Ursula K. Le Guin spent her childhood in California, mainly in Berkeley, where her anthropologist father (Alfred L. Kroeber) was a professor, but also in the Napa Valley, where her family owned a ranch. As a child she heard Native American myths as bedtime stories, while also having the run of her parents' library. The young Le Guin read voraciously. Her favorite books included the Norse myths, retellings of folktales and legends from J.G. Frazer's The Golden Bough (1890), and the fantasy stories of Lord Dunsany. Such a background may explain, in part, Le Guin's own approach to literature: She is a world–builder. Indeed, just as an anthropologist reports on an indigenous people in as much detail as possible, so a science fiction or fantasy author will build up an elaborate picture of an alien culture and its inhabitants.
In her teens, Le Guin read fantasy and science fiction magazines but also devoured many of the classics of world literature. She once listed her influences as Percy Bysshe Shelley; John Keats; William Wordsworth; Giacomo Leopardi; Victor Hugo; Rainer Maria Rilke; Edward Thomas; Theodore Roethke; Charles Dickens; Leo Tolstoy; Ivan Turgenev; Anton Chekhov; Boris Pasternak; Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë; Virginia Woolf; and E. M. Forster. Among science fiction authors, she has spoken with admiration about the fiction of Cordwainer Smith (Paul M.A. Linebarger); James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice B. Sheldon); and Philip K. Dick. A lifelong interest in Lao Tzu and Taoism eventually led her to translate the Tao-Te-Ching (1999).
Le Guin attended Radcliffe College and then Columbia University, where she earned a master's degree in Italian and French, with a focus on Renaissance literature. While on a trip to France, she met her future husband, the historian Charles A. Le Guin. The couple settled in Portland, Oregon, with their three children. Le Guin has said that she enjoys a very regular life there and prefers things to be "kind of dull, basically," so that she can get on with her work as a writer.
While preferring a quiet routine and privacy, Ursula K. Le Guin does speak out strongly on matters she cares about—American politics, the value of fantasy and science fiction, the importance of reading, and, above all, the condition of women in the arts and society. During much of the 1970s and '80s, she was a frequent speaker and instructor at writing workshops around the country.
Over the years Le Guin has won numerous awards for her novels and stories, including the Hugo and Nebula for science fiction, but also the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award (for A Wizard of Earthsea) the National Book Award, and the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. She is perhaps the most honored living writer of science fiction and fantasy—and one of America's finest writers.
"I do think novels are beautiful. To me a novel can be as beautiful as any symphony, as beautiful as the sea. As complete, true, real, large, complicated, confusing, deep, troubling, soul enlarging as the sea with its waves that break and tumble, its tides that rise and ebb."
—Ursula K. Le Guin, from The Wave in the Mind
On January 7, 2008, Dan Stone of the National Endowment for the Arts interviewed Ursula K. Le Guin at her home in Oregon. Excerpts from their conversation follow.
Dan Stone: What does fantasy allow you to do that realistic fiction doesn't?
Ursula K. Le Guin: Fantasy has a much larger world to play with than realism does. Realism is stuck pretty much with the here and now because as soon as you get more than a century in the past, you're writing historical fiction, which is a form of fantasy. Fantasy has all the past and all the future to play with, if it wants to call it the future. It opens all the doors and windows of the house of fiction and says, "Look, you can go out any door here and come in a different one."
DS: You've talked before about wizardry being akin to artistry. Do you see A Wizard of Earthsea being about artistry itself?
UKL: What a wizard does is like what a writer does. He or she is making things out of words and making things happen with words. I saw the parallel. But I don't know where it goes or really what to do with it. I've always been talking about language, about speech, about words, about books, as a great power in our lives. This is obviously one of my themes.
DS: How were wizards depicted in literature before A Wizard of Earthsea?
UKL: I believe I'm the first who described a wizard having to learn his trade and go to school to do it. I started thinking that wizards can't have always been old guys with white beards. So what were they like when they were fourteen? And that opens up a world, doesn't it?
DS: Is it true that when you wrote the novel, you had not yet read Carl Jung?
UKL: Yes. That was an amazing coincidence, if you want to see it as such, how two incredibly different minds arrived at the same point by incredibly different routes. Jung came to his idea of the Shadow through psychology; I came to it through pure fictional imagination. Ged has a darkness in him that he couldn't handle. Ged and I learned how to face his enemy as I wrote the book. I was not certain what the end would be until I got to it.
DS: Some of those same ideas are found in Taoist philosophies, the ideas of balance, equilibrium, light and dark.
UKL: Yes, you could say that A Wizard of Earthsea is full of Taoist imagery. The whole idea of a vital balance which is never still, which is not at rest. The wise wizards are working for a kind of balance. Young Ged gets out of balance. He's got to fix it or else it'll kill him.
DS: For what age group did you write this book?
UKL: In 1968, young-adult fiction was a category, but it wasn't particularly noticed. The first-edition cover flap says "eleven and up," which I think is about right. Fantasy crosses generation lines like no other literature. People who like fantasy tend to begin liking it as kids, and then twenty years later, they will go back to these books and find a whole new joy in them. Fantasy has an incredible availability to a grandfather and granddaughter at the same time. As a writer, it's wonderful, because if you write it with all your heart and all your art, you'll have readers that will be coming back to it the rest of their lives.