A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin
With the recent Sci- Fi Channel miniseries, there is bound to be renewed interest in Ursula Le Guin’s classic first book in her Earthsea series, as there should be. This remains a classic fantasy for good reason. The world within which the characters move is fully developed, having a sense of past, present and future as well as a sense of a larger “there there”, as opposed to some fantasies that feel like a Hollywood stage set, as if nothing exists beyond the narrow social/geographical worlds the characters move through. Such is not the case with Earthsea. One feels it is real from the start and the ensuing books in the series only deepen that feeling with regard to its social and political structures, its people, its mythic past.
The characters are equally strong, especially Ged, the young boy who grows to adulthood in true coming-of-age fashion — through pain, loss, self-destruction, and eventual slow growth of wisdom. The depiction of his younger years as he first learns of his wizardly power and potential, apprentices to a single wizard then rejects that slow, dull path in order to attend the more exciting wizardry school (do not think Harry Potter here, style, tone, and environment are quite different) is right on. He is impatient, cocky, self-sure, quick to anger, impulsive, moody. In short, he is an adolescent. As such he has no time for the slow pace of his masters, for their constant warnings about the “balance” (the universe is in constant equilibrium and one change someplace effects another change, for good or ill, somewhere else) and its restrictions on use of power. The idea of the balance is the more you know, the less likely you are to act. Ged, in impetuous and realistic fashion sees it as the more you know, the more you can act.
As one might expect, his blithe self-confidence sets him up for a major fall, as he accidentally opens a portal, allowing an unknown “shadow” to enter the world. Roughly the first half of the book leads up to this event, the second half follows what happens afterward, as Ged is hunted by the evil he has let into the world, an evil that can cause great harm unless he does something about it. Along the way, he slowly grows in wisdom (the steps toward adulthood are gradual but nicely marked), helped along by his former tutor whom he rejected for his dull passivity and his closest friend from the wizard’s school at Roke, Vetch. The end, without giving details away, is simply perfect in its resolution, in its tone, and in its complexity. Don’t expect simplistic happy ending or heroic battles against overwhelming odds; this is a personal journey, a personal victory, though it has larger repercussions.
A Wizard of Earthsea succeeds in pretty much all it does. Its world creation is rich and full and three-dimensional. Its characters are sharply detailed, realistic, complex beings. Its plot exciting, its language vivid (sometimes classified as young adult — I’m not sure why — it does not talk down to a perceived younger audience, in terms of complexity of language or philosophy). And in the best test of a good book, it leaves the reader wanting much more; luckily Le Guin provides with several more books in the series. Very highly recommended.
I love the way that Ursula Le Guin writes. Her prose is both lyrical and powerful. She makes every word count — each is necessary, there’s no fluff or redundancy — it’s simple, natural, alive, and vivid.
Le Guin’s understanding of different peoples and cultures (her father was an anthropologist and her mother was a psychologist) enhances her ability to create imaginative, creative, and believable characters and worlds. When you step into Earthsea, you feel like you’re in a real world with real people. It’s deep and engrossing right from the start.
I also like Le Guin’s of magic system here: knowing the “true” name of something gives you power over it. You just have to find its true name.
This is the original boy-finds-out-he’s-a-wizard-and-goes-to-wizard-school novel and it’s suitable for adults and kids. I should mention, though, that it’s not a “happy” or humorous book. Ged is a fallible character who makes big mistakes and pays the consequences. Some of that is quite uncomfortable.
I listened to A Wizard of EarthSea on audio (Fantastic Audio edition). It was very entertaining.
Ursula Le Guin writes with style and imagination. A Wizard of Earthsea is a wonderful coming of age story that presents a lot of excellent lessons in personal growth and maturation while still being an entertaining story.
Le Guin’s Ged is a well thought-out character who’s existence and life story are very well developed. The description of events in Ged’s early life sets up a realistic background from which to understand later occuring events, not only in this novel, but the others in the EARTHSEA series.
I enjoyed the philosophical points that Le Guin makes when pointing out some of the flaws (e.g, pride, vanity, overconfidence) that are so common among adolescents and can lead to some very real problems. And, importantly, the development and personal growth of Ged the hero is not so sudden that it becomes unrealistic. This is, to me, a part of what makes Le Guin’s writing so special.
The EARTHSEA books are one of those landmarks of fantasy literature, much like J.R.R. Tolkien’s work or C.S. Lewis’s. Ursula K. LeGuin has indeed often been cited as a recourse for fantasy apologists when fending off attacks from the Raymond Carver-worshiping old guard who can’t quite imagine “genre fiction” might contain good prose. A Wizard of Earthsea lives up to the hype, but not quite in the way its reputation might lead the reader to expect. The best piece of advice I can offer is not to go in expecting hoopla and fireworks. There’s very little of that in the world LeGuin has constructed. Instead, the novel (and indeed the broader series) is very much set on the scale of a more artistic, intimate drama. It’s introspective, simple, and powerful in that simplicity.
I will admit, however, to some disappointment on my part when I first read the novel some years ago. I was already well aware of LeGuin’s reputation, and I went into A Wizard of Earthsea expecting something more or less on the scale of THE LORD OF THE RINGS. Instead, I got a quiet, wise little fable about a boy who grows up to be a wizard but more importantly grows up to be a good man, and his struggles to find peace with his own failings. I didn’t dislike the novel, but I felt faintly underwhelmed.
Coming back to it now, I’m reminded how much of opinion really can be put down to expectations. EARTHSEA without anticipation of epic battles and awful sorceries called down from a thunderous sky really is one of the guiding lights of fantasy, but it’s less a blazing torch and more a solemn candle. LeGuin isn’t trying to make the biggest or the flashiest with this novel (although arguably the series as a whole has managed to change the genre a bit) but is merely looking to tell a story. Fortunately, it’s a very good one.
The prose is spare but exquisite, the characterization good. The plot is, as I’ve said, fairly simple, but not poor for that by any means. It’s the sort of charming little tale that would seem an almost ubiquitous fairy tale were it not for the depth of emotion lurking beneath the surface. No one’s style is like LeGuin’s, and it’s her style that really makes A Wizard of Earthsea the fantasy classic that it is. So the recommendation I give the prospective reader comes with a bit of a caveat: don’t go into this novel expecting an Event, some sort of earth-shaking cornerstone of fantasy heralded by blaring trumpets. Go into this novel prepared to appreciate, and you are almost guaranteed to love it.
In the realm of fantasy there are several names that stand out: Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Lloyd Alexander, Susan Cooper, Diana Wynne Jones (and more recently, Philip Pullman, J.K. Rowling and Garth Nix). Ursula Le Guin also belongs in this category, contributing to the world of fantasy literature her beloved EARTHSEA novels, chronicling the life and times of the wizard Ged.
The strength of the storytelling comes in the unashamed use of archetypes and symbolism. The story as a whole could be easily aligned with Carl Jung’s theories or Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” complete with Departure, Initiation and Return, and archetypes such as the wise mentor, the female temptress and the shadow. It’s practically a textbook case, but rather than being predictable and dull, le Guin’s skill as a writer means that the series is densely packed with meaning and intrigue.
But the use of archetype has its downside too, particularly in the portrayals of men and women; Ged attends a wizarding school that is populated entirely by males, in a later book The Tombs of Atuan, he is pitted against a cult of malevolent priestesses. Le Guin has recently expressed regret for these borderline-stereotypes and in later books makes the conscious effort to balance out the gender inequality that permeates the earlier books. For me however, (and probably to most readers) it is no big deal — we are, after all dealing with traditional archetypes and in one very important way (that I probably shouldn’t even be mentioning) le Guin completely breaks the mould on typical fantasy stories. Ged and nearly all of the other characters have copper complexions. Can you think of any other major fantasy novel in which the protagonist is not Caucasian? I can’t.
Le Guin’s finest creation is her world of Earthsea, a world made up of ocean currents and a myriad of different islands, each one with their own cultures and customs, rich and detailed. It is second only to Middle-Earth, and only becomes richer and deeper with each passing novel. Likewise is le Guin’s system of magic, based on the power of names and speech; the reason why Ged goes through so many name-changes (he is born as Duny, given the name Sparrowhawk at puberty and has Ged as his ‘true name’, his name of power). It is a powerful and consistent system and based on real ancient beliefs (read some Egyptian mythology if you don’t believe me).
Ged is born to a poor farming island, though with immense potential for wizardry which he is all to eager to engage. After he assists in saving his community through the instigation of magic beyond his years, he is approached by the great wizard Ogion who offers to mentor him. Enraptured with dreams of power and glory, he follows Ogion only to be frustrated by his slow teaching methods, opting instead to travel to Roke and enroll in the great wizarding school there.
It is there he enters a friendship with fellow student Vetch and a rivalry with another student named Jasper. Letting his pride and resentment get the better of him, Ged attempts to summon up a spirit from the dead, but only manages to unleash a terrible shadow upon the world. Now hunted by his own creation, Ged takes to the seas, hopping from island to island, in the attempt to escape — and then destroy — the evil he has unleashed.
Despite my praise, A Wizard of EarthSea isn’t perfect; I always felt that the prose was a little stiff and un-involving, almost as if we were reading a detailed overview of the story rather than one told from a person’s intimate point of view. Likewise, the story takes forever to really get started — since the chapters are quite long, it takes a while before the shadow is unleashed. However, the patient will be rewarded, in this and subsequent books.
The EarthSea Cycle — (1968-2001) Young adult. Publisher: Ged was the greatest sorcerer in all Earthsea, but once he was called Sparrowhawk, a reckless youth, hungry for power and knowledge, who tampered with long-held secrets and loosed a terrible shadow upon the world. This is the tale of his testing, how he mastered the mighty words of power, tamed an ancient dragon, and crossed death’s threshold to restore the balance.
Someday I’ll have to try and re-read this. I couldn’t finish it the first time because the main character got on my nerves. I was probably having a bad attitude day, I get those.
This is one of my all time favorites. It still holds up well for me, and I first read it about 44 years ago or thereabouts.
I just couldn’t get into this book. Too many paragraphs that consisted of a single 80-word sentence written in passive voice. Not enough action. Disappointing conclusion. I’ve heard people compare this series to LOTR but it’s not even close.
Strangely, I could see this book being much better on audio.
Kevin, I can see why some readers don’t like this book. I wonder if I would like it as well today as when I first read it.