Tolkien Gestures Book 8: A Wizard of Earthsea

Tolkien Gestures is one Sci-Fi nerds adventure into the strange mystical worlds of Fantasy Literature. Over the course of a year I’m reading 20 Fantasy Novels spaced over the life of the genre. This week, our Fantasy gets Higher, and target age, maybe slightly younger.

Thinking about it, the “teenage” market (now so profitable with your Harry Potters and twilights and whathaveyou) seems a natural fit for fantasy, where monsters and dragons and strange lands work as analogies and allegories for teenhood as much as internally-coherent threats for the story. And with with A Wizard of Earthsea this is what really leaps of the page.

But wait! I’m not going down the line that “Fantasy is for kids” or anything, because i don’t think its the case (or at least, shouldn’t be the case!) and Earthsea may feel pretty much right in the YA ball park but it’s certainly got a lot more going on than can or should be easily dismissed. What I mean is, SF has always, at its more “relevant” and “pretentious” end, tried to be a genre about exploring humanity’s relationship with technology and society, a sort of projection forwards of what we fear today. Fantasy is starting to strike me – especially after reading Earthsea and it’s “Monster from Within” plot – as a genre that can turn its language and imagery to the internal landscape of the mind. That’s not age limited. I’m just as messed up now as I was at 15, I would hazard, although my Dragons may look different.

But Earthsea is a teenagers story about a teenage boy, and many it’s beats feel well trod. Boy grows up in small village. Boy has vast natural talent that marks him out as different. Boy goes to wizard school, screws up horribly and has to learn to take responsibility for his own actions and face his inner (and outer) demons and become a man. Ok that maybe sounds a little pat, but it sums up the story pretty well, and it was, perhaps, less overly familiar when the book was published in 1968, or even if I’d first read it in my teens. Regardless, the trick here is that the writing is quick and engaging, easy to read but with enough subtext and wit to keep adults interested as well as younger readers engaged. Its no mean feat in any book aimed at any age, and often overlooked.

Earthsea also has it’s fair share of fantasy sightseeing (already a recurring feature), as Ged’s quest takes him all over Earthsea itself, and whislt there is a certainly degree of plot necessity, it is also a little touristy. But its a nice and distinctive setting, with a lot of high fantasy thought gone into it. As a highly-magical world, magic is a practical, everyday thing, and wizards status as a bit like celebrities – in the sense that they attract a lot of awe and attention but aren’t the super-rare mythical figures that say, Tolkiens wizards are – is fun and nicely handled. And the ending is clever and interesting and just different enough to stick in the mind a little.

I guess it’s hard to get away from the feeling that in many ways Earthsea is pretty generic fantasy to modern eyes, or at least it is given i expect out of the genre at this stage. A Dragon here, an extradimensional demon there, all wrapped up with a slightly existential finale and a touch of destiny foreshadowed. But its very, very, likeable, and has a light touch without being shallow, and for that reason, more than any other, I found I really enjoyed it.

Next Up: Some Eternal Championing, with Elric of Melnibone.

Feedback, corrections and other comments welcome either here or by email to grampus(at)dissectingworlds(dot)com or on twitter @thegrampus.

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