Our next nomination comes from The John Campbell Award for Best New Writer Nominee Max Gladstone (2013), author of Three Parts Dead.
The definite article’s the problem. That one word, three letters, rhymes with tree, is a sneaky bugger, prion of the question world, tiny, easy to miss, impossible to cure, slides into an otherwise normal sentence and turns it into a gut-twister, a head-pounder.
“What is the Great Fantasy Novel?”
Oh sure, I said, I’d be happy to write an essay on the topic, what an honor to be asked, thank you very much. And who can’t name a great fantasy novel? So many to choose from: Little, Big. The Master and Margarita. The Once and Future King. The Hero and the Crown. A Wizard of Earthsea. That’s not even getting to the foundation texts like Morte d’Arthur, Journey to the West, the Mahabharata.
Great, Janea said. I’d like it by this date, please.
And then I began to stew.
The great fantasy novel. Pick one.
Okay. Let’s narrow it down. Look at the other words. Fantasy’s a good start. John Clute’s Encyclopedia of Fantasy differentiates between a fantasy and a taproot text—the latter being, basically, a story from before the edges of the map were filled in to the point that we could say with (false?) confidence that a given story was impossible. Good enough. That lets me banish the titans of myth and traditional literature, from the Mahabharata to the Mabinogion.
Novel’s an interesting word, too, because fantasy as practiced in the modern world has an uncomfortable relationship with novels—by which I mean novels in the sense that Anna Karenina is a novel or Henry James wrote novels, novels as books that tell the complete story of their characters. Tons of modern fantasies don’t. It’s not a hard and fast rule or anything, but it’s a characteristic of the genre that’s hard to miss. A Game of Thrones may be an excellent book, it may make readers’ fingers itch for the next volume—but it doesn’t tell the complete story of anyone except for maybe Ned Stark, and his execution is unmistakably the beginning of a much larger story. A Game of Thrones is the first book of A Song of Ice and Fire, not Beckett starring Ned Stark as Peter O’Toole. Fantasy, especially in the modern day, is a genre hungry for the next book in the series. Mystery’s the only other field I can think of that’s equally in love with sequences and series. Science Fiction doesn’t come close—hell, calculus doesn’t come close. (Sorry, couldn’t resist the math joke!) The Great Fantasy Novel should capture this ambivalent relationship with the novel—should work, I mean, as a single volume and as a piece of a larger world.
And Great—almost as treacherous as “The.” Fortunately, I had a prompt: “If we could pick just one fantasy novel that would represent the entire genre and use to tempt high school readers away from works like The Old Man and the Sea, what novel would that be?” We’re looking for the Great Fantasy Novel as an exemplar of the genre—a book that stands up and claims territory for fantasy, a book that would lead fantasy into battle like Alexander led his men against the Persians.
For my money, that book is A Wizard of Earthsea.
If you’re one of the unfortunates who haven’t encountered this book yet, A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin, is the story of a young man named Ged, called Sparrowhawk, born in a sprawling archipelago on the rural island of Gont. We follow Ged’s growth to power and maturity. As a child, Ged uses his nascent magical abilities to defend his village against pirates; growing, he learns the basics of mystical Naming at the feet of the sage Ogion, screws up, attends the best magic school in literature, and screws up again, this time so badly that he must travel to the world’s furthest edge to set his mistake right. Oh, and there’s also the bit where he faces a dragon in single combat.
It’s foolish even to try to list all of this book’s virtues. The writing is tense, vivid, and spare at once. LeGuin builds more world in Wizard‘s two hundred-odd pages than most fantasists manage in a thousand. As for magic, LeGuin gives us a system that feels real and whole, but remains numinous and awe-inspiring to its core. In LeGuin’s world, names have power—but only true names, uttered in the old tongue dragons speak. A Name can transform, bind, release, mend, destroy. To speak a Name changes the Namer as much as it changes the Named. Combined with deft traces of Daoism and Zen, LeGuin has built a technology of magic that feels no less magical once we see its underpinnings.
The book’s characters, too, remain etched on the mind. While Ged’s roomy enough for a reader to pour himself or herself into, he isn’t a simple blank slate; Ged has his own strengths, weaknesses, and failings. The determination and pride that drive him to grow great (in time, he will become the world’s Archmage) prove to be his undoing time and again. Lesser characters shine as brightly, even those unnamed. Ged’s witch-aunt, who teaches him the beginnings of magic but not of control, is more than an agent of initiation—she is a signal of the book’s and LeGuin’s discomfort with Earthsea‘s male-centered story. Ogion, and the many mages of the wizard school island of Roke, belong in the pantheon of great wizardly mentors—yet in Ogion at least we see more than the Eternal Bearded Man. LeGuin hints at the master’s power, his human limitations, and the youth he once was before he became the paragon wizard we meet in the book’s opening chapters.
And then there are the dragons. Oh my god, the dragons. Just—let me take a moment and plant my flag in the earth for dragons. You can judge a fantasy by its dragons—by which I don’t mean that the quality of a fantasy is limited or entirely determined by the quality of its dragons, but rather that dragons are clues to the nature of the story. Dragons are the fewmets of fantasy—following them, we follow the fantasy to its lair. Dragons in Terry Pratchett’s work are as two-sided as that work itself: at times immense, noble, and terrifying, but mostly small, funny, and mischievous. Dragons in The Hero and the Crown echo the many forms of nastiness in Robin McKinley’s world of Damar, from the small and spiteful to the chthonic and world-poisoning. Dragons in A Song of Ice and Fire are as newborn, menacing, and uncontrollable as magic in Westeros. The dragon in Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles is, like Kvothe, tremendously powerful, out of its element, as dangerous to itself as to its enemies, and inflated in myth and legend until its story-self eclipses the facts of its life. (What, you thought it was an accident that the other book we know Chronicler wrote was The Mating Habits of the Common Draccus? The series title for the Kingkiller Chronicles might as well be The Mating Habits of the Common Kvothe, but that’s another story entirely…)
LeGuin’s dragons set the gold standard. Ancient, wise, capricious, beautiful, mighty, and sometimes sad, she salts Tolkein’s profoundly Western dragons—for all his majesty, Smaug the Terrible is a clear descendant of the “St. George” and the species of dragon—with elements of the Chinese demigod. LeGuin’s dragons, especially in Earthsea, are selfish and terrifying in a way that Chinese dragons don’t tend to be, but their power and wisdom is of a kind. Her dragons point to the wonder and the danger of her world and its magic—which is to say, the wonder and danger of the truth, beyond and beneath all transformation and evasion.
Great writing, characters, philosophy, worldbuilding, adventure, elder gods (I forgot to mention those but they’re there too), and superlative dragons. What more could an exemplar of fantasy literature want?
I wrote earlier that the term “fantasy novel” is a bit loaded, due to the role of the series and the continuing world in fantasy. Truly stand-alone books are rare, and rarely remain stand-alone. Authors revisit worlds, characters, and events. Some draw single stories over many books. I’m reluctant to name one of these multi-volume novels as a “Great Fantasy Novel,” though, for the same reason I roll my eyes whenever someone tells me a TV series “gets really good around season three.” (But seriously guys, if you stopped watching Babylon 5 in the middle of Season 1, you made a horrible mistake and need to fix it.) We want a Great Fantasy Novel that stands alone as a single volume, a gateway book—but also shows what fantasy writers can do with a series. The Earthsea books are embarrassingly good at this: while each stands alone—almost—each also builds on the previous volumes. And, most importantly, every story gives us a new perspective on LeGuin’s world.
A reader can stop at A Wizard of Earthsea having read a complete, fully formed tale that hints at greater adventures to come—or move on to the next book, Tombs of Atuan, and see the same world through the eyes of a privileged and sheltered girl of a dramatically different culture. To Tenar, Ged is a stranger possessed of alien powers come to subvert her religion. We can stop there, with Tenar’s journey into light in Tombs a counterpoint to Ged’s journey in Wizard. Or, continuing, we can encounter the world through the eyes of a prince with no magic at all, caught up in mysteries he can barely comprehend—a character vastly more privileged in some ways than either of our main characters in Wizard or Tombs, but also marginalized due to his poor grasp of the narrative’s mystical heart. We can stop there, or keep going and see the human cost and ramifications of grand magic through the eyes of a woman drawn apart from the world of events. (Tenar returns in Tehanu, yes, but the woman we meet is very different from the girl of Tombs.) And so on. The Earthsea books take the fantasy genre’s serial tendency, and use it to display many different perspectives on the world we’ve come to know—often subverting supposed truths with new tales.
While LeGuin’s fingerprints on the genre are subtler than Tolkein’s, I don’t think we would have the modern fantasy dragon—subtle, cunning, alien, wrathful and compassionate all at once—without her work. Seraphina and Temeraire owe a great deal to Orm Embar. The use of true names and runes as the basis for magic goes back to Odin and Egypt, but LeGuin’s particular articulation of Naming lives and breathes in Patrick Rothfuss’s work, among others. And LeGuin’s Earthsea books make the grand case for a fantasy series: the fantasist tells the story of a world, the story of many peoples, and you can’t do that in a single book with a single protagonist. In LeGuin’s hands, the fantasy series becomes more than a single story chopped into pieces; it serves as a stage for perspectivism and contrast.
If I had been asked to name the best fantasy novel, I’m not sure if I would have given the same answer—there are so many claimants I’d have to stammer and fall silent, because how could I choose between The Master and Margarita and Little, Big and The Once and Future King and Earthsea and of course there’s Tolkein and and and—but I was asked to nominate The Great Fantasy Novel, the book that stands in the same relation to fantasy as Moby Dick and The Grapes of Wrath and maybe Infinite Jest and Song of Solomon stand in relation to the American novel, a book that is not so much of its own kind as it is an exemplar of our tradition, and well, I think A Wizard of Earthsea is that book.
But, as I review that list of titles—well, you’ll have to excuse me. I have some rereading to do.
This article is part of our search for “The Great Fantasy Novel.” For more information on this project or to nominate your own favorite fantasy novel, please take a look at the introduction article. Do you agree or disagree with this nomination? Let us know in the comments below!
Max has taught in southern Anhui, wrecked a bicycle in Angkor Wat, and been thrown from a horse in Mongolia. Max graduated from Yale University, where he studied Chinese.
Max is a John W. Campbell Best New Writer Award Nominee for 2013. His first book, Three Parts Dead, is a Massachusetts Must Read book of 2013. Two Serpents Rise, the next novel in the Craft Sequence, will be published in October 2013.