimaginable evil. It’s Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter and Peter Parker and Frodo Baggins, all wrapped up into one.
But A Wizard of Earthsea isn’t really like any other novel I’ve ever read. When it comes to the “Young Adult” label, Le Guin is variously dismissive and appreciative of the concept: In a 2004 interview with EW, she explained, “I love knowing a book’s going to be marketed to teenagers, because they’re such terrific readers. They take what they read very seriously. They’re looking for guidance or to figure out how to live.”
That statement conjures up precisely what makes A Wizard of Earthsea such a great book: It’s a book for people who are growing up, and also a book about growing up. Le Guin sets her story in one of the more wonderfully realized fantasy realms — this is one of those fantasy books that opens up with a map of the world, with a couple dozen islands promising infinite adventures far beyond the contents of the book to follow. And Le Guin doesn’t scrimp on the adventure. (There are dragons.)
But she also turns the book into an emotionally complicated, morally complex parable for the modern age. Most fantasy quests — hell, most novels — climax with victory over an exterior force. As we follow the wizard Ged on his coming-of-age adventure, Le Guin takes us on a journey inwards. In therapy-speak, A Wizard of Earthsea is one of the best books about a journey towards self-realization. In normal-speak, A Wizard of Earthsea is exciting and sad, and it makes the process of growing up feel sad but also exciting.
I’m not surprise that Earthsea didn’t last long in our YA bracket. It’s an introspective fantasy novel that emphasizes thought over action. It’s never really been adapted properly. And although the later entries in the Earthsea series are all fascinating, the saga became more difficult to categorize with each successive book. I almost prefer The Tombs of Atuan, which shifts focus to Le Guin’s other protagonist Tenar. Claustrophobic where its predecessor is expansive, Atuan is a classic of stealth-missile literature, a fantasy adventure that’s actually a feminist horror thriller.
But it’s not quite right to ascribe an “ism” to Le Guin’s work. The reason why she is, to me, one of the great writers for young people is that she explores complex topics in a way that feels both contemporary and primordial: She makes you feel as if you’re the first person to ever feel a certain way, and then reminds you that actually everyone has probably felt that way. I’m not sure that reading the Earthsea books will make you a better person. But they’ll definitely make you more interesting.