On Earthsea Revisited

Posted on 08 April 2016

So, I muscled through reading A Wizard of Earthsea. About halfway through, the generation-prior writing style stopped sticking in my craw, and honestly, it reminded me a lot of reading the old Icelandic Sagas, but I am still of conflicted thought.

I am having a hard time articulating my thoughts on it, but they coarsely come out to “The story was okay, but it felt derivative and meh, but I have no clue if that is because it is an ~50 year old book.” I mean, it won some hefty awards back in 1969 when it was published. But the very form of it does feel very much “old myth”, even down to the content and theme. Then again, I’m not sure how many stories had been told from the point of view of the wizard character at that point, so that might make it fairly original for its time. In fact, I can’t think of many books off the top of my head that are told from the point of view of an accomplished wizard. Pat Rothfuss comes closest, although the Kvothe of the main story still “in training”. While I’ve read a fair amount of Eddings, I never did read the Belegarath/Polgara books, so they might. But really, even when a character is magically imbued or destined, the story usually doesn’t take place with them being able to easily transform into a dragon to fight other dragons, or to casually cast magic for their purposes.

Fantasy, be it “Sword and Sorcery” or “High”, tends to focus on people who only just discovered their fledgling powers. I suppose by the end of The Wheel of Time, the main characters with magic had become pretty proficient with it, but by the time they have, 10+ books in, you were eased into it. In Earthsea, Ged/Sparrowhawk is more or less proficient after 80-100 pages. Rand was barely out of the Two Rivers by then in The Eye of the World, and even if try and map the much shorter trilogy of Earthsea onto the Wheel of Time, Rand and other “initial characters” had more or less learned how to not shoot their own foot off, much less be considered “fully trained and ready to fight dragons”. at the plot-equivalent spot (which I’d guess is somewhere around book 4 in WoT).

So perhaps that is the originality? We also more rarely see stories that start with a well seasoned character at all. Again, going to Eddings, Sparhawk in the Elenium actually was magically competent and already a seasoned warrior right out the door of The Diamond Throne, published in 1990. It is also hard to not notice the similarity in names between Sparrowhawk and Sparhawk, despite them being drastically different characters.

And I have to admit, I really do enjoy this more rare style of character, one that isn’t a naive farmboy/girl just discovering their powers and the world at the same time. Sometimes, it is nice to see someone who has already come into their own have to deal with something that makes even them pause and wonder. It kind of gets beyond that “you are the chosen one” mentality of a lot of fantasy, where the only real reason bumbling under-trained protagonist beats the seasoned mastermind villain is because of coincidence and plot armor.

Not that I don’t enjoy a good underdog story, but when so much fiction is rooted in that narrative (usually for the purpose of making the protagonist also the reader stand-in to discovering the world), sacrificing a bit of the more “natural” exposition of the idiot learning for just occasional straight up exposition can give a nice payoff at the end as the villain is more believably and satisfyingly defeated by competent and evenly matched heroes instead of fate, circumstance, and luck.

And honestly, it probably explains why even when I was 18 and writing my first manuscript, I wanted my main characters to be in their early 30s.

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