Monday, August 6, 2007

A Wizard of Earthsea

When my boys were gone on holiday and I had to stay home to work, my good friends down the street took pity on me in my solitude and invited me to supper and a movie at their house. I gladly accepted, always ready for company and to mooch... :) ... The movie turned out to be a wonderful fantasy they rented from the video store that had been made in 2004 by the U.S. based Sci-Fi Channel: A Wizard of Earthsea.

When they announced the title of the movie, I recognized Ursula le Guin's masterpiece of some time ago. What struck me with surprise was that my friends not only didn't know the writer, but they had introduced this 2004 movie as a Harry Potter clone! "It's got dragons and wizards and even a wizard school, like Hogwarts in it!" they claimed. And so it did. But what they didn't realize was that A Wizard from Earthsea came long before J.K. Rowling even began to think of Harry Potter.
Ursula Le Guin wrote this remarkable book in 1968 and it was part of a book series, with the first followed by The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, Tehanu, Tales from Earthsea, and The Other Wind.

It is, in fact remarkable that Ursula Le Guin conceived of a fantasy world that had many aspects similar to those envisioned by J.K. Rowling, only thirty years before. What I find more remarkable is how this classic seemed to have been overlooked when all the hype about the wizard world of J.K. Rowling's making swept the world like a summer storm.

Those of you who may have seen the movie on TV or rented it yourselves, can attest that indeed there are many elements similar with Harry Potter in A Wizard of Earthsea, though there are enough differences to make it a delicious alternative (especially now that the HP series is finished.).

There is, for instance, the School of Wizardry on Roke Island, the magical heart of Earthsea and protected by potent spells and a magical wind and fog that ward off evil. Teaching in the school was carried out by Masters (each with a specialty) such as: Master Windkey, who teaches weather control; Master Hand, who teaches illusions; Master Herbal, who teaches healing; and so on, including transformation, calling, True Speech, seeking and returning.
There's the world of the dead, "The Dry Land" a dark, cold place that was, in fact, a failed attempt by mages to achieve immortality for their peoples. This land and its lost souls plays an important role in both the book and the movie.

There are also dragons and dragonlords. Dragons of Earthsea consider men to be uninteresting, short-lived mayflies and view all but a select few in that manner. A dragon will do one of two things with men--eat them or talk to them; the former is far more common. When dragons choose to speak, they are worth listening to, given their long lifespan and great wisdom.

Le Guin painstakingly created a world rich with lore, tradition, cultures and magic. And one with intrigue, tension and a compelling story of growth, friendship, betrayal and victory. I highly recommend these books for fantasy lovers, particularly those who have not yet encountered some of our classic writers like Ursula Le Guin. She has written many others (also science fiction), if you find you like these.


The Sci-Fi Channel movie, while I found it pleasantly entertaining, had changed many elements of Le Guin's story, much to the anger of Earthsea purists. For instance, the main characters in the book resembled Native Americans, being dark in coloring with straight black hair; not Caucasian as in the movie. Names were altered and the religious practices of Atuan were misportrayed. The celibacy of Earthsea wizards was overlooked as Ged and Tenar became sexually involved in the film version. Le Guin, who had not been consulted in any way in the production, said: "I can only admire Mr. [Executive Producer Robert] Halmi's imagination, but I wish he'd left mine alone."
I liked both the movie and the books. But watch the movie first (given it's limitations), then prepare for a rich tapestry of imagination in Ursula Le Guin's classic book series. Who needs Harry Potter?...




Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit www.ninamunteanu.me. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for more about her writing.



13 comments:

Karen said...

Sounds fascinating! I'll have to get it. Wizard school, here I come :D

sfgirl said...

Cool, Karen! You'll have to tell me what you think.

CJWriter said...

I'm a little more familiar with The Left Hand of Darkness than Earthsea, but I think the Earthsea series has aged slightly better than the Hainish books. It's really amazing how vivid Le Guin's world still is, 40 years on... I'll have to go back and check out the rest - you've made me want to rediscover them! :)

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Jean-Luc Picard said...

It looks very detailed, with so much to cover.

Professor Xavier said...

Sounds interesting. I might have to check it out.

Kathleen Maher said...

I've read the Wizard of Earthsea, but have had trouble finding the entire trilogy. She wrote a book that wasn't marketed for young adults. It was about a man and woman living in separate worlds that converged along a river where they met. I can't remember the name of it, and enjoyed and admired that book many years ago. It's never left me. She's one of my all time favorite writers. Perhaps I'm looking in the wrong places for her work. But when I say, I can't get enough of her writing; I mean I can't find enough of it.

sfgirl said...

The book doesn't come to mind, Kathleen...I'll ask my local SF bookseller in Vancouver, White Dwarf Books. They might know and I'll get back to you. Unless someone else here knows...???

sfgirl said...

p.s. Hey...Did you know that you look an awful lot alike, Jean-Luc and Professor Xavier?... Are you long lost twins or something?...;)

Jean-Luc Picard said...

I've noticed that about Xavier as well.

sfgirl said...

So, HE'S the clone...

Professor Xavier said...

No, no. I was born first. If there's any clones here, it's him.

sfgirl said...

Oh, excuse me, Xavier...Then Jean-Luc is the clone...