The Earthsea Cycle reread: A Wizard of Earthsea

This is the first entry in a series of blog posts I’m writing as I reread my favorite fantasy series, Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea cycle.

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My partner has a theory, to which I subscribe, that every fantasy fan has a series that sets the tone for their taste in fantasy for the rest of their lives. Usually it’s a series they encounter when they’re young, during that time when reading is a new magic (rather than an old and familiar one). For him it’s Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles.

For me it’s the Earthsea cycle. I’ve always known this, even though I’ve technically spent more time and energy in the Lord of the Rings fandom. The difference in how I relate to the two series is interesting, and it’s how I want to open this blog series. 

I first read A Wizard of Earthsea at around age eight, just after my family moved to a new house. I still vividly remember devouring my parents’ brittle, yellow-paged copy before a window that looked onto a winter birdfeeder covered with bluejays. That year I dressed as Ged for Halloween, and asked my father, who always told me stories before bed, to extend Ged’s adventures as I fell asleep. Later that spring, I mapped the grass tussocks in the swamp that formed behind the house in the snowmelt, calling it the archipelago (a word I first learned from Earthsea). Something about the series had moved me deeply.

Yet after reading The Lord of the Rings a few years later, I became so obsessed with Tolkien it was as if no other fantasy series existed. I duly dressed as Legolas for Halloween. I learned Sindarin runes and wrote coded notes to friends in them. I published teenaged Silmarillion fanfiction on the teenaged internet. Tolkien took me like a fever, and I burned until late high school, when other books eclipsed my interest.  

Because I had spent more time in the Tolkien fandom, and because it stirred me to such a high pitch, I wondered if it would usurp Earthsea as my foundational fantasy series. But it didn’t. It never even came close.

For a long time I could not explain why. Only lately have I been able to grope towards some answers. They are personal, and maybe not transferrable. I don’t know what fandom feels like to other people. But for me, Tolkien and the style of fandom I learned from it—feverish, obsessive, a longing to inhabit that world, to take it in my hands and shape it—worked like a brushfire. It seared through me, burned clean, and left. Little remained but warm ashes, which could be stirred but never stoked to their former blaze. When I re-read The Lord of the Rings this past September, I remembered the books fondly. But I did not rekindle.

Rereading A Wizard of Earthsea, on the other hand, has felt like resettling into my own bones. I greet familiar parts of the book with the same feeling I get recalling the vividly-colored dreams I had as a child. Picturing the dreams’ landscapes deepens the world around me, making it richer, more significant; so, rereading Earthsea shifts my posture on the earth, tilts my attention. It’s a strange feeling. Externally, my early love for Earthsea must have looked no different than my early love for Tolkien: I played the characters, pored over the maps, extended the stories. But Earthsea rewired me, as Tolkien did not.

Why? My best guess is that what I drew from Earthsea included form as well as content. Earthsea molded my perspective, the how of turning towards worlds fictional and real, beyond the what those worlds contained—specific characters, places, histories. When engaged in Tolkien-style fandom, I can exhaust a series’ content; there is only so much fanfiction I can write about Beleg Cuthalion (or Ged: I’ve exhausted Earthsea as content, too). But form endures.

When I think about my own fiction, I’m able to recognize those elements in Earthsea that have shaped my how. For example: place, especially nature, is my first and most important character; my favorite relationships are deep friendships; I dislike outright villains, and like redemption stories—but only if the wrongdoer grapples lengthily with their guilt.

These are baseline settings for my writing, because they’re baseline settings for me as a person. The Tolkien-style fandom still sweeps through me, frequently, and it’s one of my greatest pleasures (ask me about my headcanons for the webcomic I’m reading right now!). But when the fire dies and the ashes have blown off, it’s Earthsea that remains.

For the rest of this blog series, I’ll be talking about some of my favorite elements in the Earthsea cycle, the moments that have stayed with me, that have helped set my baseline. These won’t be exhaustive analyses, just brief collections of my thoughts.

I’ll start with a key idea from Wizard: that friendship is love, and that love inspires trust.

One of the two core relationships in Wizard is the friendship between the main character, Ged, and another mage called Vetch (the other core relationship is between Ged and his teacher, Ogion). The two boys are opposites: Ged is proud and stiff, Vetch gentle and accommodating. It’s a friendship Ged doesn’t really deserve. Its grace is that he receives it anyway. Le Guin spells this out, alongside the point that friendship is a deeper form of magic than any practiced elsewhere in the book. Of Vetch she writes,

Yet a greater, unlearned skill he possessed, which was the art of kindness. That night, and always from then on, he offered and gave Ged friendship, a sure and open friendship which Ged could not help but return. (42)

A notable aspect of the Earthsea trilogy is that it contains no romance. (Tehanu, the series’ fourth book, breaks this pattern, but is unusual for different reasons, since its romance is between two elderly people). Instead, the mechanisms of romance—finding another person who fits you, losing them, rediscovering them—are fulfilled by friendship. Ged and Vetch love each other (and Le Guin calls it love; as far as I know, it’s still uncommon in mainstream fantasy to describe non-romantic and non-sexual affection between men with this word). After befriending Vetch, Ged almost destroys their friendship by nearly killing himself during a reckless magic contest he enters for pride, and against which Vetch warns him. But Vetch forgives him.

His gesture is the central emotional moment in the book. As part of his forgiveness, Vetch tells Ged his true name—a profound and risky act in the ontology of Earthsea:

Ged stood still a while, like one who has received great news, and must enlarge his spirit to receive it. It was a great gift that Vetch had given him, the knowledge of his true name. 

No one knows a man’s true name but himself and his namer. He may choose at length to tell it to his brother, or his wife, or his friend, yet even those few will never use it where any third person may hear it… If plain men hide their true name from all but a few they love and trust utterly, so much more must wizardly men, being more dangerous, and more endangered. Who knows a man’s name, holds that man’s life in his keeping. Thus to Ged who had lost faith in himself, Vetch had given that gift only a friend can give, the poor of unshaken, unshakable trust. (69)

That trust is one of love’s great gifts is an idea that I think about a lot. I am not a person who trusts easily, but I am generally a better person when I try. Further, though I dislike the idea of “true names” (Le Guin also repudiated it in later books), I think the metaphor is wise. It’s hard, and can be dangerous, to entrust another person with your true self—the person who you allow yourself, rather than force yourself, to be. Rereading the Ged/Vetch friendship always makes me reflect on my own relationships: why I value them; how I might be better in them; and finally, that should I stumble in them, I’m very, very lucky to have friends who love me enough to forgive it.

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That’s it for now! There are so many other moments I could list just in Wizard, but as I’ll be rereading the rest of the series, I’ll save them for later.

Now back to The Tombs of Atuan.