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A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin
3.5
Book Name: A Wizard of Earthsea
Author: Ursula K. Le Guin
Publisher(s): Parnassus Press
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / eBook
Genre(s): YA Fantasy
Release Date: 1968

The idea of reviewing a known classic was quite daunting. There’s less to worry about when reviewing a newly released or few months old novel, as there are not yet a legion of fans behind it that have been in love with the story for years and years. So forgive me if I appear slightly trepidatious writing about A Wizard of Earthsea. Ursula K. Le Guin is a beloved author famous for Ged’s adventures in Archipelago of Ea and I do not doubt many will disagree with my ruminations on this lean piece of fantasy, but it has been quite some time since its publication. What service would we be doing to great works such as this if we didn’t examine them again as the decades go by? As such, I give to you my review of the first book in the Earthsea cycle.

The Boy, The Legend

A Wizard of Earthsea is a tale of Ged, or Sparrowhawk as he is more commonly known, a young boy who first learns something of magic from his witch aunt in the small village of Ten Alders on the island of Gont. He soon comes to the attention of the wizard Ogion and thus begins the true tale of one who would become Archmage and dragonlord, his legend stripped away in this telling to focus on his humble beginnings. This book is, without question, entirely Ged’s story with secondary characters such as Ogion and his rival Jasper simply there to either instill wisdom or encourage conflict, be it internally or externally. We come to know the boy and the young man before ever learning the legend, never being awed like a magician’s audience but instead following Ged’s journey and feeling for him like his very own familiar, the otak Hoeg.

What I enjoyed most about this story was how much it felt like a narration, like a story being told to me by my parent’s at bed time or from a bard beside a camp fire. It’s very much a tale, not a story you are following along with as it is happening. None of the contemporary fantasy I’ve read has had that same feeling and I appreciated diving into something that possessed a different atmosphere and narrative style than I’m used it.

You’re a Wizard, Ged!

This is a coming of age story. When we first meet Ged – Duny before his Passage – he is a young boy dreaming of far off places and adventure. Once finished, we see a young man of nineteen who has experienced much and learned many lessons the way young men do: through much emotional strife and self-reflection. We watch him transform from a curious, headstrong youth to a frightened teen, to a cautious and determined young adult. Ursula K. Le Guin writes a convincing male character at every age that sways to the side of goodness but has his moments of folly, like all those in their early years who believe, without a shadow of a doubt, they know everything. I don’t know if I fell in love with Ged as a character, but I found him completely believable and felt as though I truly understood him. If such a character keeps you reading, like it did me, than that’s enough.

Much of the novel revolves around the protagonist dealing both with his inner struggles while learning magic on Roke Island and during his flight from, and subsequent perusal of, a being of shadow not of this world. Ged’s thoughts, feelings, and conflicts with this shadow make up the book’s main plot as he learns to accept who he is and what he is capable of. There are other interesting conflicts throughout the book involving a dragon, invaders, and others, but it is this shadowy figure that is the young wizard’s true adversary.

Sadly, however, as the story focuses on Ged solely with little regard for peripheral characters, I found myself unsatisfied as a whole after my read through. The world of Ea and the Archipelago is so diverse and it’s people so varied that I yearned to learn more about them and the world itself. Unfortunately, the story is so tightly gripped around Ged that you see glimpses and lines about the rest of the places and people in the setting, but they don’t let you sink your teeth into it all. While the tale of Sparrowhawk is vivid in the telling, there are only a small number of individuals that stand out such as Ogion, his first master, and his ever joyous friend Vetch. What we get out of these characters is nice and helps to inform who Ged is and will become, but they are only interspersed caws over the calm, silent ocean that is A Wizard of Earthsea. If you desire large amounts of dialogue and long stays in fantastical cities, this is not the book for you.

The Power of Names

My favorite thing about A Wizard of Earthsea has to be the magic and how it is used by the wizards themselves. We’ve seen the “names have power” style of magic before, most recently in Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles, but as this novel was published in 1968, I believe it’s safe to assume Ursula was one of the earlier writers using such a type of magic. It allows for an air of mystery to remain when spellcasting, yet requires little to no explanation for the reader to believe in its power. We know names have power, why else would we hide in fear when our mother’s yell first, middle, and last names when we’re in trouble? As a reader we already buy into the fact words and names are powerful because we are readers; we already believe in the power behind them. It’s not much of a stretch, than, to accept that they can produce mystical wonders in a realm of fantasy.

What I loved even more was the way in which trained wizards, such as Ged and Vetch and Ogion, used their skill to constantly help those around them. We live in a world now where our fantasy stories have magic that is almost exclusively used for conflict. It may be useful in non-combat oriented ways, but the characters who possess such abilities are often using them to battle others. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, just that the wizards in Earthsea were a welcome reprieve from such aggressive forms of arcane use.

While wizards and mages in this setting may be looked at in fear and awe, they are generally welcome as long as they are useful. Weather working, binding ships, healing words, all these abilities and more are practical applications desired by the people and used most often by wizards. I have no doubt that there are evil wizards running around the islands, shooting lightning and charming old ladies out of their measly savings, but the fact that wizards are shown to be helpful individuals as opposed to dangerous, otherworldly beings of immense power was refreshing. It’s a rather hopeful and empathic outlook at magic use that I quite enjoyed.

An Inclusive World

I would be remiss if I did not speak on the diversity present in the author’s world. Ged is not another white male hero sent on a quest to defeat the powerful dark lord and save the buxom, blonde princess. The titular wizard is in fact of a ruddier, reddish complexion that one would not be surprised to find in such Mediterranean-inspired setting. Almost all of Ursula K. Le Guin’s characters are people of color, or, perhaps more accurately, the world of Ea is home to a vast population of varying skin tones that belie a simple message: inclusion. While there are those with white skin colour, they are shown in either an aggressive role like the soldiers of the Kargad Empire we see at the beginning of the novel, or rather gothic and creepy like men from Osskil. I don’t believe these groups are painted in a bad light due to their ethnicity; they simply have an opposing skin colour to make the reader question what good and evil means from differing viewpoints. Remember, this book came out in 1968. How many heroes came in darker shades who fought villains of a lighter colour?

However, such ethnic difference is not a major point of the novel. But, Ursula did do something that remains difficult today yet must have been ridiculously daunting back then: she created a fantasy that allowed others, not just white men, to get lost in. She will forever be lauded for that and I am happy to lose myself in a setting that is, and remains, unique.

A True Classic

A Wizard of Earthsea is a novel of a different time. It reads like a bedtime story with a strong focus not on combat or epic adventure, but personal reflection and inner turmoil. Those who enjoy modern fantasy may be shocked to open its pages and find a tale far more sombre than they expected. Still, the first book of the Earthsea cycle remains a classic because of one crucial element: it transcends the time period it was written in by being a story utterly relatable, no matter what decade it is.

Ged struggles and triumphs, laughs and cries, thinks too much and goes too far. Match such a strong character to a unique world and mysterious magic and you have a short little novel that remains larger than life almost fifty years on. Much like our protagonist, do yourself a favour and wander the world of Earthsea. Perhaps it’ll help you chase away your own shadows.

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Rating: 7.8/10 (11 votes cast)
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin, 7.8 out of 10 based on 11 ratings
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4 Comments

  1. Bethany says:

    Lovely, lovely review of ‘A Wizard of Earthsea’ 🙂 I’ve been a fan since I discovered the original trilogy on my mom’s bookshelf, at age 9, and still regularly re-read them. Thank you for making me smile today!

  2. Kele Lampe says:

    You didn’t mention the thing I have always found most compelling about these books and the world of Earthsea: the idea of consequences. “To light a candle is to cast a shadow.” Anyway, lovely review of one of my all-time favorites!

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