A Wizard of Earthsea

On the last Friday of every month – a night that when I was a teenager could only mean Drum n Bass at Fabric – now we go round to my mother’s for dinner. It’s a welcome chance to see my granny, older brothers, little niece and nephew and to eat chicken soup and play charades.

It’s also a chance to collect my books. The shelves of my old bedroom are crammed full of books. Books from my first year of university, books from school, but most of all, books from my childhood. Swallows and Amazons, Redwall, Narnia, The Wind in the Willows, The Railway Children, The Secret Garden, Winnie the Pooh and a particularly lovely picture book about a cow called Daisy, who became a Hollywood star but got depressed and ended up returning to her farm in England. It seems ridiculous that so many of my books are where I haven’t been living for almost ten years. I long to have those books with me – and my mother longs to be rid of them – but our shelves are already groaning with books, not helped by the fact that the husband’s architecture books are so much bigger than mine.

So every month, I take home a bagful of the books that I particularly miss and cull a few old books from my new shelves to make room for them. (Incidentally, there is a nice article about culling books by Ysenda Maxtone Graham in the latest issue of Slightly Foxed.) Having already retrieved most of the classics from university, at the most recent Friday night dinner, I allowed myself to take some children’s books too.

It happened to be perfect timing, as only last week I was ill with a horrid cough and cold. And when I’m ill, I’m at my happiest reading children’s books. There’s something about the exciting storylines, the wild imaginative worlds, the deeply sympathetic characters going on vital quests and the good versus evil theme that chimes with a slightly feverish brain.

I read Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, a book which I adored when I was a nine-year-old, and many of the ideas from it lingered with me. I remember afterwards desperately wanting to learn the true names of things, convinced that I was a wizard, like the hero of the book. I’m also sure it was from this book that I learned the importance of facing your fears, rather than running from them.

Ged is born the son of a village bronzesmith on an island called Gont, but it quickly becomes clear that he is destined to be a powerful wizard. Off he goes with a wise old mage to his retreat in the mountains, but, being impatient, he decides to sail off to wizarding school (yes, this was written long before Harry Potter), where he does much better than everyone else. But Ged is a proud boy, and is easily riled by an older boy. Eventually they have a big spell off, and Ged, when summoning a spirit from the dead, accidentally unleashes a dark shadow, which nearly kills him. Once he recovers, his quest is to find this shadow and vanquish it. It is a quest that sees him encounter dragons, powerful stones and dark forces.

Really it’s a joy to read this book, to discover a whole imaginary world, with its strange island folk, dragons, magic and wizards:

In a land where sorcerers come thick, like Gont or the Enlades, you may see a raincloud blundering slowly from side to side and place to place as one spell shunts it on to the next, till at last it is buffeted out over the sea where it can rain in peace.

It really makes me grin to think of a raincloud being shunted around until it retires, exhausted, to rain over the sea. It’s these little quirks, these thought-through details which make it so convincing, and so intriguing a world.

Throughout A Wizard of Earthsea, the idea emphasised again and again is the importance of something’s true name, which is its name in Old Speech. If you are a wizard, once you can speak something’s name you can exercise power over it. I love this idea of the essence of something lying in its name – a potent way of expressing the vitality of language. Really it is a way of saying that words must be used well, with precision, with awareness of their many resonances, their echoing meanings. Interestingly, on Ursula K. Le Guin’s website, she has written the following words in a note to young writers:

A writer is a person who cares what words mean, what they say, how they say it. Writers know words are their way towards truth and freedom, and so they use them with care, with thought, with fear, with delight. By using words well they strengthen their souls. Story-tellers and poets spend their lives learning that skill and art of using words well. And their words make the souls of their readers stronger, brighter, deeper.

Magic in Earthsea – knowing the true name of something and using it with an awareness of its power – is not so different to the art of writing well. It all comes down to caring about words, and endeavouring to let them ring true. A brilliant writer weaves a spell with her words.

There is so much in A Wizard of Earthsea, so many powerful ideas, such a beautiful story. It certainly was an up-side to being poorly for a couple of days. Once again, having found the time to read a children’s book, I am left wondering why on earth we don’t all read them much more often.

I am also left feeling that while I might not have succeeded in my childhood ambition of becoming an actual wizard, writing is its own form of wizardry and one at which I am very happy to keep on beavering away.

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