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Charles Vess Talks Slipping Into Ursula K. Le Guin’s Brain to Draw Earthsea Dragons


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Charles Vess Talks Slipping Into Ursula K. Le Guin’s Brain to Draw Earthsea Dragons


Published on July 19, 2016

Crop of Earthsea artwork by Charles Vess
Earthsea illustrated Charles Vess
Crop of Earthsea artwork by Charles Vess

In 2018, Saga Press will publish all six of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea novels in one volume, to mark the 50th anniversary of her landmark fantasy series. What’s more, The Books of Earthsea will be the first fully illustrated edition, with the cover and both color and black-and-white interior illustrations (including chapter headings, full-page illustrations, and smaller pictures) by Charles Vess.

Along with the six Earthsea novels, The Books of Earthsea will collect a number of Earthsea stories, including “The Word of Unbinding” and “The Rule of Names,” as well as the new, never-before-published-in-print “The Daughter of Odren.”

Le Guin announced the news on her blog, praising her collaboration with Vess: An artist of his standing, she writes, “can legitimately expect autonomy—to find and follow his own vision of the text without seeking any input from the writer.” But, to her incredulous relief, he reached out over email for her input—and so they have used the medium to hammer out what exactly an Earthsea dragon looks like. Le Guin writes about sending Vess “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.” But as the emails continue, “[p]atient as Job, grimy with graphite,” Vess visualizes the dragon that Le Guin describes.

Vess shared a series of sketches on his Facebook, including one illustration from each of the novels, as well as the frontispiece art:

Earthsea illustrated Charles Vess
Earthsea art by Charles Vess

The frontispiece for Tehanu was where things began to really crystallize, according to Le Guin:

Earthsea collected volume illustrated Charles Vess
Earthsea art by Charles Vess: “Book 4: Tehanu. Tenar greets the dragon Kalessin and his burden, Ged, exhausted and drained of any energy or power.”

And here’s a look at the wraparound cover art (click to enlarge):

Earthsea collected illustrated Charles Vess
Earthsea wraparound cover art by Charles Vess

Vess told us:

I first read A Wizard of Earthsea in 1970 and over the following years all the other books in the series. I loved each one of them and even circled around Ursula at a few conventions, but I didn’t have the nerve to speak to her. Then, about 2 years ago when I was asked to take on this project and knew that I would have to talk with her first, I was still nervous. But that first conversation proved to be a delightful experience; as has the continuous e-mail back-and-forth that followed it. Our long struggle to get her dragons and her world “just right” was equally rewarding. Now it gets easier for me to slip into her brain and try to depict what Ursula sees in her mind through the drawings that fall from my fingertips. It still amazes me how much her dragons evolve both visually and in character throughout all six books and I want to show that evolution in my illustrations.

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