I grew up reading fantasy books in the 1980s. The classics of the genre were well-established and widely read, but fantasy had some way to go before it could enjoy the mainstreaming that Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films or H.B.O.’s Game of Thrones would bring.

For any child of the ‘80s browsing their local bookshop for such reads – and this was before the shops divided their books into ever-multiplying genre sections – there were three authors who stood out among all others: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Ursula K. Le Guin.

For many children, Lewis was the gateway drug to the genre, via The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Tolkien provided the epic thrills and a chance for the geeks to tote a doorstopper-read. But it was Le Guin who wrote the tale which would stay with you, not just throughout childhood but into adult life.

A Wizard of Earthsea, first published in 1968, is an astonishing book. It is well-documented that Tolkien and Lewis were on a mission to make myth and legend real to a new generation of audiences. Yet neither Lewis or Tolkien really capture the elemental power and simplicity of legendary narrative. For all Tolkien’s expertise on the Beowulf poet, his own mythopeia is at times a clunky hybrid of writing from across the centuries.

Instead, it was an American woman over thirty years their junior who successfully channels something of the essential feel of myth and allegory:

The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards. From the towns in its high valleys and the ports on its dark narrow bays many a Gontishman has gone forth to serve the Lords of the Archipelago in their cities as wizard or mage, or, looking for adventure, to wander working magic from isle to isle of all Earthsea. Of these some say the greatest, and surely the greatest voyager, was the man called Sparrowhawk, who in his day became both dragonlord and Archmage. His life is told of in the Deed of Ged and in many songs, but this is a tale of the time before his fame, before the songs were made.

Le Guin quietly subverts some of the tropes already beginning to dominate the genre thanks to Tolkien and Lewis. A child in the 1980s – even a child in largely white Scotland in the 1980s – could feel more than a little uncomfortable with racial characterisation in the Middle Earth and Narnia books.

There is a reason few outside of Steve Bannon’s study probably read The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis these days, in which turbanned tools of evil wielding scimitars fight plucky post-War English boys and girls garbed in heraldic armour. By contrast, Le Guin’s hero Ged is black – something Le Guin simply states as passing fact, because this is the reality of Western life in her invented world. In Earthsea, it is the white-skinned Kargish who are considered the barbarians from the East.

The austerity of Le Guin’s narrative also contrasts favourably with more recent successes in the fantasy genre. A Wizard of Earthsea is about the education of a young man training to be, yes, a wizard. Le Guin’s island school of Roke is very far from the technicolour mix of faux public schoolery and Dahlish grotesquerie found in Hogwarts and the Harry Potter books. Magic in Le Guin is more than simply shouting a somewhat Latinate-sounding word and hoping for the best. Indeed, in its constituent parts – of summoning, naming, changing and patterning – it is a clear metaphor for writing itself.

And this is where A Wizard of Earthsea will stay with you, as it has stayed with the novelists who have recently celebrated its impact, David Mitchell, Hari Kunzru and Karl Ove Knausgaard. For whether you grow up to be a writer or not this is a novel of self-discovery and of learning to live with the darkness of the self.

Ursula K. Le Guin had a lengthy writing career which goes far beyond simply A Wizard of Earthsea or the other, very fine books in the Earthsea cycle. In her novels for adults, Le Guin uses fantasy and science fiction to explore challenging questions around gender, the environment and capitalism – which I suspect will resonate for many decades to come.