Earthsea at 50: how has history treated Ursula Le Guin’s classic fantasy?

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The half century since the first Earthsea book was published has been kind to both Ursula L Guin’s fantasy series and the genre as a whole. The original trilogy, first published between 1968 and 1972 has its 50th birthday in 2018, and ranks among the – surprisingly short – pantheon of bona fide classics of the genre. (A very short list despite the eye-watering volume of material the genre has produced. Even as a teen still developing the cultural antennae required to spot a dud, I ploughed through an awful lot of books from the “sub-Tolkien” underworld.) Earthsea is, of course, mentioned in the same breath as The Lord of the Rings, and even that may be doing it a disservice. Le Guin’s world of wizards and dragons – she makes the sensible decision early on to keep the scope of her work down to the two main tropes – is arguably far more influential in what followed it than Tolkien’s sprawling and often very dull retelling of Nordic myths.

The fact that both Earthsea and Harry Potter feature “schools for wizards” has led many to hail the Earthsea books as an influence on the schoolboy wizard. But not, it has to be said, from many who have actually read both series. Le Guin herself has mused on the lack of similarity between the two, dismissing the Potter series as a stylistically dismissable sub-form of boarding-school fiction. In Earthsea, Sparrowhawk’s enrollment at the school for wizards takes up only the first part of the first book. (And indeed the only misstep to my mind with the first three novels – essentially the core texts – is an interlude near the end featuring two of the teachers.)

Le Guin’s charge against the Potter novels – that children need to be taught that good and evil are more subtle than Voldemort – is more than reasonable. She has Rowling bang to rights. JK, of course, could if she wanted simply point to the disparity in sales figures between the two. But, having just reread the original trilogy for the third or fourth time. (I, like a lot of Earthsea fans, am pretty cool on the fourth and fifth instalments, which read more like addenda to a satisfying and complete story.) I’m struck by the subtlety of both the writing and the plotting. Le Guin’s world is far more tightly controlled than either Tolkien (the inexplicable shift in tone from children’s book to epic saga is actually very strange but it happens so slowly you tend not to notice) or George RR Martin have managed.

Le Guin could be excused for feeling piqued about her treatment at the hands of Hollywood. Rowling and Martin held their nerve while negotiating their creations’ transfer to the screen and retained a heavy degree of creative control. Le Guin chose to trust those behind the now largely forgotten adaptation of Earthsea and paid the price, inevitably damaging the books chances of earning the jaw-dropping royalty cheques that Rowling and Martin have trousered.

Nevertheless, I hope that the inevitable interest surrounding the books will lead more 13-year-old children to pull the tomes off the library shelves as I did many years ago and delve into world hungry for fantasy as never before.