The EARTHSEA books are one of those landmarks of fantasy literature, much like J.R.R. Tolkien’s work or C.S. Lewis’s. Ursula K. LeGuin has indeed often been cited as a recourse for fantasy apologists when fending off attacks from the Raymond Carver-worshiping old guard who can’t quite imagine “genre fiction” might contain good prose. A Wizard of Earthsea lives up to the hype, but not quite in the way its reputation might lead the reader to expect. The best piece of advice I can offer is not to go in expecting hoopla and fireworks. There’s very little of that in the world LeGuin has constructed. Instead, the novel (and indeed the broader series) is very much set on the scale of a more artistic, intimate drama. It’s introspective, simple, and powerful in that simplicity.
I will admit, however, to some disappointment on my part when I first read the novel some years ago. I was already well aware of LeGuin’s reputation, and I went into A Wizard of Earthsea expecting something more or less on the scale of THE LORD OF THE RINGS. Instead, I got a quiet, wise little fable about a boy who grows up to be a wizard but more importantly grows up to be a good man, and his struggles to find peace with his own failings. I didn’t dislike the novel, but I felt faintly underwhelmed.
Coming back to it now, I’m reminded how much of opinion really can be put down to expectations. EARTHSEA without anticipation of epic battles and awful sorceries called down from a thunderous sky really is one of the guiding lights of fantasy, but it’s less a blazing torch and more a solemn candle. LeGuin isn’t trying to make the biggest or the flashiest with this novel (although arguably the series as a whole has managed to change the genre a bit) but is merely looking to tell a story. Fortunately, it’s a very good one.
The prose is spare but exquisite, the characterization good. The plot is, as I’ve said, fairly simple, but not poor for that by any means. It’s the sort of charming little tale that would seem an almost ubiquitous fairy tale were it not for the depth of emotion lurking beneath the surface. No one’s style is like LeGuin’s, and it’s her style that really makes A Wizard of Earthsea the fantasy classic that it is. So the recommendation I give the prospective reader comes with a bit of a caveat: don’t go into this novel expecting an Event, some sort of earth-shaking cornerstone of fantasy heralded by blaring trumpets. Go into this novel prepared to appreciate, and you are almost guaranteed to love it.