Hats Off to Ursula K. LeGuin


Since reading the Chrestomanci series, we've moved back to Ursula K LeGuin, starting out with her classic Wizard of Earthsea. Both Erin and I read this book before, myself once in high school (and once before that having my mother read it to me) and Erin many times in college. Still, we were impressed by how good it was.

You'll find the first three novels of the Earthsea Trilogy in the science fiction/fantasy sections of your local bookstore, and your teen reader sections AND "young readers 11 and up" (at least, this was the case at the Chapters I looked at). I wonder about that, because the first book is really scary.

There was this episode of the classic television series Sapphire and Steel where the big evil reveals itself as a whispering, creeping darkness that slips over the walls and furniture, turning everything pitch black (and, for added effect, snuffing out a candle -- it is the most frightening moment on television, bar none). Perhaps this image stuck in my mind when I reread the shadow that Ged unleashed upon the world, but even without that image, I could see my younger self being kept up nights... and enjoying every minute of it.

Why is it that children's literature has some of the scariest material in the world? Is it the combination of the childlike innocence of a story with the black and white structure of good and evil? Consider Patrick Little's The Hawthorn Tree: an excellent retelling of the fairytale legends, particularly of Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer. It has the simplicity of style of all good children's books. Ellen Kushner's adult Thomas the Rhymer is more true to the story, not touching the legend in her lyrical retelling.

The Hawthorn Tree has killer trees and a vicious ordeal for our hero when he tries to get his friend back. Thomas the Rhymer has sex, sex, and lots more sex, as well as typically amoral faerie politics. Though Thomas the Rhymer is clearly the more challenging book, The Hawthorn Tree has the greater impact for me. "Just keep telling yourself, it's only the shadow of a tree... only a tree... only a--what tree?"

The children's novel distilled all of its faerie flavour into a handful of very sharp moments that children appreciate, and which, when well written, adults feel harder hit by. At the same time, what the heck are our children doing reading this sex and violence? But they do. And they go on to lead perfectly normal lives. I guess children are a lot stronger than we think. Consider how much our children's stories have been bowdlerized by well-meaning adults? Red Riding Hood beat the wolf by playing a strip-tease for him. The giant wanted to grind Jack's bones to make his bread. This was appropriate children's literature some time ago. What changed?

Anyway, during our trip to South Dakota, we misplaced our battered copy of Wizard of Earthsea, along with my watch and Erin's car keys (we know where the latter two are, and Wendy will be sending those along by post). So, I went out today to Chapters to look for a replacement copy. It was amazing. I searched throughout the store (which is why I know that her books are in three different sections) and found plenty of the Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, Tehanu and The Other Wind. No Wizard of Earthsea. Finally the clerk told me that the book was on backorder and I should check back in a couple of weeks.

I'll be back in a couple of weeks.

In the interim, I found a fifth Chrestomanci book, entitled Mixed Magic. Actually, it's an anthology of four short stories by Diane Wynne-Jones. So, I'm not without something to read.

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