National Endowment for the Arts - The Big Read
A Wizard of Earthsea

A Wizard of Earthsea

by Ursula K. Le Guin

To me a novel can be as beautiful as any symphony, as beautiful as the sea.


Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Ursula K. Le Guin

  1. 1920s
    • 1922: E. R. Eddison brings out his epic fantasy The Worm Ouroboros.
    • 1926: Book-of-the-Month Club is founded.
    • 1929: Ursula Kroeber is born in Berkeley, California, on October 21.
  2. 1930s
    • Ursula Kroeber grows up surrounded by books and three older brothers, and passes her summers on a ranch in the Napa Valley.
    • 1938: T. H. White publishes his beloved Arthurian fantasy, The Sword in the Stone.
    • 1939: The first Worldcon—science fiction's annual convention—takes place.
  3. 1940s
    • This is the great decade of the science fiction and fantasy magazines, including Amazing Stories, Astounding Science Fiction, Startling Stories, and Thrilling Wonder Stories.
    • 1947: Ursula Kroeber enters Radcliffe College.
    • Mervyn Peake creates his expressionist Gothic masterpiece, Titus Groan in 1946, followed by Gormenghast in 1950 and Titus Alone in 1959.
  4. 1950s
    • This is the heyday of flying saucers, alien invaders, the space race, comic-book heroes, and fears of atomic disaster.
    • 1953: Ursula Kroeber continues her studies in romance languages at Columbia; marries historian Charles Le Guin.
    • 1954–1955: J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is published.
  5. 1960s
    • The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, and Star Trek become hit television shows.
    • 1963: Maurice Sendak revolutionizes children's picture books with Where the Wild Things Are.
    • Ursula K. Le Guin begins to publish science fiction and fantasy. A Wizard of Earthsea receives the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award in 1968.
  6. 1970s
    • Le Guin grows increasingly active as a teacher, mentor, and example to younger writers of fantasy and science fiction, particularly women.
    • 1979: Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber re-imagines classic fairy tales from a feminist perspective.
    • Fantasy becomes a dominant aspect of much innovative fiction around the world, notably in the work of Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, and many others.
  7. 1980s
    • 1981: John Crowley creates a genuinely American fantasy classic, Little, Big.
    • 1985: Le Guin creates the dossier-like Always Coming Home, the portrait of a peaceful, cooperative culture. She also brings out a series of fairy tales and picture books for young children.
    • More and more women publish science fiction and fantasy, including Joanna Russ, C.J. Cherryh, Octavia E. Butler, Tanith Lee, Karen Joy Fowler, and Connie Willis.
  8. 1990s
    • Author websites, fan groups, and online discussions of fantasy and science fiction proliferate on the Internet.
    • 1990: Le Guin returns to Earthsea with Tehanu.
    • 1996: Philip Pullman publishes The Golden Compass, followed by The Subtle Knife in 1997, and The Amber Spyglass in 2000.
  9. 2000s
    • Le Guin continues to write innovative fiction and essays about literature, politics, and the imagination.
    • 2003: Peter Jackson's The Return of the King wins the Oscar for best picture.
    • 2007: With Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J. K. Rowling completes her seven-volume series about the education of a young wizard.

The Fantasy Tradition

Myths, folktales, animal fables, medieval romances, Arabian Nights entertainments, Celtic accounts of the Other World, fairy tales and tall tales, ghost stories, horror fiction, and much of our greatest children's literature might all be loosely thought of as fantasy. In such works impossible or surreal things happen—and no one seems at all surprised. Animals talk. Wishes are granted. Predictions come true. This is, in truth, the realm of dream, of the unconscious manifesting itself in story. Such narratives hint at our hidden desires, reveal unacknowledged aspects of ourselves, and usually teach us some good lessons, too. The truest fantasies are never frivolous—the smallest action, the least word spoken or unspoken may prove consequential, dire, even fatal. As Ursula K. Le Guin writes, "Fantasy is the natural, the appropriate language for the recounting of the spiritual journey and the struggle of good and evil in the soul."

People sometimes imagine that fantasy offers mere escapism, whimsical adventures full of improbabilities or elves. In fact, the great modern fantasies possess a brilliant purity, often denied to modern realist fiction. They show us the natural world's mystery and holiness, the grandeur of noble men and women, the need for integrity, the beauty of self–sacrifice. Little wonder that fantasy is a cousin to the fairy tale, parable, and religious allegory. As in the medieval Arthurian romances or John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress (1678–1684), heroes are tested, confronted with painful ethical dilemmas and difficult moral choices.

Certainly the great modern fantasies—whether by J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, or Philip Pullman—often externalize what are, in fact, psychological or spiritual battles that go on inside each of us. The clashes of armies in Middle Earth are, in part, symbols of the ashen and weary Frodo's inner fight against the growing power of the evil Ring. Even in a cinematic fantasy such as Star Wars (1977), Luke Skywalker must put his trust in the force that flows through the universe.

Yet while fantasies look at life steadily and hard, they don't end in despair: these narratives of spiritual education, set in what Tolkien called a "secondary world," describe a hero's journey from ignorance and bondage to wisdom and an earned, if unexpected, happiness. A Wizard of Earthsea is more than just an exciting story. Like so many other great fantasies, it is, as Le Guin has written, "a journey into the subconscious mind, just as psychoanalysis is. Like psychoanalysis, it can be dangerous; and it will change you."

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