I think most writers start out as lonely kids whose best friends are books.
Not long ago, my wife and I were packing to visit family for Thanksgiving. All of my clothes were shoved in a suitcase and I was frantically searching our bookshelves for some light airplane reading. Reading an engaging book on a plane is one of my favorite parts of air travel, and I wanted something good, something exciting and thoughtful. My index finger came to rest on a small paperback with a cracked spine and a torn cover; a book I hadn’t thought about in a very, very long time.
When I was eleven years old, my family moved out of state. I changed schools and, in that cruel pre-social media world, lost touch with nearly all of my friends. I went to a small charter school in our new town, where there were just 15 students in my entire grade. I struggled to fit in and when I couldn’t seem to make any friends, I turned inward.
There was a small, white bookcase in my classroom and students were encouraged to borrow books. Being in middle school and being lonely, I naturally gravitated to escapist fiction and picked up a slight book with a dragon on the cover — A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin.
The novel opens with this haunting epigraph from the creation story of LeGuin’s fictional Archipelago:
Only in silence the word,
only in dark the light,
only in dying life:
bright the hawk’s flight
on the empty sky
From those first words, I was hooked.
Originally published in 1968 when very few women were writing in speculative genres, A Wizard of Earthsea came to me at the perfect time, as great books often do. Set in a fantastic world of islands and magic, the story follows the journey of Sparrowhawk, an arrogant young sorcerer who inadvertently breaks the barrier between life and death and unleashes a murderous shadow into the world. As he seeks to defeat it, he comes to understand the balance between light and dark — and his own place in that balance.
A Wizard of Earthsea completely captivated me. It wasn’t an epic fantasy, like The Lord of the Rings, but a personal fantasy; a coming-of-age story about one man learning to master his demons (both figurative and literal).
Of even more interest to me as a budding writer was the nature of magic in LeGuin’s imagined world. Her wizards practiced word magic. In Earthsea, the key to magical power lies in names. To know the true name of a person, an animal, or a force of nature gives you power over it. In my own life, I was also learning that words were powerful.
A Wizard of Earthsea was my gateway drug. In addition to the book’s four sequels, each growing in depth and complexity, LeGuin’s saga led me to other works of fantasy and science fiction. It also inspired me to write my own stories. If writing were a superpower, those books of fantasy would feature prominently in my origin story. Throughout middle school (and especially during the two years before I transferred to a larger public school), I started to write consistently for the first time in my life, building my own fictional worlds.
I had nearly forgotten about A Wizard of Earthsea until I happened upon it while packing my bag. I had nearly forgotten why it was so important to my development as a writer and how it had kept me company when I was a lonely kid in a new town. I don’t intend to forget again.
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Jonny Eberle is a writer in Tacoma, WA. He can be found on Twitter or on his couch rereading the books that he loved when he was younger. If you liked this post, please consider subscribing to his mailing list for monthly book recommendations and exclusive content. What books inspired you when you were young? Sound off in the comments!