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Book vs film: A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin

The Book Corner season 5: Book vs film. Episode 4: A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin vs Tales from Earthsea by Goro Miyazaki

The 1975 Bantam books cover of Ursula Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea, created by Pauline Ellison
The 1975 Bantam books cover of Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, created by Pauline Ellison

A Wizard of Earthsea became an instant classic of children’s fantasy when it arrived in 1968. It launched six novels exploring the wizards, peoples, lands and creatures of the Earthsea archipelago. In 2006, Studio Ghibli delivered Tales from Earthsea, an animated feature based on Le Guin’s works. It’s a very different beast.

The Book Corner

The Book Corner is a regular break from critiquing for the writing group of my former MA colleagues. We work out a theme and each of us chooses a book to read and discuss. Previous themes have included literary genre award winners and books that shaped our writing journeys. So far this year, I’m just about keeping up with the schedule as we read them.

As usual, it’s an odd mix with a skew towards SF and fantasy, and in this season we’re comparing books to their screen adaptations. Catch up with Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion, The Dark Tower vol 1 — The Gunslinger by Stephen King and The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan. Coming up: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, The Colour Out Of Space by HP Lovecraft (vs the bonkers Nicolas Cage adap.) and Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynn Jones.

A Wizard of Earthsea: the story

Ged is a magically gifted peasant boy living on the isle of Gont, where he’s also known as Sparrowhawk. (No one reveals their true names in Earthsea, except to their most trusted confidantes.)

He foils a barbarian attack on his village, displaying his abilities. The village witch sends Ged to the island’s grand wizard, Ogion, but in his impatience, Ged summons a strange shadow. Ogion banishes the shadow but encourages Ged to realise his potential. He must sail to Roke, the wizard’s school on an island at the heart of Earthsea.

Ged’s talent impresses his teachers and he develops a deep friendship with older student Vetch. However, his arrogance leads to a rivalry with Jasper, another talented student. When they compete to best each other, Ged attempts to summon the dead, but instead releases the shadow creature.

The Archmage Nemmerle sacrifices himself to banish the shadow, and Ged is badly scarred. The new Archmage, Gensher, warns that the shadow is a nameless ancient evil. It wants to possess Ged and will continue to seek him out.

A wizard in Earthsea

Ged graduates from Roke and becomes wizard to the distant Ninety Isles. There he negotiates peace with the dragon who rules a neighbouring island.

The shadow returns and Ged flees to the isle of Osskil, seeking the stone of the Terrenon. He believes that it will help him to defeat the shadow, and seeks refuge in the Court of Terrenon. Ged discovers that the stone imprisons an evil Old Power which offers to help him if he sets it free.

He refuses, and escapes the court by transforming into a falcon that outflies the stone’s creatures. His long flight back to Ogion almost traps Ged in the bird’s form. Ogion is convinced that the shadow has a name and that it can be controlled. Ged faces the shadow and it flees from him.

Ged’s flight becomes a pursuit across Earthsea. He reunites with his old friend Vetch and ultimately confronts the shadow. Ged recognises his own darkness and merges with the shadow. He is whole for the first time since Roke.

Ruth Robbins's woodcut-style map of Earthsea from the 1968 first edition of A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula Le Guin
Ruth Robbins’s woodcut-style map of Earthsea from the 1968 first edition of A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula Le Guin

A Wizard of Earthsea: a writer’s review

I first read A Wizard of Earthsea at school in the early 1980s, and I don’t remember enjoying it. Very likely that came down to two things: I didn’t like being told what to read and I was comparing it to the D&D-style fantasy I was reading at the time.

Books like the Dragonlance Chronicles were full of Tolkienesque ‘proper’ fantasy creatures. They had magical battles between well-defined good and evil forces, and epic confrontations that fit a typical Hero’s Journey plot.

It’s a shame that I didn’t find the Earthsea stories on my own. Le Guin has a wonderfully lyrical prose and she doesn’t dumb down her style for children; she just happens to be writing about a young man. Ged doesn’t throw fireballs, he gets a lot wrong and he’s not a likeable hero or fun to travel with. He solves problems through negotiation, he resists temptation, and his spiritual victory is about as far as you can get from a spectacular conquest of his enemy. I can see why teachers and adults are fond of the sympathetic road to humility on which Le Guin takes her protagonist, and why it didn’t win me over.

As a writer, I’m now beginning to question dominance of the Hero’s Journey. It’s become a cultural straitjacket upon modern storytelling, most obviously in genre fiction. Le Guin plots her own course and refuses to conform to the monomyth.

She uses intriguing Taoist themes within her worldbuilding and introduced original conceits like the power of true names. Her dismissal of conflict to resolve problems is as challenging to the status quo now as it was almost 40 years ago.

Earthsea, the original

Earthsea is a creation that Le Guin had clearly developed in painstaking detail. Yet she doesn’t overwhelm the reader with background and history. Instead, she merely hints at untold stories that enrich the world without derailing the main narrative. One drawback is that she often mentions Ged’s future adventures, so there’s no doubt that he will survive his trials. It expands the epic scale but reduces the tension.

One surprising aspect of A Wizard of Earthsea is how little it connects to Le Guin’s reputation as a feminist writer of science fiction and fantasy who often challenged tropes of a male-dominated genre. As a Black hero in a world where the only white characters are dangerous barbarian invaders, Ged is revolutionary for a novel published in 1968.

Yet female characters are almost insignificant in this instalment of the Earthsea chronicles. There are no female wizards on Roke, and the background presents women as wives and servants in a male-dominated society. The audience for children’s fantasy literature was thought to be almost exclusively male at this time, so perhaps either Le Guin or her publisher thought that female wizards would be too much for them.

Arren hugs the dragon Therru in Studio Ghibli's Tales from Earthsea

Tales from Earthsea by Goro Miyazaki

Screen adaptations haven’t been kind to Earthsea, but this one is better than the 2004 Sci Fi Channel series which whitewashed Ged, among other crimes. Tales from Earthsea was the younger Miyazaki’s debut feature for Studio Ghibli, and Le Guin reportedly believed that Hayao Miyazaki would be in charge. It bears no relation to the eponymous 2001 collection of Le Guin’s short stories and essays.

This film combines elements of several Earthsea books into a new story, so that several characters and events don’t make sense. It showcases the best and worst of the Ghibli style: stunning background art populated by flat characters with limited expressions, and dialogue that’s often clichéd and expository — the exception being a gorgeous dragon. The story resolves in a traditional battle that’s out of character for an Earthsea tale.

Tales from Earthsea is probably best seen by Ghibli completists and best avoided by fans of Le Guin’s own stories. If you want to see a good Ghibli, we’ll be doing Howl’s Moving Castle in a few months’ time.

What’s better, book or film? They’re hard to compare, but it’s the book. Le Guin’s original is a classic but Miyazaki uses it to make Ghibli-by-numbers.

The Book Corner season 5, episode 5: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Nobel laureate, anglophile and SF dilettante Kazuo Ishiguro took on cloning in his 2005 novel, which Alex Garland adapted into a film starring Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield in 2010.

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