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.
The pre-Classical world-of-water setting makes me shiver. There are echoes of the fearful cottagers and fishermen of the Northern epics, clinging to bare rocks with salty springs and nothing but grey waves forever and ever; and of Crete and Tartessos, and clearly a tentative, mists-of-time Mediterranean setting is better than any Roman triumphalism.
But really what this seems like to me is a striking fusion of classic Euro-fantasy with the milieu of the aboriginal west coast of North America--not the myth cycles, but, like, the feel of the place. Some of the islands are big, or biggish--Havnor is the size of Mindanao, and has produced an early-Iron Age civilization--and you can imagine Earthsea as a sort of Salish Sea-world, with a few big cities and a plenitude of villagers living off the sea, moving from island to island, and on the poorer islands, with only clamshells for knives and sharp rocks for adzes, etc. There are echoes of that weird coastal-California Island of the Blue Dolphins thing where they're not Pacific Northwest and not Polynesian and not Navajo, and there are even wisps of, like, Ataanarjuat more than Beowulf in Ged's mystic stoicism--but how it feels the most is that someone with a real love for the Salish and Haida and Nuu-chah-Nulth peoples dared to imagine a world where a culture not so different from theirs would survive and flourish and dominate and produce its own heroic fantasy and magic system, non-Vancian or -Tolkienian, but . . . other.
And she made them all brown, of course, except for the black people of the East Reach and the Norse(ish)men of Karg. It's like starting a game of Civ 4 with Hittites, Vikings, Zanzibaris and a Salishan civilization with downloadable graphics that is the first one to discover Map Making. And then you add magic. And then Ursula Le Guin writes about how it feels. What doesn't sound great about that?
Furthermore, the characters are portrayed with a deftness of touch that belies Le Guin's anthropological education, and the characterisics portrayed by the different nautical races is well executed, if, like I said above, slightly lacking in depth.
Quick to read, but with long, episodic chapters, it is, quite rightly, a classic. Much better than the majority of fantasy I've read. In fact, so good I might have to bypass a few books in order to read the sequal, The Tombs of Atuan.
A must read for anyone remotely interested in fantasy. 4.5*
One of the themes of this novel is power and the responsibility it confers on the user. Ged's quest and his struggle with his shadow illustrates that power actually narrows the path one treads in life, rather than broadening it. Once he thought that with his strength he could set the balance in life however he chose, but that thinking is what led Ged to release his shadow, eventually limiting his path to only one. Le Guin's message is clear: even those who want to use their power recklessly will eventually be forced into a recognition of their responsibility, sometimes with drastic consequences. This concept of power ties in to her theory of balance: great power is balanced by great responsibility.
A deep analysis, but Le Guin's masterly writing demands a close reading of the themes she incorporates in to her plot and characters.
When I tried to read Wizard of Earthsea before, I hadn't read any Le Guin at all, so when I got bogged down in the boy-wizard plot points, I just let the book fall away. Now, however, I've read and enjoyed Lavinia and The Left Hand of Darkness, I realized I needed to give her most famous fantasy more of a chance.
And I liked it. Yes, I'm still tired of boy-wizards, and wizard-schools and I couldn't completely enjoy those sections, but once I got past that I fell into the story. I liked that Ged actually learned from his mistake, which made him not only much more mature but a relatable character. I enjoyed the dragon section, the part which makes me comfortable labeling this 'epic' fantasy. I love oceans and nautical stories, so I liked those elements of the setting, and the way that the island nature of the world really affected the way its people live, think and behave. Le Guin's anthropological background really does come through in her writing.
This book genuinely was not about the accumulation of power - on a subtextual and thematic level as well as superficially in the teachings of the wise old men. I liked the friendship with Vetch, the folkloric feel of the journey section, and the fact that most of the people in Earthsea, including the main characters, aren't white.
Lastly, one of the things I really value about this book is its brevity and focus. It has a story to tell and that's what it does, the writing tight as a bellied sail and the plot driving it forward like a magewind.
While the publishing press and the author herself have been quick to compare this high fantasy Earthsea to Tolkien's Middle Earth, I found the style far more reminiscent of Lord Dunsany, an author praised elsewhere by Le Guin with language similar to her remarks in the 2012 afterword to Wizard. There she mentions other fantasy literature that "mostly lurked in small secondhand bookshops smelling of cats and mildew" (262). To the extent that this book is an "epic" fantasy, it is more Odyssey than Illiad, deliberately spurning the matter of great wars and killer heroes.
As an orientation to esoteric wisdom, Le Guin's work far exceeds more recent tales of "wizard school." The teachings of Lao Tzu that she imbibed at her father's knee are evident in the magic of Earthsea. She has one clinker in her diction, where she misuses "adept" to mean "neophyte" (26). That lexical slip is far outweighed by such musings as this:
"You thought, as a boy, that a mage is one who can do anything. So I thought, once. So did we all. And the truth is that as a man's real power grows and his knowledge widens, ever the way he can follow grows narrower: until at last he chooses nothing, but does only and wholly what he must do ..." (99, italics and ellipsis in original)
Le Guin quietly but consciously twitted racial preconceptions of US readers when writing this book, but she admittedly conformed to received gender types for fantasy literature (263). As a result, the business with Serret reflects Aleister Crowley's observation that "the neophyte is nearly always tempted by a woman."
My reread of this novel was undertaken with a view to reading the entire Earthsea cycle of six volumes. Only the first three of these had existed for my childhood reading. As a reading project, then, it shares elements of my approach in recent years to Susan Cooper's Dark Is Rising books (a series about magic enjoyed in childhood) and Gene Wolfe's Solar Cycle (a reread in order to approach the volumes subsequently published). I'm only encouraged by this first book.
The author creates a world that is as much seascape as landscape, being the archipelago of Earthsea… perfectly suited to fantasy-world mapping, which happens to be one of my favourite aspects of high fantasy; the geography of world-building. Ged’s quest leads him from island to island as he looks for the wisdom he instinctively knows he needs to battle his shadow. I also loved the principles of the magic of the world, the naming and balance, and the characters that Ged encounters as a boy and on his journey.
That said, there’s something slightly distancing about Le Guin’s telling the story as a legend recounted; it’s as though we’re reading about Ged rather than experiencing the quest with him; not that there aren’t some wonderfully immersive parts, but I did not feel as involved in the story as I might have with a different narrative approach… that wouldn’t stop me recommending the book to anyone who enjoys fantasy fiction, especially YA fantasy, as I’m pretty sure it’s a quirk of the reader’s rather than a flaw of the writer’s.
Only in silence the word,
only in dark the light,
only in dying life:
bright the hawk’s flight
on the empty sky.
–from the Creation
I’m sure I read A Wizard of Earthsea as a young adult, although I didn’t remember it very well. But like the best novels written for young people, it holds up excellently in this second reading as an adult.
In Earthsea, Le Guin has fully realized a land of islands, where people live as much on the sea as on the land, where there are dragons and wizards and magic. As a young boy, Sparrowhawk discovers his talent for magic when he protects his village from invasion by creating an obscuring fog. He is apprenticed to a wizard on his home island, then goes to the school for wizards across the sea, where his powers become evident. But his hubris gets the better of him, and in attempting a dangerous spell, he looses a nameless shadow in the world, which is bound to him and determined to possess him.
The rest of the story describes Sparrowhawk’s coming-of-age quest to learn how to defeat the shadow, and to learn who he is. Le Guin’s simple but evocative prose brings her imaginary world of Earthsea to life, and while reading this short book, I felt like I was traveling along with Sparrowhawk among the islands’ rocky cliff faces, desolate moors and heaving oceans. Whether rediscovering Earthsea or visiting it for the first time, the trip is worthwhile.
Will definitely read the next one.
This is a great read for those looking for a character-based
This book is really compelling, but hard to describe. If you’re looking for something flashy or a long epic, you won’t find what you’re looking for here. But if, like me, you enjoy those “vintage” fantasy books that focus more on a character and an internal journey, you’ll enjoy this. I don’t know how else to recommend this book, but I think it’s a classic!
That said, the vital point of reading this novel today is context. One must
While keeping this in mind you realize that despite the novel's short page count, it is likely that the story and characters have more impact upon you than any others you've read about in a long while. This story resonates within you something great and wonderful. That is the making of a classic. I really enjoyed reading this story and would definitely recommend it to others. I shall definitely read the sequels in time once I have let this story incubate within me some more.
A great story, far larger in the imagination than this short book belies.
It is a coming of age and discovering who you are story, told in a seemingly simple episodic way, which has a mythic quality. On might call it a bildungsroman, except that it is belittle it and pigeon-hole it. This
I have memories of reading this voraciously over thirty years ago in a sun drenched room, hardly pausing, as it is probably possible to read in a day, a sitting. This time I savoured it more and wondered at the construction of an entirely other world. A great fantasy novel.
I read the Folio Society edition published in 2015, illustrated with muddy brown pictures by David Lupton. This artistic vision creates a wonderful buckram cover, with brilliant indenting of Ged's scar to create a memorable design.
Le Guin, U. (1991). A wizard of earthsea. London, England: Penguin
I have recently read a book called ‘Ishi in two worlds: a biography of the last wild Indian in North America’ written by Theodora Kroeber about her anthropologist husband Alfred Kroeber’s
Ursula Le Guin’s story is about a young boy called Sparrowhawk, born in a poor mountain village in Gont, part of the richly developed mythical world of Earthsea. His aunt is the village witch and teaches him the rudimentariness of magic. Sparrowhawk becomes an apprentice to the wizard Ogion, the great Mage, after saving his home village from marauding invaders by creating a magical mist. With Ogion he begins his training by learning some of the true names of all things, but runs out of patience at the slow pace of his teaching. ‘Ged’s (Sparrowhawks true name) nature is built up gradually, through action and reaction, and because we learn to know him in this way, we accept him fully’ (Sutherland, 1997, p. 235). Ged is reckless and proud seeking only the power and glory that he feels is due him and as such parts ways with Ogion and travels to the isle of Roke to attend the wizard’s school there. He becomes the best pupil there although he had a tendency to show off.
During his training, vanity and arrogant rage lead him to loose a nameless evil into the world. ‘And through the bright misshapen breach clambered something like a clot of black shadow, quick and hideous, and it leaped straight out at Ged’s face’ (Le Guin, 1991, p. 74). In fighting this off he is horribly scarred and the school’s Archmage dies after trying to undo the evil unleashed. ‘You have great power inborn in you, and you used that power wrongly, to work a spell over which you had no control, not knowing how that spell affects the balance of light and dark, life and death, good and evil. And you were moved to do this by pride and by hate, is it any wonder the result was ruin?’ (Le Guin, 1991, p. 79). Ged is followed by this shadow and cannot escape it until he realises he cannot avoid it and must turn and face it head on. ‘It is light that defeats the dark’ (Le Guin, 1991, p. 135). He battles dragons, ancient evil stones and other powers during the journey. Helped by his true friend Vetch he chases the shadow and learns its true name when he struggles to reunite it with his own true self. ‘It is the shadow of your arrogance, the shadow of your ignorance, the shadow you cast’ (Le Guin, 1991, p. 79).
I enjoyed reading this book. It reflects the battle that we all have with our inner selves. ‘A man who, knowing his whole true self, cannot be used or possessed by any power other than himself, and whose life therefore is lived for life’s sake and never in the service of ruin, or pain, or hatred, or the dark’ (Le Guin, 1991, p. 199). The maps of Earthsea were very helpful and extremely detailed. While I shook my head at young Sparrowhawk’s foolishness, this was an important part of the character development and his growing maturity is well described by the author. ‘Part of Le Guin’s power as a storyteller lies in her style - serious, spare, precise’ (Sutherland, 1997, p. 235).
This book is a story of a boy finding himself and accepting all that he is before he can become a man and fully grasp his powers. I have the next book waiting to go right now.
I love this book and can see myself returning to read it again and again. LeGuin's other Earthsea books are wonderful as well, but unlike Wizard, the plots can be a little tired and drawn out in places. This is LeGuin at her best.
This is probably one of my favorite books of all time, but I hadn't read it for many years, probably since I was a teen. The magic still holds. LeGuin