Near the end of primary school I sat an exam for a scholarship. One part involved selections from a set of young adult books, all involving dragons, followed by comprehension questions. I did well enough on the exam to win an offer (which I very wisely rejected) and I felt I’d aced it, and excitedly told my mother and sister in great detail about the experience. The thing that stuck out to me, out of everything on the long test, was the encounter between Sparrowhawk and the dragon of Pendor.
I thought this must be the highlight of the book, being so powerful, but my sister told me it was just a small part of “A Wizard of Earthsea”, and lent me her copy. It’s hard to overstate the influence Ursula Le Guin has had over my life ever since.
I first read the Earthsea books like one would read Harry Potter, without the jokes. A marvelous fantasy world filled with beautifully described magic and a gripping plot. They were not my favourite books as a child, but they were close. Rereading them as an adult, I found a layer of depth I had entirely missed, something I never found in most of the other books I loved at the same age. The introduction to Daoist philosophy, a common theme in Le Guin’s books, was a revelation. Years later, at one of the lowest points in my life, I read them again, and found other layers still, a tale of working one’s way through depression, and also an environmental message not about saving some specific forest or reef, but about respecting the balance of the ecosystem and understanding the potential for disruption one cannot predict.
Last year, one of the first presents I gave Michaela was a copy of the Earthsea Books.
Yet for all this, Earthsea is not my favourite of Le Guin’s work, or the one that has meant the most to me, except in so far as without them I might never have discovered her others.
The “Left Hand of Darkness” and “The Dispossessed”, particularly the latter, wend through my life in ways I don’t currently think I can explain, and may never be able to. I am literally wiping away my tears using my birthday present, a handkerchief Michaela embroidered with the first line of the Dispossesed; “There was a wall. It didn’t seem very important.” (And my God, the extra resonances that has today). I think it’s the best birthday present I have received since my first telescope.
I’d like to be making this piece more about why Le Guin’s work is so magnificent and important, and less about me, and maybe I’ll find the words to edit in later. Right now I’m a bit of a mess.
But in the meantime, if you’re not familiar with her work I urge you to go and read it the first time you have a chance to fit some fiction into your busy life. Or preferably sooner. It might change you as much as it changed me.
(image by Liam Davis cc 3.0, a reworking of Le Guin’s original Earthsea map)