A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin
Published in 1968
“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.”
A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. Le Guin, follows the young wizard Ged from his humble beginnings to his ascension to greatness. Taking advantage of many tropes of the fantasy genre, the tale spans years of Ged’s life and hits the highlights rather than diving into the everyday minutia of Earthsea. Though the story follows the well-trod road of the hero’s journey, there is little to elevate it above other spell-bound tales.
As a young boy, Ged shows latent magical ability and is taken in by his aunt to learn witchcraft and some basic illusions. He is able to use this magic to scare off invaders and save his village; this brave action catches the eye of the local wizard, Ogion, who takes Ged as his pupil. Ged’s affinity for magic and desire for greatness causes him to accidentally summon a shadow from another realm and when he is given the choice to remain with Ogion or study wizardry at the school in Roke, he chooses the latter.
After entering the school, Ged is a star pupil and his instructors begin teaching him stronger magic. He is goaded by his rival, Jasper, into working dangerous magic and accidentally summons a shadow beast that attacks and disfigures Ged. The magic is too powerful and he is saved by the Archmage who dies protecting him. It is in the wake of this that Ged learns that he will forever be hunted by the shadow unless he can defeat it. He completes his education in magic and is sent to an island that is little more than a simple fishing village; he accepts this post since he is unsure of his power after releasing the shadow. After defeating the dragons which plague the island, the shadow begins to hone in on him; he returns to Ogion and decides to confront the shadow rather than be scared by it.
A Wizard of Earthsea is told primarily through summary and foreshadowing to his future trials and glory. Key scenes are highlighted, but there are many passages that gloss over intervals spent on islands to rest for days at a time or his time traveling at sea. Reading the novel is a lot like listening to someone telling you a story that has been passed down rather than sitting down and reading a book.
The magic in the book is built on a system of maintaining equilibrium; in order to change something, one must know what good and evil will come of it. There are powerful magic and simple illusions, but both must be worked with care. Wizards learn how to create illusions first because they are easy; the more powerful magic required to actually change something’s essence can have dire consequences as Ged learns by summoning the shadow beast.
A large aspect of magic in the book comes from the power in knowing names; the true names of people and things are sacred because of this. Power in working magic comes through naming and knowing something’s name. For example, Ged is the character’s true name, but only he, the person who named him, and those he chooses to tell know this; all other people know him as Sparrowhawk, which is an informal nickname.
The amount of locations that the reader is expected to remember does become tedious, though there are sporadic maps in the book for reference. A lot of island names are thrown around and though there are intermittent maps, I didn’t find myself paying much attention to them. The people of Earthsea exist on islands and are a sea-faring people, though they only go out so far because their magic is tied to the spots of land.
I found A Wizard of Earthsea to be a bit underwhelming primarily because of its anticlimactic ending. I was able to foresee the climax from quite a few pages before it occurred and though this may be more of a side effect of my knowledge of storytelling, there wasn’t enough tension to drive me toward the end having already anticipated it. This is more of an origin story for Ged, so the larger world is hinted at and explored at the periphery, but there is much more to discover. I would probably give the next book a try, but I won’t be raving about this one anytime soon.
Verdict: 3 spells sung out of 5
Recommended for: Those looking for a decent introduction to a fantasy world, fans of wizards and magic, people who don’t mind the finer points of the magic being worked lacking an explanation, people who are okay with wondering how Ged’s name is pronounced, and people who enjoy high fantasy.
Not recommended for: Those who are easily sick of the tropes of the fantasy genre, enemies of wizards and magic, people who dislike the fantasy genre, people who don’t want to wonder how Ged’s name is pronounced (Ged or Jed?), or people who don’t like consulting maps.