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The Good Witch of the West

From: Children's Literature
Volume 9, 1981
pp. 185-190 | 10.1353/chl.0.0112

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In 1967, Herman Schein, publisher of Parnassus Press, asked Ursula K. LeGuin to try writing a book for him. "He wanted something for older kids," recalled Mrs. LeGuin, noting that he gave her complete freedom as to subject and approach. A Wizard of Earthsea (Berkeley, CA: Parnassus Press, 1968; New York: Ace, 1970; New York: Bantam, 1975) was the first result of that act of faith. The Tombs of Atuan (New York: Atheneum, 1971; New York: Bantam, 1975) and The Farthest Shore (New York: Atheneum, 1972; New York: Bantam, 1975) completed the trilogy known as Earthsea. Though LeGuin had never published anything for children before A Wizard of Earthsea and indeed had only a few adult short stories and three slim science-fiction novels to her credit at all, her ability was immediately recognized. A Wizard of Earthsea was awarded the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Excellence in 1969; The Tombs of Atuan was a Newbery Honor Book in 1972; and The Farthest Shore won the National Book Award for children's literature in 1972.

Her remarkable talent as a fantasist was quickly perceived in England as well. British critic Naomi Lewis, in her annotated bibliography, Fantasy for Children (London: National Book League, 1975), writes of A Wizard of Earthsea: "Not the easiest book for casual browsing, but readers who take the step will find themselves in one of the most important works of fantasy of our time" (p. 26). She describes The Tombs of Atuan as "this extraordinary book," and says of The Farthest Shore: "This dreadful and marvelous voyage ranks with some of the greatest voyages of legend" (p. 27).

LeGuin has not only enriched children's literature with what may be its finest high fantasy; she has also proved to be a perceptive critic of children's literature and its staunch defender against the literary prejudice she labels "adult chauvinist piggery."

Appropriately, it was a children's literature critic, Eleanor Cameron, who offered the first serious criticism of LeGuin's fiction, in a talk entitled "High Fantasy: A Wizard of Earthsea," delivered in 1969 to the New England Round Table of Children's Librarians. (The talk was reprinted in Horn Book, 47, No. 2 [April 1971], 129-38 and in Crosscurrents of Criticism: Horn Book Essays 1968-1977, ed. Paul Heins [Boston: Horn Book Inc., 1977], pp. 333-41.) Other early appreciations of LeGuin's achievement include Wendy Jago's "A Wizard of Earthsea and the Charge of Escapism" in Children's Literature in Education, No. 8 (July 1972), pp. 21-29, and Geoff Fox's "Notes on 'teaching' A Wizard of Earthsea," in Children's Literature in Education, No. 11 (May 1973), pp. 58-67.

General recognition was slower in coming, and those interested in critical evaluations of LeGuin's work and in the author's critical statements were forced to seek them in such diverse sources as science-fiction "fanzines" and journals, the Times Literary Supplement, the Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress, Parabola, and privately printed chapbooks.

But things are looking up. In 1974, Robert Scholes, a professor of English at Brown University and author of The Nature of Narrative, The Fabulators, and Structuralism in Literature, delivered four Ward-Phillips Lectures at the University of Notre Dame. These were subsequently published in 1975 as Structural Fabulation: An Essay on Fiction of the Future. Scholes states that "the four essays are intended as a kind of prolegomena to the serious reading of what we loosely call 'science fiction.'" The first two lectures are general and theoretical; the third "presents a perspective on the varieties of modern SF, through a discussion of certain borderline or extreme cases." The final lecture examines LeGuin's work, which, according to Scholes, "will stand the most rigorous critical examination and, indeed, profit from it" (p. ix). Of LeGuin he writes: "But if I were to choose one writer to illustrate the way in which it is possible to unite speculation and fabulation in works of compelling power and beauty, employing a language that is fully adequate to this esthetic intention, that writer would be the Good Witch of the West" (p. 79), his nickname for LeGuin, who lives...