The Big Book of Earthsea
by Ursula K. Le Guin
Saga has officially announced that they’ll publish all Earthsea in one volume in 2018 — a grand present for a Wizard’s fiftieth birthday.
When Joe Monti first proposed this edition to me, I was happy to think of the six books of Earthsea, Ged and Tenar’s whole story, all truly together at last — but I worried about how much it would weigh.
I read lying down. I know what a Giant Tome can do to your arms and shoulders. Not to mention your solar plexus.
But I’ve been working on my abs and my brachioradiales. I can handle it. Bring it on, Joe!
Seriously, what is most exciting to me about this edition is THE PICTURES. Charles Vess is painting a wraparound cover and a full-color frontispiece for each of the six books (and, says he, “the title page will be in color, if I have anything to say about it.” To which I say Amen!) Then he’ll be drawing some fifty black-and-white vignettes for chapter heads, ten or a dozen full-page illustrations, and a bunch of smaller pictures throughout the book.
This is the first completely illustrated Earthsea ever. And I do mean completely.
OK, I confess — I was worried about that too, at first.
I’ve had some great relationship with illustrators, and some not so great ones. Some professional illustrators, having been or fearing to be bossed and harassed by unreasonable or impossible demands, simply refuse to communicate with the writer. I accept that only if I have the corresponding right to refuse the illustrations.
But with an artist of the standing of Charles Vess, the situation is different. He can legitimately expect autonomy — to find and follow his own vision of the text without seeking any input from the writer.
I expected that he would do that. I was almost incredulous when he didn’t. But incredulity turned to happy relief. Charles is a collaborator.
I love collaboration. As a poet and story-writer I work strictly alone; but to find an artist of a different art — painter, composer, filmmaker, playwright, actor, choreographer — that I can consult with, talk with, and watch as they make what I wrote into something new, yet still itself, something I couldn’t make, couldn’t even imagine — That is a privilege and a joy.
So, this is how it’s been going:
Charles begins the conversation, emailing me occasonally with questions, remarks, while reading the books. I answer as usefully as I can. Also, we chat. I find out that he has sailed all around Scotland. He tells me about Neil Gunn’s novel The Silver Darlings, which I read with vast pleasure. I don’t know what I tell him, but slowly and at easy intervals a friendship is being established.
Suddenly Charles sends me a sketch of a dragon.
It is an excellent dragon. But it isn’t an Earthsea dragon.
Well . . . an Earthsea dragon wouldn’t have this, see? but it would have that . . . And the tail isn’t exactly right, and about those bristly things —
So I send Charles an email full of whines and niggles and what-if-you-trieds-such-and-suches. I realize how inadequate are my attempts to describe in words the fierce and beautiful being I see so clearly.
The dragon reappears. Now it looks more like an Earthsea dragon.
But still, it wouldn’t have this here, but it would have something there . . . And about its eye . . . And about those bristly things, you know, don’t they make it very male? and dragon gender is really mysterious . . . .
And so on — more nitpicking, more whimpering, more what-ifs and inadequate efforts to describe.
Patient as Job, grimy with graphite, Charles responds with further dragons, ever more graceful and powerful, ever closer to my heart’s desire . . . and his too, I hope.
Then all at once he sends a rough sketch for the title page that makes me leap up and shout Oh, LOOK AT THAT!!! even though nobody is there but the cat, who doesn’t.
But then, even in that, I find things to whine about, and ask about, and pester him about.
And so it goes. A fascinating process, but not an easy process for either of us, I think. It can be very exciting; it can be very trying.
Two different, intense temperaments; two independent people with a sense of mastery in their respective crafts; one on the East coast, one on the West, a continent between them; a mature man and an old woman, with the inevitable differences of vision and of expectation that age and gender create . . . . Is it from the differences, maybe even the strains, that a spark is struck?
But the concordances, the understandings, the growing confidence, the trust, are the fuel that keeps the fire burning.
The fire is burning. And I am perfectly certain that this book, whatever it may weigh, is going to be beautiful — a treasure.
18 July 2016