A couple of posts ago, I wrote about the workshop I led at Stonecoast last winter, on fantasy writing. I mentioned that I had given the students a series of quotations, and we had discussed them as examples of various writing issues and techniques. This is one of the quotations I used to talk about character: the beginning of A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin. But there’s so much more going on here than the establishment of character! I have a list of writers that I learned from myself, as a writer. Le Guin is one of the most important of them. She’s one of the reasons I try to write clearly, fluidly. I think lyricism is based on clarity of expression. She’s also one of the reasons I try to write about ideas, as much as I try to write about characters. She’s one of my models for what a courageous writer looks like.
So what is she doing here, in this opening?
“The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards. From the towns on its high valleys and the ports on its dark narrow bays many a Gontishman has gone forth to serve the Lords of the Archipelago in their cities as wizard or mage, or, looking for adventure, to wander working magic from isle to isle of all Earthsea. Of these some say the greatest, and surely the greatest voyager, was the man called Sparrowhawk, who in his day became both dragonlord and Archmage. His life is told of in the Deed of Ged and in many songs, but this is a tale of the time before his fame, before the songs were made.
“He was born in a lonely village called Ten Alders, high on the mountain at the head of the Northward Vale. Below the village the pastures and plowlands of the Vale slope downward level below level towards the sea, and other towns lie on the bends of the River Ar; above the village only forest rises ridge behind ridge to the stone and snow of the heights.
“The name he bore as a child, Duny, was given to him by his mother, and that and his life were all she could give him, for she died before he was a year old. His father, the bronze-smith of the village, was a grim unspeaking man, and since Duny’s six brothers were older than he by many years and went one by one from home to farm the land or sail the sea or work as smith in other towns of the Northward Vale, there was no one to bring the child up in tenderness. He grew wild, a thriving weed, a tall, quick boy, loud and proud and full of temper. With the few other children of the village he herded goats on the steep meadows above the river-springs; and when he was strong enough to push and pull the long bellows-sleeves, his father made him work as a smith’s boy, at a high cost in blows and whippings.” — Ursula Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea
First, notice that we are on the move: just as in the beginning of The Hobbit (which I discussed two blog posts ago), we as the readers are in motion. This time, we begin above the island itself, looking at it from what is often called a bird’s eye view. That’s a particularly accurate description here, because we swoop down over the island, from its high peak toward the towns on its slopes, then down still further, to its ports and bays. We fly up again toward the village of Ten Alders, and then we are with the boy who will become Ged, watching him herd goats in the meadows. It’s as though we’ve landed in the branch of a tree, and are watching this intractable boy. At the beginning of Le Guin’s book, we are the Sparrowhawk. We move as the hawk moves.
This happens thematically as well. The opening moves from a grander, larger view toward a smaller, more intimate one: Sparrowhawk to Ged to Duny. Dragonlord to archmage to goat herd. The Deed of Ged to this story, of the days before his fame. But as it moves downward and inward, it has already told us that it will move upward and outward: the boy we are going to study and spend time with will become something we can scarcely comprehend: archmage and dragonlord. We will start in Ten Alders, but the journey will eventually take us from isle to isle of all Earthsea.
I’ve become convinced that one way to introduce tension into a scene, any scene, is through opposition: show the reader opposites. This entire scene is structured by the oppositions between boy and man, village and world, present and future. Even the opposition between poetry and prose, because somewhere out there is the Deed of Ged, but this is not that story.
It’s a brilliant opening.
A Wizard of Earthsea tells a story that sounds, on the surface, a bit like Harry Potter: boy goes to study magic at a school for wizards. And yet it’s also about as unlike Harry Potter is it could be. It’s less popular, although I suspect it will become more of a classic. I think it’s less popular because although Ged also has to defeat an evil that he first meets at his magical school, in A Wizard of Earthsea that evil is himself. That’s not as much fun as defeating a villain like Voldemort, is it? Harry Potter is more fun. But A Wizard of Earthsea is deeper. It’s less wish-fulfillment, more a deep lesson about the self, a lesson we eventually all have to learn. J.K. Rowling is a very good writer. Ursula Le Guin is something more than that.
But here I’m talking specifically about her writing technique. This is an opening every writer should study, for the way it moves, the way it has us enter the story. Like the opening of The Hobbit, it’s genius . . .
(This is the version of A Wizard of Earthsea that I read as a child, and still own. Predictably, I had the boxed set of all three books.)