Ursula K. Le Guin and the Canon of English Literature
In consideration of literature, most readers would agree that classic works, such as those of William Shakespeare, John Milton, or Jane Austen fall into the accepted canon of seminal English works. Works of modern fantasy and science fiction, however, are often not given the same sweeping acceptance. There are a number of factors involved in the general perception of science fiction and fantasy, from critical bias to studies of reader perceptions of genre (Ditrum, Sarah). Regardless of these reasons, there is great power in works of fantasy, especially those aimed at younger readers.
The works of Ursula K. Le Guin have had incredible impact on young readers and adults alike. At the time of her passing in 2018, she was heralded by the literary community as one of the greatest authors of all time (McDowell, Laura-Blaise). And her collection of literary works are predominantly science fiction and fantasy. A Wizard of Earthsea is marketed as a book for young readers, yet even at the time of its publication in 1968, it was received with critical acclaim. The book has never been out of print. A Wizard of Earthsea is just as seminal to the world of English literature as any classic work because it defies the expectations of the fantasy genre to be without substance, both for its time, and still to this day.
A Wizard of Earthsea and Inclusion
A Wizard of Earthsea defies expectations, and thus roots itself into the canon of literature through the characters and heroes Le Guin chooses to portray. The people of Gont, and nearly all the Archipelago, are “copper-brown” (Le Guin, Ursula. 23) in their skin. In 1968, nearly all central heroes in the literary canon of English were exclusively white skinned, and fair-haired. This homogenous representation acted as a gatekeeper to English literature, and in the 1960’s a cultural renaissance was taking place across the English speaking world. Old world racism was being evaluated by newer generations, segregation laws were being removed, and major strides toward correcting long standing social injustice toward people of color were making headway.
Le Guin, by writing her book with a person of color at its center, firmly places A Wizard of Earthsea on the right side of the social changes of the time. The purpose of literature, especially in the English canon, is to provide essential, ubiquitous influence representative not only of the time of its publication, but applicable to the human experience going forward (Barron, Kaelyn). By subverting the racism apparent to the era of its publication, A Wizard of Earthsea situates itself into the literary canon. Doors of accessibility are opened wide to all English speaking people, not only those who are white, by Le Guin’s seminal work (Bellot, Gabrielle).
Literary Canon and the Impact on Readers
The impact of a person’s actions is also central to Le Guin’s work. In A Wizard of Earthsea, we learn of their magic from the masters at the school of Roke. Ged asks the master changer in one lesson why he cannot change a stone to a diamond. The master replies with a bit of wisdom that is extraordinarily applicable to all of us. It is what they call the principle of Equilibrium.
“To change this rock into a jewel, you must change its true name. And to do that, my son, even to so small a scrap of the world, is to change the world. It can be done. Indeed it can be done. It is the art of the Master Changer, and you will learn it, when you are ready to learn it. But you must not change one thing, one pebble, one grain of sand, until you know what good and evil will follow on that act… To light a candle is to cast a shadow,” (Le Guin, Ursula 59).
Every action we take has consequences, both good and bad. By taking the time to understand those actions we might take, we can be assured that we made the decision, and the outcome is the one we will live with. We become masters of our fate. To me, that was a beautiful lesson, and one I still struggle to learn even today. Decisions can be hard, but when we come to them with an understanding that the outcome, no matter what it will be, is one that we will live with and use to influence our lives for the better. I know that I take my choices more seriously in light of this truth, and find a sense of comfort and control in doing so.
Conflict in the Canon
A Wizard of Earthsea also passes the test of qualifying for literary canon in how it approaches conflict. There are generally accepted to be six types of literary conflict: Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Supernatural, Man vs. Technology, Man vs. Society, and Man vs. Self. Man vs. Man is the most common type employed in nearly all literature; the story of good vs. evil often falls into this paradigm (Casscio, Christopher). Le Guin’s story isn’t one of Man versus Man, but Man versus Self. In his pride the protagonist Ged takes a serious risk; he attempts to summon the spirit of a heroine from one of their ancient stories. But as he works the spell, he loses control of it, and brings into his world something far worse. It has no name, but what it is known as when it is able to possess a human body is a gebbeth, or an eaten one.
The attack of his shadow leaves him terribly scared, and even robs him of some of his physical faculties. He is slow of speech for almost a year, and even moves with halting limbs from that time forward. His pride brought him low, and he spent the rest of his youth fighting the terror he had brought into the world by it (Le Guin, Ursula 84). In the end, Ged discovers the only way to overcome his prideful shadow which he brings into the world is to understand how it is a part of him. How he must accept it and move on. We all have negativity inside ourselves. We have aspects to our personalities that are harmful, some may say even toxic. Only by looking inward, and facing what we are and what we want to be, can we accept those mistakes and shortcomings and find a way to coexist with ourselves, and eventually defeat the shadows of our own pride.
Great literary works that are worthy of consideration into the canon are ones that teach principles applicable to the human race regardless of time or place. The inclusion of fantasy or fictional elements is irrelevant in this consideration; Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is considered by many scholars to be a part of accepted modern canon, and is simultaneously considered the first true science fiction ever written (Fishelov, David). The genre of a piece is not more important than the sum of its impact. This is true of many works of fiction, but especially for A Wizard of Earthsea. The book is a reflection on the human struggle of pride, overcoming self-doubt and personal strife, and creates connective tissue for BIPOC representation in the world of literature.
- Ditrum, Sarah. ‘It Drives Writers Mad’: Why are Authors Still Sniffy About SciFi? 2019, Theguardian.com. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/apr/18/it-drives-writers-mad-why-are-authors-still-sniffy-about-sci-fi
- McDowell, Laura-Blaise. Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, and More Pay Tribute to Ursula K. Le Guin. 2018, Bookstr.com.
- Le Guin, Urslua K. A Wizard of Earthsea, 1968. Graphia/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2012 edition.
- Barron, Kaelyn. The Literary Canon: What’s In It, and Who Makes the List? 2021, TCKpublishing.com https://www.tckpublishing.com/the-literary-canon/
- Bellot, Gabrielle. How Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea Subverts Racism (but Not Sexism) 2020. Tor.com https://www.tor.com/2018/10/30/how-le-guins-a-wizard-of-earthsea-subverts-racism-but-not-sexism/
- Cascio, Christopher. Types of Conflict that Can Be Found in a Narrative, 2015. Education.seattlepi.com https://education.seattlepi.com/types-conflict-can-found-narrative-3739.html
- Fishelov, David. The indirect Path to the Literary Canon Exemplified by Shelley’s Frankenstein, 2016. Purdue University Press. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/318879438_The_Indirect_Path_to_the_Literary_Canon_Exemplified_by_Shelley’s_Frankenstein