Sunday, February 05, 2006

Ursula Le Guin's 'Earthsea' books

I’m starting work on a new children’s novel this week - past the ideas stage now, just thrashing out the basic structure - and, wanting to inspire myself, I’ve been looking at those novels I read as a child which have stayed with me into adulthood. They are mainly fantasy novels, and of those the most important to my development as a reader - and now writer - of fantasy fiction would have to be Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea.

When I was about ten years old, I was given a small portable tape recorder which I used to record my thoughts and snatches of poetry and extracts of prose from my favourite books. One of the extracts I particularly remember recording on that machine, trying repeatedly to get the ‘voice’ right, were the opening lines to A Wizard of Earthsea.

I don’t know why I chose to record that particular extract - there are far more powerful passages further into the novel - or why my memory has chosen to give such significance to the recording of those opening lines, rather than to any of my own thoughts or poems from that time. But certainly those opening lines - which describe the island of Gont where Ged, the young wizard-to-be, grows up as a goatherd - must have held some special significance for me when I was ten years old ... and still do, in fact, nearly three decades later.

Perhaps those words are special to me because of their position in the novel; after all, they are the opening lines of a story, which means they can take us - like that magical phrase ‘Once upon a time’ - into a different world, a special new world where our fears and worries and terrible inner secrets still exist but are somehow transformed by the actions of the heroes and heroines into problems which have become manageable. Reading complex psychological stories of heroes battling terrible demons, as young Ged is forced to do in A Wizard of Earthsea, may help children - and adults - find the courage they need to combat their own inner demons.

One of the major threads in my own new fantasy novel for children is fear: fear of the unknown, fear of doing the wrong thing, fear of hurting others, fear of change. It’s a contemporary story, set in a real city, but with strong fantasy elements which appeal to my own tastes in children’s fiction. In that way, at least, I always write for myself.

When starting to test out ideas for new stories, I ask myself what sort of book I would like to find in the children’s section of my local bookshop, and then set out to write that story. As an adult reader of children’s fiction, I tend to prefer powerful young characters that I can identify with, a fast-moving plot with gripping action sequences, elements of the supernatural or spiritual which empower the main characters to rise above their fears and limitations, and a story which doesn’t allow problems to be too easily or simply resolved. Our problems are not easily or simply resolved in real life and I don’t think we need to pretend that they are.

If you haven’t yet read Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series of books, I recommend them as beautifully written works of fantasy that I come back to again and again as an adult reader, not just for inspiration but also as a delightful means of temporary escape from the real world. Read some Amazon reviews or buy the books themselves by clicking here.

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