Ursula K. Le Guin wrote A Wizard of Earthsea in 1968. I just stumbled upon it—one of those books that I had heard about but had never taken the time to read.
I find it fascinating for a whole host of reasons, the most significant simply being that, for a fantasy novel, there is remarkably little war in it. The protagonist, a wizard named Ged, gets into fights, but these fights are not the apocalyptic, world-ending type. There are good guys and bad ones, but they seem far from the point. There is no final, epic battle where the fate of the world hangs on the balance… at least not in the way that we have come to expect from stories like this one.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I love a good showdown between the forces of good and evil. I want a world with noble heroes and unsympathetic villains; a world where the hero’s hard work pays off in the face of the ultimate test of their character—that moment when they do exactly what they have prepared a lifetime to accomplish. It is precisely for that simplicity that I turn to fiction!
And yet—like Le Guin’s novel—the real world doesn’t follow the standard storyline. Often, the good guys have plenty of flaws, and the bad ones have strange redeeming qualities as well. Our character is tested (again, and again, and again) in the newness and mundanity of the everyday. It happens when we are confused about our next step. It happens when we feel wholly unprepared.
In the afterword to the 2012 edition of A Wizard of Earthsea, Le Guin describes what she was after by ditching the traditional final battle:
To be the man he can be, Ged has to find out who and what his real enemy is. He has to find out what it means to be himself. That requires not a war but a search and a discovery. The search takes him through mortal danger, loss, and suffering. The discovery brings him victory, the kind of victory that isn’t the end of a battle but the beginning of a life.
I’m grateful for such victories. Thank God that our journey doesn’t require epic battles, heroes, and villains to have purpose. It requires, quite simply, the willingness to be transformed.
— Fr. JavierTags: From the Clergy, Hope for the Journey