A Work in Progress: More Earthsea Sketches by Charles Vess

Ursula K. Le Guin, photo by Marian Wood KolischA Work in Progress: More Earthsea Sketches by Charles Vess

by Ursula K. Le Guin

Continued from “The Big Book of Earthsea,” July 18, 2016.

Here are a few more of Charles Vess’ preliminary sketches for the illustrations for the one-volume Earthsea next year, along with excerpts from our correspondence about the pictures and their subjects.

As you see, the dragons of Earthsea are now very splendid creatures. The people, the islands, the towns, the houses and ships and forests and goats of Earthsea are all coming to visible life. The pages of the book will be thronged and vivid with them.

These are first-draft, rough-draft sketches in pencil, alterable in every detail. Charles will not finish them in ink until we have got every roofbeam and wine glass right. But I love the freedom of the pencil sketches, the energetic lines and vigorous composition that give the sense of motion in open space.

Collaboration between two arts is an exciting business!

I. Inside An Imaginary House

(March 17, 2017)

Charles wrote:

. . . I also discovered that the Mage’s home in Re Albi had a wooden floor. Good to know, perhaps?

Ursula answered:

The wooden floor also came as a surprise to me when young Ogion insisted on laying it for Dulse (and I hope there is nothing in the earlier books that contradicts it).

How do you see the roof of the house? The Overfell is a windy place much exposed to weather, and I think I vaguely imagined slate or tile rather than thatch; but all I am sure of is that it’s not ceiled, inside the house one sees the beams and rafters.

Charles wrote:

I’d been doodling a floor plan (which I don’t know if I’ll ever use . . .) and had a stone floor in mind. But wooden planks makes much more sense.

Roof: It would certainly be shingled with either wood or slate because in that high place thatch would just blow away in the wind.

Also, I discovered after carefully reading through the first 4 books that the one, small window is facing west and in the alcove. Good to know.

Ursula answered:

I will doodle the floor plan in my head and try to scan and send it. I realized that the way I describe the interior of the house in A Wizard is a bit different from the way I later worked it out, and I want to see if I can make it consistent.

That’s what I thought about thatch.

The conformation of Gont Mountain/Island certainly suggests volcanic; therefore probably not much slate around. But lots of forest. Therefore wood shingles?

Old Mage's House, sketch by UKL

Old Mage’s House, sketch by UKL


I sent Charles this floor plan of the house, with the following note:

Ursula wrote:

Very scrawly, sorry.

Proportions not to be taken as accurate! I was just trying to work out roughly where things are in relation to each other.

The alcove is more or less opposite the fireplace, and only large enough for a pallet bed (young Ged’s, later Therru’s)

I think the other bed (Ogion’s, later Tenar’s, then Ged and Tenar’s) is described in Wizard as being “at the back” of the house, but by now I know it’s in the back room but more in the middle of the house. Its head is against the room-divider, which is all that is left of what was the inner dividing wall between the hearthplace and the barn or byre part of the house.

Dulse’s teacher Ard (Bones of the Earth) exiled all animals from the house, built a goat house as a lean-to against the East wall, and took out much of the original divider wall (which was 4 or 5 feet high — did not reach to roof).

So the house is spoken of in Wizard as “one large room,” but it is semi-divided, with the old byre serving as bedroom-workshop-storage closets or shelves. The back door, a sliding door as in a barn, is now unused except in emergency.

I think when Ogion reintroduced goats, he moved the goat house farther from the house and took down the lean-to, so I did not draw it.

The goat house, chicken house, cow-barn (I am sure Tenar had a cow) etc. can be anywhere you please in relation to the house.

I hope this is helpful. If you see anything missing or anomalous please let me know.

March 20, 2017

Ursula continued:

I take back what I said about Tenar keeping a cow. If she did it would be mentioned in the books. She made goat cheese, but bought her cow’s milk and butter from a farm just outside Re Albi.

(It was just because I have always wanted to keep a cow, a Jersey.)

II. Outside An Imaginary House

(April 11, 2017)

Outside Old Mage’s House


Charles wrote:

Now, don’t panic, I haven’t sketched out any of the other planned drawings for this book yet. I just thought that I’d do the last one first so that it wouldn’t be quite so sad when I got to it. That is, sad for me, not Ged & Tenar who are well content to spend their remaining lives peaceably & together but conceptually, I’ll be almost done with this lovely project.

Anyway . . .

Here are Ged and Tenar sitting in front of their home, glasses of wine in hand, attended by a goat (or goats ?) with the sunset bathing them in its color (I wish that this was to be in color but alas, it is not . . .). I wanted to run this by you in this very rough stage just to make sure that I have all the elements orientated in the correct manner, ie: what’s facing west is supposed to be there.

Ursula answered:

This is lovely. Mood perfect. Compass orientation correct. Old Mage’s House perhaps a little more imposing than I had imagined it: perhaps the stones would be less perfectly faced? the general impression a little messier & humbler? — but all in all, I am simply glad to see it realized.

I had no idea there was a tree at the NW corner! What kind of tree is it?

I can’t make out the wine glasses. I was just worried that they might be stemmed. They wouldn’t be. In fact, would they be glass? I guess so. Everybody who can put their wine in a glass does so, don’t they.

Excellent goat.

A couple of hens maybe? I do think hens are good company.

Charles wrote:

The tree would be a Peach Tree, growing there in the protective corner of the house wall.

They would be holding simple crockery to drink their wine out of wouldn’t they?

Certainly, I’ll put some hens pecking about their feet. That will be fun.

And, I’ll make the house a bit more humble.

Old Mage's House -- Revised

The Old Mage’s House at Re Albi, revised

(April 12, 2017)

Charles wrote:

Here’s that drawing put onto paper a bit more carefully.

Also, it’s summer? I say that because Ged has just been watering the cabbages. So are there then peaches on the Peach Tree?

If so I must laden those branches . . .

Ursula answered:


A few peaches, not ripe yet . . . ?

The house is perfect.

I don’t know if expressions come into it at this stage? Tenar looks a bit timid or downcast to me — it’s partly her posture, which suggests to me that she is looking to him for reassurance (but not vice versa). Tenar is a strong woman with a courageous, independent, and (by now) essentially serene spirit. I just don’t want to see her looking the least bit weak!

The chickens are a joy.


III. A Foolish Consistency is the Hobgoblin of Little Minds

(April 24, 2017)

Charles and I both detest discrepancies or contradictions between text and illustration and strive very hard for consistency. Nobody might ever have noticed the problem we discuss here. But I feel like confessing it, because in this case, deciding that consistency would be foolish, we called on magic to bail us out.

Charles wrote:

I have a question. When I was rereading this section with Alder walking up from the Gont Port I came to a short sentence that gave me pause, especially after having drawn the house at Re Albi twice and worked out its floor plan with you. Right on page #5 you describe the small house as “wooden”. Yikes! I don’t remember it ever being described that way before. Is it? Maybe I’m just catching that aspect now. Please let me know, because if it is I’ll need to redraw those other two images.

Ursula answered:

Arghh! Gont Mountain is all forested, plenty of timber, & so I saw the house as wood.

But I was so convinced by the house you drew that I never gave it a thought.

Now I wish I could go back and take the word “wooden” out of the text!

I hate to think of you having to take that handsome stone cottage down and rebuild it all with a pencil.

We could just ignore the discrepancy for once?

After all a wizard’s house might be capable of unexpected transformations….

The floor plan is unchanged.

Charles wrote:

Double bubble, toil and trouble. By the magic that is invested in these fingers and this pencil I transform thee, wood into stone.

Thank you!

IV. Transformation

(April 2017, 2017


This sketch is still just roughed out in many respects, but I wanted to post it here so you can see how our dragons have developed, and also see Charles drawing a physical transformation as it happens, which is not really possible.

Such transformations are so easy faked visually on film that we may cease to realise how truly strange it would be to see a dragon descend and become a woman in flesh and blood. The unmoving picture, defying possibility, saves that radical strangeness from the banality of the filmic anything-is-possible.

And look at the movement in the unmoving pencil lines — the dragon towering like a great hawk among the castle towers, the girl startled and amused to find herself again diminished — grounded — standing on only two feet…

1 May 2017



A Work in Progress: More Earthsea Sketches by Charles Vess — 14 Comments

  1. Agreed. What a wonderful glimpse into the process — and how telling about the time and care and consideration that goes into authenticity. And I love the magic of wood to stone. 🙂

  2. Oh my, what a gift to work with such a thoughtful illustrator. And this post is a Beltane gift for me. Thank you!

  3. One of my favorite artists, favorite authors, and favorite books. Wonderful to hear that it’s such a collaboration.

  4. I, too, can’t wait to see the results of this collaboration–beautiful! I am excited to see Ged and Tenar and the world of Earthsea come to life again in a new way. A true thanks to you both.

  5. Now I respect magic particularly the magic of Earthsea. And the re-naming of a wooden cottage to one of stone is eminently possible for a great Mage such as Ogion. But I heard a tale on the wharves, totally uninstantiable, that whilst Alder suppressed the earthquake it did do some minor damage high on the mountain. The wizards house took the brunt of the force as did Alder. Ogion in defiance and quietly in opposition or perhaps redressing a balance between mountain and wizard rebuilt in stone from that very mountain. He being the mage he was would have considered the “magicing” of the cottage to be an inappropriate use of power, however small a re-setting of the balance it would have been. Slowly rebuilding by hand, stone by stone, probably with help from the grateful Gonts seems an action Ogion would entertain and as monument to his master

    Never seen a dragon myself [though I look often]. I think of them as more reptilian than snake-like and having dragon appetites to be of fuller figures. [who would dare call a dragon fat, not even a dragon lord I think.

    await the book of books with a dragon’s passion for possessing.

  6. All seems well done, and true to the imagination that found it! Thanks for sharing this collaboration!! Hope to see more as it develops.

  7. Am I wrong in remembering Ged to look somewhat American Indian and most of the main characters possess dark colored skin, with Tenar being surprisingly white in contrast to them? Having black people as wizards and main characters is one of the many aspects that make the Earthsea world so marvelous and unique, and I’d love for the wonderful artist you’re working with not to change that…

    Thank you for an incredible glimpse into the creative process of two premier artists.
    I love you, UKL, or perhaps because we’ve never met I should say: I love everything you write!

  8. Greetings!
    I desperately wish to tell you a dream I had some nights ago! It was about Earthsea!

    There is an old mage who keeps a cow and some goats, tends to his small garden, and loves long walks in the woods. He tells some young man, a prince and his apprentice, about the Lost Book of Dragons. It is also called The White Book of Kemay. It seems that it had been made by a dragon! So it must had been a creature like Therru or that old woman of Kemay – a human and a dragon at the same time. Probably the Book says how to unite the humans and the dragons back as they had been long ago at the beginning; and about white dragons. The mage says there is some conditions for finding the Book: the apprentice should find some special white animal – a sheep; and the Book can only be found on a Midsummer night. Then the mage leaves to the forest.
    And then I see the the young man standing on the edge of a wood wishing to enter and look for the Book that lies there hidden in the high green grass; but he can’t enter because of some dangerous plants growing there, poisonous and deadly to humans.
    And in the end of the story there must be a flight on a dragon.

    I wish you’d write a new Earthsea story about that!! I am just so excited about it! May be there is still a chance of having a brand new story included in the 2018 edition? I dream of it and pray for it! It would be so wonderful! I would be totally happy if this miracle happens!
    With all my love and devotion, wishing you strong health and all the best things in the world!

  9. I loved hearing your thoughts together, especially about the animals and about Tenar, strong and serene. This is going to be so beautiful.

  10. I am so excited about this book. I also loved the exchanges between you and the artist, absolutely delightful. I hope some of that will be in the book. I just re-read the entire Earthsea series this past winter. A wonderful antidote to Trump news. Your writing is so beautiful, spare and serene, it just made me feel better. The drawings seem to fit in with the way I imagined things.

  11. It is a testament to the clarity of your writing, both explicit and implicit, that I had the same layout in mind for the cottage when I read Tehanu.

    I like the mountain behind the house as much as the house itself. I had sort of forgotten it as I read.