Reading between the ripples – A Wizard of Earthsea

Do you ever feel disappointed in yourself for not enjoying a book more? That was my feeling this weekend after finishing Ursula K. Le Guin‘s A Wizard of Earthsea.

I first read this book when I was about ten years old, when any fantasy fiction was precious to me. I re-read it this month as part of the Sword and Laser book club. And while there’s some really interesting stuff going on in this book, I have to admit that it didn’t live up to my hopes.

A wonderful world

A Wizard of Earthsea is the story of Ged, a young man growing into a powerful wizard, and of his mission to face a darkness he himself unleashed. It has a mythic atmosphere and is strong on theme, with the description and dialogue both helping to develop the feeling of following a quest from legend. It has powerful messages about darkness and about personal responsibility.

Wizard of Earthsea

Earthsea is an intriguing setting. A series of island nations whose culture seems rooted in Europe’s dark ages, yet evokes elements of other island cultures. Wizards play a significant role in the world, to the point where the sort of nobility seen in the real world is far less significant.

And all of this is achieved in a relatively brief novel, something that was common in the 1960s when this book came out, but which is a rarity these days.

Not feeling but watching

Despite Le Guin’s undoubted skill in crafting a narrative, I never felt fully drawn in by Ged’s story. Rather than experiencing the adventure with him we watch it as if from one remove. This is fitting with the tone of the book, which seeks to portray the ancient legend of a world, but meant I wasn’t drawn in and didn’t care as much about what happened.

The brevity that kept the book moving also meant a lack of detail, which was a shame in a book with such a rich world to share. I felt like an opportunity was being missed to show this world more, rather than briefly tell us about it.

The huh factor

So while I enjoyed the book I found myself wishing I’d enjoyed it more, and actually disappointed at myself for not getting more out of it. Which makes almost no sense, but there you go. I’d read a classic, it hadn’t shaken my world, and I was somehow blaming myself. What the hell brain?

Of course my brain’s missing the point. Le Guin wrote this book in a very distinctive style, and it’s not going to be for everyone. In addition the world of fantasy literature has moved on in the 45 years since A Wizard of Earthsea was published. Authors have developed new tricks for engaging with readers. The expectations and experiences of readers have changed as a result. I’m not the audience Le Guin was aiming at decades ago, but I still benefit from her impact on the genre.

I suppose it comes down to hating Skaespeare. If you say you hate Shakespeare (I don’t) people might look at you like you’re a philistine. But that’s rubbish. No book will appeal to everyone. No-one will like everything. There’s no sense beating ourselves up for not enjoying the books that we feel we ‘should’ like.

The ripples not the splash

I’m glad I re-read A Wizard of Earthsea. I’m glad that Le Guin wrote it, and I’m extremely appreciative of the positive impact diverse voices like hers have had on the genre. But I won’t be carrying on with the series. There are books out there that will thrill me, that will set my brain on edge and my pulse racing, and this series is not those books, though it helped pave the way. I missed Earthsea’s big splash, so instead I’ll just enjoy the ripples it sent through the pond.