Tag Archives: literature

Book Review: The Sword in the Stone

Book Name: The Sword in the Stone
Author: T.H. White
First Published: 1938

T.H. White was born in Bombay, British India, to Garrick Hanbury White and Constance White. His parents separated when he was fourteen years of age and he returned to England to finish his schooling in Gloucestershire. He later studied at Queens’ College in Cambridge where he was tutored by scholar and author L.J. Potts. Potts would become his friend and correspondent throughout his life. White considered him to be “the great literary influence in my life.” It was at Queens’ College that White wrote a thesis on Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur and was exposed to the legends of King Arthur.

After his graduation in 1928 he began teaching and to write. His first novels were science fiction. Earth Stopped in 1934 and its sequel Gone to Ground in 1935 concerned dystopian themes. Once they were completed, White was searching for a new subject to write about. He wrote to a friend in 1937, “I got desperate among my books and picked [Malory] up in lack of anything else. Then I was thrilled and astonished to find that (a) The thing was a perfect tragedy, with a beginning, a middle and an end implicit in the beginning and (b) the characters were real people with recognizable reactions which could be forecast[...] Anyway, I somehow started writing a book.”

This book was The Sword in the Stone, which White considered a preface to Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur that he had written his thesis upon. It would bring a child’s delight to the story of Arthur’s early days and was influenced by Freudian psychology and White’s love of natural history. The book became a Book of the Month Club selection in 1939.

In 1939 White moved to Ireland where he remained during the second world war as a conscientious objector. During his time there, he wrote the sequels to The Sword in the Stone, The Witch in the Wood and the Ill-Made Knight.

White died of heart failure in 1964 while aboard a ship en route from Piraeus, Greece after a lecture tour in the United States. He is buried in Athens and his papers are held by the University of Texas at Austin, USA. White had no children and was never married.

Whoso Pulleth Out This Sword of this Stone and Anvil, is Rightwise King Born of all England.

The Sword in the Stone began as a single novel, but later became the first tome of the classic series The Once and Future King. Of all five books, it is the most lighthearted and could be considered a young adult novel. The rest of the series is darker and clearly for adult readers. The Sword in the Stone follows the story of a young orphan boy who is nicknamed “Wart”. He lives with Sir Ector, a knight of the King and works as a page in medieval Great Britain. One day, while retrieving one of Sir Ector’s birds, which his foster brother Kay has lost, he meets Merlin, a wise wizard who lives his life backwards, growing young as the years go by. Merlin knows Wart’s true heritage and has come to tutor the boy. He becomes both Wart’s and Kay’s teacher.

Merlin and Wart go on a series of learning adventures, each one designed to teach Wart the skills necessary to become a great and wise ruler. Wart rescues people with Robin Hood and Maid Marian, goes on a quest with King Pellinore for a beast, and turns into a wide variety of animals to experience the world in new and more interesting perspectives. In the end, he gains enough knowledge and wisdom to fulfill his destiny, to pull Excalibur from the anvil and be proclaimed the rightful King of England. For Wart is actually King Arthur of Camelot and he will become the stuff of legends.

The Once and Future King is a reworking of Sir Thomas Malory’s 15th Century romance, Le Morte d’Arthur. In fact T.H. White wrote in a cameo appearance for Malory as one of the historical figures that populate the tales. While the first book is light-hearted and has a boy protagonist, White follows the entire life of King Arthur including many of the darker aspects of his life in the later books. This is not a series for children, although The Sword in the Stone can be thought of as a young adult novel. The books are full of medieval references that could be confusing to those that are not familiar with common terms of the time period, yet the writing style is quite readable and as the story continues, the darker side of man is revealed.

The Sword in the Stone was made into a famous cartoon by Walt Disney in 1963. The movie features a famous battle between Merlin and the Sorceress Madam Mim. This battle was removed from later editions of the novel by the author and usually is not found in the later collections of the series. Lerner and Loewe’s 1960 musical “Camelot” is based on the last two books of The Once and Future King series and later this musical was turned into a movie of the same name in 1967.

You’ll find references to these stories woven into our pop culture from the Broadway musical and the movie, to its being an inspiration to author J.K. Rowling as she wrote her Harry Potter series and to Neil Gaimann’s character of Tim Hunter. If you enjoy the legends of King Arthur or stories about the middle ages and have some familiarity with the time period, you will find this series of books to be enjoyable.

The Sword in the Stone Book CoverThe Once and Future King

The Sword in the Stone (1938)
The Queen of Air and Darkness (1939, original version The Witch in the Wood)
The Ill-Made Knight (1940)
The Candle in the Wind (1958)
The Book of Merlyn (1977)

Book Review: The Good Earth

Book Name: The Good Earth
Author: Pearl S. Buck
First Published: 1931
Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1932

Born in 1892, Pearl Sydenstricker was the fourth of seven children to Southern Presbyterian missionaries Absalom and Caroline Sydenstricker. Her birth was at the end of their furlough in the United States and when Pearl was three months old, the family returned to China and it was there that the author would spend the majority of the first forty years of her life. The family lived in Zhenjiang, in Jiangsu province, and then in a small city lying at the junction of the Yangtze River and the Grand Canal. Her father was away from home most of the time, in search of new Christian converts, and her mother spent her time raising her children and ministering to the local Chinese women in a small dispensary that she had established.

In her memoir, Pearl S Buck recalled that she lived in “several worlds,” one was the “small, white, clean Presbyterian world of my parents,” and this was surrounded by the “big, loving, merry, not-too-clean, Chinese world.” There was little connection between these two cultures as she grew up. Pearl was taught western customs and English by her mother, classic Chinese by a hired tutor, and learned the local dialect from her Chinese friends. A few years later, Pearl was enrolled in a local western school and was dismayed by the attitudes of her fellow students, who could not speak Chinese and did not view the Chinese people as equals. This dismay would stay with her and influence much of her writing in later years. She took a fancy to the novels of Charles Dickens, which her father disapproved of, and included a reading of his novels once a year in addition to the other books she read.

When Pearl S. Buck was of college age, she returned to the United States and enrolled in Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Virginia and graduated there in 1914. She had intended to remain in the United States, but was given word that her mother was ill and so returned to be with her in China. In 1915, Pearl met a young agricultural economist named John Lossing Buck and they married in 1917. The couple moved to an impoverished village in rural Anhui province. It was in this community that the author gathered the material that would later serve as the foundation research for her novel The Good Earth and other stories that she would write about Chinese culture.

Pearl and Lossing’s marriage was rocky from the start, but they remained together for eighteen years before divorcing. Their daughter Carol was born in 1921. The child was diagnosed with PKU and retarded. In addition, during Carol’s delivery, a uterine tumor was discovered in Pearl and she was forced to undergo a hysterectomy. Several years later, Pearl and Lossing would adopt a baby girl named Janice, but would continue to care for Carol as best they could.

From 1920 through 1933, Pearl and Lossing lived on the campus of Nanking University where both were teachers. When Pearl’s mother died, her father came to live with them. Tensions both inside their family and the outside world came to a head in 1927 during the “Nanking Incident” where a battle involving Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist troops, communist forces, assorted warlords and several westerners were murdered. The Buck family spent a chilling day in hiding until they were rescued by American gunboats. The Americans took them to Japan where they remained in safety until they were able to return to Nanking.

It was during this frenzied time that Pearl had begun to publish essays and short stories in magazines such as Nation, The Chinese Recorder, Asia, and Atlantic Monthly. In 1931, her second novel, The Good Earth, would be published by the John Day Company. It would become a best-selling novel, win the Pulitzer Prize and Howells Medal in 1935, be adapted as a major MGM film starring Paul Muni and Luise Rainer in 1937, and be instrumental in her gaining the Nobel Prize in Literature. She was the first American woman to claim that honor.

As Pearl’s first marriage crumbled and the circumstances in China deteriorated, she decided to return to the United States on a permanent basis. She was now married to Richard Walsh, the editor that handled her books at the John Day Company, and she wanted to be closer to him and to her daughter Carol, whom had been placed in an New Jersey institution. Pearl and Richard bought an old farmhouse called Green Hills Farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. The couple adopted six children together. Pearl founded “Welcome House”, the first international, inter-racial adoption agency that helped Amerasian children who would otherwise not be eligible for adoption. She also established the Pearl S. Buck Foundation which helps children in Asian countries. Pearl S. Buck lived to be 81 years of age and is buried at Green Hills Farm.

The Good Earth begins when Chinese Farmer Wang Lung walks to the noble house of Hwang in a nearby town to procure the slave that his father has arranged to be his wife. He arrives with peaches as a wedding gift and buys a little pork for their meager wedding feast. O-Lan proves to be a supportive and hardworking wife, joining Wang Lung out in the fields, and providing him with sons and a daughter. While they are poor, the couple is content. They work hard on their farm and slowly, Wang Lung earns enough to be able to buy some of the land from the House of Hwang. The desire to own land is the one thing that sets Wang Lung apart from the other farmers. Part of this desire is from pride, but he also realizes that owning good farm land is key to his providing the necessary cushion to keep himself and his family from starvation during lean years. As a man, he loves working his crops and bringing them to harvest and this fierce love of the land is the one constant in his life.

A famine comes and wipes out everything that they have. Wang Lung and his family must flee to the south in order to find food. He sells everything that he has left except for his land and house. In the southern city, O-Lan and the children beg and Wang Lung pulls a rickshaw. While they do not stave, they remain in poverty, and have little hope of returning to their house and farm. Wang Lung also lives in fear of being conscripted into the army. During this time his eldest daughter becomes mentally handicapped as a result of severe malnutrition. Wang Lung calls her his “little fool”. Their second daughter is born and she is killed to spare her the misery of living in hardship. This allows the resources they have to help the others survive.

When food riots break out in the city, Wang Lung joins a mob that loots a rich man’s house. He confronts the owner of the home and the man offers him all his money in exchange for mercy. At the same time, O-lan finds jewels in another house and hides them on her person. The money that Wang Lung is given is enough to take his family back home to the farm. He is able to buy a new ox, farm tools and a few workers to help him on the land. Later, O-lan confesses to the possession of the jewels, and Wang Lung takes them from her, except for a pair of seed pearls that she coveted. With the money from the jewels, Wang Lung buys all of the land of the House of Hwang.

Wang Lung now is a prosperous man, but while his income is secure, inter-family problems begin to surface and take him away from his former work ethic and honesty. His sons, who he worked hard to send to school, now do not wish to work the land. Wang Lung himself suffers a mid-life crisis. He falls for a younger woman named Lotus and takes her on as a mistress. He ignores the wife that stood by him during the hard times, calling her plain. One day, he removes the pair of seed pearls that O-Lan had asked to keep and makes them into earrings for his mistress. This breaks his wife’s heart and she sickens with illness and eventually dies. Only when she is gone does Wang Lung realize what she means to him.

As an old man, Wang Lung seeks to find peace. His first and second sons are constantly arguing, and their wives do not get along. They talk about selling the land and do not have the same values as their father. Wang Lung’s third son runs away to join the army. There is no one left but his “little fool” and the land. The old man tries to warn his sons that to lose the land is to lose everything. They assure him that they will never sell the farm, but over his head they smile knowingly at each other.

The Good Earth works on many levels. It is a depiction of a culture that little was known of when the book was first published, showing how these people chose to live without making comments or passing judgment on their customs, such as selling girls into slavery or binding their feet which we would find horrifying today. Instead Buck portrays what happens as the way these people live and lets the facts speak for themselves. The story also works as a family drama with all the interpersonal relationships and the cyclic nature of their rags to riches story. Despite that the novel is set in a time and place that is foreign to many of us in the modern world, the characters are real and are easy to relate to, even with the cultural differences. Wang Lung is not all that different from any modern American farmer, except he walks to the local tea house to shoot the breeze instead of driving his truck to the local bar in Oklahoma. This classic novel is one of my personal favorites and I highly recommend adding it to your reading list.

The Good Earth Book CoverThe House of Earth Series:

The Good Earth (1931)
Sons (1932)
A House Divided (1935)

Book Review: Ringworld

Book Name: Ringworld
Author: Larry Niven
First Published: 1970
Winner of Nebula Award 1970 , Hugo and Locus Award 1971

Larry Niven is a graduate of Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas where he gained an Bachelor of Arts in mathematics. He did a year of graduate work at the University of California at Los Angeles. He makes his home in Los Angeles and is a full-time writer of novels, movies and television series. He is married to Marilyn Wisowaty, and they make their home in the Los Angeles area. Niven is a full-time writer of novels, movies and television episodes going back to the 1960s and still producing new work today.

The story of Ringworld opens on planet Earth near 3000 A.D. when Louis Gridley Wu celebrates his 200th birthday by traveling across the Earth to the West to extend his birthday by hours. Although in good physical condition due to the science of the day, he is bored with life. All this changes when an alien known as a Pierson’s Puppeteer named Nessus offers him one of three positions on an exploration voyage beyond human known space. The other two crewmembers are an alien known as a Kzin named Speaker-to-Animals (Speaker) and a young human woman named Teela Brown.

Their first stop on the journey is on the Puppeteer homeworld. There the crew learns that they are on a mission to explore a ringworld. This is an artificial ring of around one million miles wide which encircles a star at around the distance of Earth’s orbit around our Sun. The ring rotates which produces gravity at around Earth normal. The ringworld’s inner surface is habitable, providing the area of three million Earths to explore. Night is created by an inner ring of shadow squares that are connected by thin wire.

Wu and the others travel to the ringworld where their ship is disabled by the world’s automated meteor defense system. They crash land into the ringworld near a huge mountain. The ship’s technology keeps much of it intact despite the crash, they keep their hyperdrive that allows them to travel between solar systems, but they lose their regular proposion system which is what they need to free themselves of the ringworld.

Wu, Speaker and Teela Brown set off on flycycles (a sort of flying jet bike) to explore the ringworld and see if they can find something or someone to help them repair their ship. They discover humanoid ringworld primitive natives that live in the crumbled ruins of a technological city. The natives believe that Wu and his team are ringworld engineers, and look on them as gods, until the crew misuse certain technologies and thus “commit blasphemy”.

As they continue their journey, Nessus reveals the reason why Teela Brown was included on the voyage. His people have performed indirect breeding experiments on humans to try and create the psonic ability of “luck”. Teela is the result of generations of humans that have won in a breeding lottery on Earth. Nessus concludes that it was thought that Teela Brown would bring good fortune to the voyage due to this ability. This confession angers the crew and Nessus is forced to separate from them, but he continues to follow them at a distance.

Eventually, the entire team meets up with a former crewmember of a spaceship that once traded between the ringworld and other inhabited planets. “Prill” tells them why the ringworld’s civilization fell. With Prill’s help, Teela Brown and her lover Seeker, the team makes plans to escape from the ringworld.

I read this book back in the 1980s when I was a teenager and forging for every science fiction novel that I could find. It is interesting to note that the original publication of this novel had a mistake that haunted the author for some time. When Wu travels around the earth to extend his birthday, Niven originally had his traveling Eastward. This would have shortened his birthday. In later editions, the author changed this section to show that Wu traveled westward, which would indeed make his natal day longer. In his dedication of The Ringworld Engineers, Niven wrote, “If you own a first paperback edition of Ringworld, it’s the one with the mistakes in it. It’s worth money.”

I remember being weirded out by the concept of Teela Brown. The idea that people could be bred for “luck” was a strange idea to me and it is a central concept of the Ringworld novels. Later, when Teela changes into a new stage of humanity in future novels of the series, I found her to be frightening. Compared to what goes on in today’s novels though, Teela Brown is rather tame.

Ringworld is considered hard science fiction. The science of the book is based on what might happen in the real world and while there are elements of detective novels and adventure in the book, science is the main draw of the story. One of the reasons why I enjoy classic science fiction is that it details how life might improve with new technology instead of being destroyed by it. Many of the concepts outlined in Ringworld are coming to fruition today. There are test runs being done to mice in which genetic engineers may extend human life by hundreds of years by switching out a few genes, proto-types for hyperdrive space ships are moving from the theorist’s drawing table into the realms of real life possibility, and who knows, perhaps luck might even now be a factor in our progeny. The stories are a precursor, or perhaps even a progenitor, of what is to come in our lifetimes.

Niven is easy to read, his concepts about science and people are sound. This is a great series to add to your collection to gain an understanding of what classic hard science fiction is all about.

Ringworld Book CoverRingworld Series

Ringworld (1970)
The Ringworld Engineers (1971)
The Ringworld Throne (1996)
Ringworld’s Children (2004)

UCLA Writers Faire

ucla signThere are a few people in my local writing group that are in MFA programs here in Southern California. I’ve heard about their classes and seen the relationship between them and their professors by the notes they diligently follow as they work on their stories. When UCLA announced a Writers Faire on campus featuring free panels of professors to talk about writing and the ability to sign up for any class in their writing program at a 10 percent discount, I put the date on my calendar and decided to give the event a perusal.

Traffic was with me. This is a semi-religious statement known to most dwellers of Los Angeles when you find open road on a Sunday. Any other day of the week, my trip to the university would have been over two hours. I arrived at Parking Structure Two, with ample time to spare, before the first panel would begin.

“Welcome to the Writers Faire, do you know the password?” The young woman in the reflective vest asked in a bored voice.

I stared at the parking attendant, not sure how to answer her question. I resisted the urge to tell her Open Sesame.

“If you don’t know the password, or have a badge, it will be $12 to park. Cash.” I frowned. No one had mentioned to me that I needed to bring a badge or the increase in parking fees. The last time I had been on campus, parking was $8. I opened my wallet, but balked. It was not so much the higher rate, but the situation I was put in. Password indeed! “Can I make a U-Turn out? I will find parking elsewhere.”

There was a shrug. “Sure. If you want.”

On my way through Westwood, I had passed a small parking garage which proclaimed a $5 flat rate. It would be a little bit of a walk from the bottom of the hill, but the savings to my pocket book would be worth it to me, and it would salvage my pride. I found the walk to campus to be delightful as I passed by a botanical garden and then proceed on cement pathways through buildings that were a mixture of design from traditional brick to modern cement.

Writers Faire Vendors

Ahead in one of the courtyards, I spotted a small grouping of white EZup tents and market umbrellas. Most of the tables were for writing classes at the university or the entertainment media program. On the pavilion an entire area was set aside for students to queue and enroll at a 10 percent discount. Several universities had information about their writing programs, including USC, UC Riverside, Chapman College, and Cal Arts.

Organization of Black ScreenwritersThe first table I stopped at was the Organization of Black Screenwriters. A lovely lady in yellow explained about her non-profit group. She assured me that the group was open to anyone with an interest in screenwriting and her organization would be an excellent networking opportunity.

The Independent Writers of Southern California or IWOSC were offering mini-writing panels at the faire. They are a large, friendly writing society with plenty of activities for members to attend. I understand that they offer writing webinars in addition to their Los Angeles based meetings.

A Room of Her Own or ARHO is dedicated to furthering the vision of Virginia Woolf and bridging the gap between a woman’s economic reality and her artistic creation. The ladies tending their table had a drawing for a writer’s retreat and photos about the last one that the organization hosted at a desert resort.

The Writer’s Junction is a workspace where you can find the quiet of a library, the society of a coffee house and the focus of an office. It is located in Santa Monica and the space is available for a low monthly stipend. I loved the idea, but traveling to Santa Monica is simply too far for me.

PEN Center USAThe final table I visited was shared by two literary magazines from PEN Center USA. The Rattling Wall is a year old and is looking for up and coming writers. The editor of the magazine was on hand to answer questions about his journal. The other literary magazine, The Los Angeles Review, was giving a free issue to interested readers. I found both the magazine representatives to be outgoing and genuinely interested in finding fresh talent for their publications. With hundreds of young aspiring writers underfoot at the Faire, I’m sure that they were successful.

It was time for the first battery of panels to begin. I selected a panel called Writing for the Youth Market. As the panel of four writers began I found myself questioning if these professors took the Writers Faire seriously. One arrived late and then informed the crowd that she was more a dancer than a novelist, another kept repeating “I don’t know why I’m here.”, and still another told the crowd of aspiring YA authors that if they wanted to be published, then they should seek out AARP, a senior citizen newsletter and write articles for this corporate publication. Only one panelist made an honest effort to be on topic and talk about what sort of writing you should do to make your story into young adult or new adult stories. To say that I was disappointed at the end of this panel would be an understatement.

Panel  on Writing and Publishing Short Stories

My next panel was across the courtyard and was entitled The Art of Writing and Publishing Short Fiction. This time, the panelists were professors of the advanced writing program. Each gave a short mini-lecture that demonstrated examples of information you might learn in their class and a listing of their experience and writing credentials was given. I was impressed by this panel, each instructor had an interesting personal story to tell, and because their skill as storytellers was evident, I felt that I got to know them better. My favorite of the panel was an inspiring hispanic woman that told us how she started as a substitute teacher at Los Angeles Unified School District, but left to continue with her writing, earned a fellowship, and then became a writing teacher at UCLA. Afterward, I went to the panel to ask further questions about publishing. The answer I received should help me begin my next step in writing. Of all the panels I saw that day, this was the best group. I would be honored to take a writing class from any of these instructors.

Questions After A PanelThere was an hour break for lunch before I returned to the courtyard to attend two more panels. I found both of them to be less than desirable, but mainly because they were aimed at beginning writers who knew little about the market, publishing or how to organize and write their stories. The panels were more about selling the writing program to young students, than imparting writing information. What little information was provided was what you could easily find on the internet.

As I departed that afternoon, I pondered that the Writers Faire was more to look over the program and the professors that would be teaching you at UCLA than being an event to learn about writing. This is not an invaluable thing. Many times you sign up for a course with no idea what the teacher will be like. By having the opportunity to listen to the teachers speak, hear more about their classes and their backgrounds, it makes it easier to make an informed decision about which classes you might wish to take or about the entire program in general.

Writing is a personal experience and every teacher brings something different to the table. Make sure it is a meal that is worthy of your repast. I am glad that I took the day to go to UCLA and learn more about what the university has to offer.

Book Review: A Wizard of Earthsea

Book Name: A Wizard of Earthsea
Author: Ursula K. Le Guin
First Published: 1968

Born in 1929 in Berkeley, California of an anthropologist father and writer mother, Ursula K. Le Guin was exposed at an early age to the life of academia, the art of writing and to the concepts of anthropology. Her father established a department of anthropology at UC Berkeley and her mother wrote her husband’s biography. Le Guin attended Berkeley High School and went on to gain her B.A. from Radcliffe College in 1951. She went on to receive her M.A. from Columbia University.

In 1953, Ursula Kroeber married historian Charles A. Le Guin. They had three children together and four grandchildren. Currently, they reside in Oregon.

Le Guin became interested in literature as a child. She submitted her first short story to Astounding Science Fiction at the tender age of eleven years. It was rejected, but this did not deter her desire to become a writer. She moved to a new genre, that of stories set in imaginary countries, but without the fantastic elements of her early attempts. In time, she grew tired of this genre and returned to her first interest in science fiction and fantasy.

In 1967, Herman Schein, the publisher of Parnassus Press and husband to Ruth Robbins, the woman who would later illustrate the book, asked Le Guin if she would consider writing a book “for older kids”, leaving the concept and subject free of her own choosing. A Wizard of Earthsea followed the next year and was published by Parnassus Press. Le Guin based the novel on a pair of short stories she had published in 1964, The Rule of Names and The Word of Unbinding. In these short stories, she explored the concept that wizards were always portrayed as old and wise figures in literature. The author wondered where the wizards might have learned their magic before they gained their wisdom. These two stories served as the groundwork for the Earthsea trilogy that would follow.

Locus has ranked A Wizard of Earthsea as the third choice among a list of thirty three titles as All-Time Best Fantasy Novels, based on a poll of their subscribers. The Earthsea Cycle has won many literary awards, including:

1968 Boston Globe-Horn Book award for A Wizard of Earthsea
1972 Newbery Silver Medal Award for The Tombs of Atuan
1972 National Book Award for Children’s Books for The Farthest Shore
1979 Lewis Carroll Shelf Award for A Wizard of Earthsea
2002 Locus Readers Awards: Tales from Earthsea, “The Finder”
2002 Locus Readers Awards: Tales from Earthsea, “The Bones of the Earth”
2003 Endeavor Award: Tales from Earthsea

Ursula K. Le Guin has won many more awards for her writing, and I do not doubt that more are due in her future. Her awards are simply too numerous to list in a simple blog post.

A Wizard of Earthsea is the first novel in the Earthsea Cycle series. It is a poetic fantasy that has the feeling of an epic, but is only around 200 pages in length. Earthsea is a series of island nations that exist on small archipelago islands in a vast ocean. The culture is agrarian and weapons are of the iron age, supplemented by the use of magic. Wizardry is the art of learning the true names of things and by knowing the name of a thing, you gain mastery over it. The people of Earthsea are careful to only reveal their true names to those that they can trust.

The novel follows the story of a young wizard, known as Ged. The boy is raised by a well meaning witch, who has recognized the magical power within him, and his father the blacksmith. When their island home is attacked by a marauding army, young Ged uses his limited training to control a mist to confound the army and saves his people. This action brings him to the attention of a powerful wizard named Ogion. The wizard tells Ged his true name, Sparrowhawk. He offers to apprentice the eager Ged in the arts of magic, but once they undertake the training, Ged is frustrated because Ogion is more concerned with teaching Ged wisdom instead of magic.

Ged is given the opportunity to attend the main wizard school on the island of Roke. Once Ged arrives, he learns quickly, but the young wizard is also arrogant and impatient, he gets into a pissing match with a rival young wizard named Jasper and thus makes the mistake of summoning the dead.

Thus begins a journey across Earthsea where Ged battles dragons, fights villagers and ultimately learns to switch from being the hunted to becoming the hunter. Just what is this shadow that he has unleashed? How can he learn its true name and gain control over it once and for all? For this young, impatient wizard, it is the ultimate challenge.

I have a great deal of nostalgia for the Earthsea Cycle. I was one of those kids that hung out at the public library instead of playing sports or joining in group activities. A Wizard of Earthsea was one of the books that I discovered in the YA section of the library. This novel was my first introduction to Ursula K. Le Guin as an author and I have gone on to read most of her novels. She has been an influence over me as an author.

Back then, there were only the first three books. Of the three, I believe that The Tombs of Atuan was my favorite of the original trilogy. To this day, I still can feel the character Tenar, a young priestess, exploring the underground tunnels of her people’s temple. It is a hidden place that only she is allow to go. She travels in the darkness, not aware of all the treasures that stud the tunnel walls because of her obedience to how the priestess’ taught her. It is only when Sparrowhawk bids her to question her existence that she sees all the wonder around her. He helps her find herself. Allegories like this is what makes Earthsea rich as a series.

Another aspect of the stories that I remember clearly is the moment when I figured out that Sparrowhawk was a young man of color, not a white man, as many heroes in fantasy novels are. As a teenager, I remember being flabbergasted by this fact, pausing to reread to make sure that what I saw on the page was actually there, and then I was delighted. This was not a common occurrence in fantasy books at the time. LeGuin was breaking new ground.

There seems to be a disconnect to Earthsea by the younger readers of today. Earthsea is not written as a novelized movie. It is not purely visual as we are growing used to in our novels today. It is a literary adventure with a depth of thought that requires the reader to ponder about the ethics of what the characters do and the price they pay for a moment of youthful folly. These are ideas that I feel are well worth exposing to young readers in our pop culture of instant gratification.

I hope you’ll give The Earthsea Cycle consideration in your reading list and that you check out Ursula K. LeGuin’s work in general. She is truly a national treasure.

A Wizard of Earthsea Book CoverThe Earthsea Cycle:

A Wizard of Earthsea, 1968 (named to the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award list in 1979)
The Tombs of Atuan, 1971 (Newbery runner-up)
The Farthest Shore, 1972 (National Book Award)
Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea, 1990 (Nebula Award and Locus Fantasy Award)
Tales from Earthsea, 2001 (short stories)
The Other Wind, 2001 (World Fantasy Award, 2002)