Book Review: John Plotz on Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reviews John Plotz’s personal reading of a fantasy classic by Ursula K. Le Guin

The American author Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018) is widely regarded as one of the finest authors of what is broadly termed ‘speculative fiction’. During the course of her long writing career, she wrote novels and short stories in both the fantasy and science-fiction genres. She has also long been praised as one of the greatest stylists within these genres, with an ability to pick up, as Chesterton said of Robert Louis Stevenson, the right word on the end of her pen.

Le Guin’s contribution to SF (whether the ‘S’ stands for ‘Science’ or ‘Speculative’ I will leave to one side for the time being) is considerable. Novels like The Left Hand of Darkness treated the subject of gender (in a way that prefigured much discourse of the current century; her novel appeared in 1969), while the short story ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’ (1973) has become that rare thing: a timeless myth whose possible interpretations and applications have only grown since the story was published fifty years ago.

But for this short study of Le Guin’s work, Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea: My Reading (Oxford University Press), John Plotz, Mandel Professor of Humanities at Brandeis University, chooses to focus on one particular area of Le Guin’s substantial oeuvre: her novels and short stories set in the world of Earthsea, spanning the 1968 novel A Wizard of Earthsea through to the late work The Other Wind (2001).

These works are firmly in the fantasy genre, but one of the things Plotz does admirably well here is to show what sets Le Guin’s fantasy aside from the writing of Tolkien, the author against or aside whom every fantasy author is inevitably set. He is persuasive when discussing Le Guin’s style, the careful and deliberate nature of her prose, and the way she creates an alien world through ingenious use of language.

And Plotz’s analysis of the Earthsea books takes him to some perhaps unexpected places: to E. M. Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread (where the human need for ‘fantasy’ takes on a new meaning in an increasingly scientific age) to Walter Benjamin’s concept of ‘left melancholy’ (Plotz identifies in Le Guin’s fiction an antithesis to this notion).

And then there is Earthsea itself. Plotz’s book contains four chapters: a contextualising of Le Guin’s series in the broader field of fantasy fiction; a chapter on the ‘simple joy’ of reading Le Guin’s work, especially her use of language and the power of naming; a detailed analysis of Le Guin’s process of revisiting and rewriting the books decades after the novels were first published; and a concluding chapter, ‘My Earthsea’, in which Plotz outlines the role that science fiction and fantasy continue to play in his imaginative and professional life.

First and foremost, this book contains plenty of discussion of the Earthsea books themselves, and plentiful reasons given for why they are worth reading.

Some of these reasons, of course, are deeply personal. Indeed, it is the nature of this new series from Oxford University Press that these short author-based studies (there are other books on, among others, Sir Thomas Browne and Marcel Proust, authored by enthusiasts of their work) are informed by personal experience of growing up with, studying, reading, and returning to, the author whose work is under discussion.

The justification for this series is outlined in the ‘Series Introduction’ authored by the five series editors (Anne Cheng, Philip Davis, Jacqueline Norton, Marina Warner, and Michael Wood): namely, ‘that it helps to have a book recommended and discussed by someone who cares for it.’

The effectiveness of such an approach can be variable, such is the nature of subjective opinion about the value of a particular book and the personal circumstances in which we first ‘meet’ an author’s work. But Plotz here does an admirable job of showing how Le Guin’s fictional world can get under our skin and even subtly shift our understanding of our own world, the real one we inhabit outside of books.

This is a point Plotz iterates several times in Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea: My Reading, and he does exactly what a book of this kind should do: he whets our appetite for Le Guin’s books, inspiring us to step through that invisible portal into the world of Earthsea and lose ourselves in the beautiful prose of Le Guin’s fiction, and the world of the imagination such prose so effortlessly conjures.

Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea: My Reading is out now from Oxford University Press.

Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books, and The Tesserae, a long poem about the events of 2020.

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