Book Review: A Wizard of Earthsea (Ursula Le Guin, 1968)

This slim fantasy classic has a powerful message beneath its simple, uncluttered surface.

Ursula Le Guin is a massively influential writer. Sometimes described as ‘the American Tolkien’, her concepts were drawn on by later giants of fantasy like J.K. Rowling and Robert Jordan. This, her best-known novel, kicks off the Earthsea Cycle, a series of stories set on a huge archipelago of diverse islands.

The main character is that staple of fantasy, a farm-boy with untapped talents. Ged lives on a quiet rural island called Gont, and when his village is attacked by Viking-like Kargish raiders, he fends them off using his raw magical abilities. Ged is then taken under the wing of Ogion, a wise local mage, to learn the ways of the Force magic, but his impatient ambition and desire to learn faster leads to his departure for the famous wizard school on the island of Roke.

Ged is preternaturally gifted and this makes him arrogant and proud. He gets into a fight with another student and, casting a spell, he accidentally releases a violent ‘shadow creature’ into the world which has the ability to possess others and which seems set on destroying Ged. He then makes it his mission to rectify his mistake and to confront and defeat this mysterious shadow.

There are lots of things that I loved about A Wizard of Earthsea. First off, there’s the lightness and gracefulness with which Le Guin describes her world. Worldbuilding is clearly one of the most vital parts of a fantasy story, but is often done with a heavy hand and lots of exposition, as in The Lord of the Rings for example. Here Le Guin has managed to create a tangible and varied reality with a clear sense of history and culture without it feeling remotely overloaded. Details are hinted at here and there that flesh out the different islands and peoples but it’s done with restraint. This being a brief novel, there is still an enormous amount of Earthsea left unvisited and this left me really wanting to go back.

I also thought the way the magic itself worked was interesting. It operates on the basis of a sort of Taoist equilibrium, whereby whenever something is changed or summoned using magic it can have a negative consequence on the ‘balance’ of the world. It’s the duty of wizards to maintain this balance, and it is Ged’s rashness and lack of humility that leads him to release the ‘shadow creature’ and upset the equilibrium. At the school on Roke, one of the teachers says:

“A wizard’s power of Changing and Summoning can shake the balance of the world. It is dangerous, that power. It is most perilous. It must follow knowledge, and serve need. To light a candle is to cast a shadow.”

I liked the idea of there being a deep link between the use of magic and the essential binding power of the world – it gives a sense of gravity and responsibility to the magical side of things that is sometimes lacking in other fantasy.

There’s also this fascinating aspect to Le Guin’s world whereby things are viscerally governed by their names. All creatures have a ‘true’ name, known only to themselves and trusted friends, and if you are able to learn something’s true name then you gain total control over them. Hence a lot of Ged’s magical education has to do with learning things’ names, and his later quest to defeat the shadow revolves around trying to discover its name. It gives a wonderful sense of the power of words and language.

Le Guin’s prose style is beautiful in its economy and limpidity. I read an article by the author Amanda Craig which describes A Wizard of Earthsea as being “written in prose as taut and clean as a ship’s sail”, which is such a lovely way of putting it, so I thought I’d pinch it and put that in here – thanks Amanda.

Finally there’s the ending, which I won’t explain here, other than to say that it has a really meaningful, hopeful, satisfying message behind it which I feel can be universally appreciated, by young and old alike.

A Wizard of Earthsea surprised me with how resonant, well-crafted, and intelligent it was, and I’m very grateful to my friend who lent it to me! I can see myself returning to it in the future, hopefully reading it to my children, and definitely going on to the other books in the Earthsea Cycle. Highly recommended.

Edition:

Puffin | 1971 | 224p | Paperback | Buy here

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3 comments

  1. I have A Wizard of Earthsea on my TBR and added it without knowing much about the book; suffice to say, after reading your review, I am very excited to read it now! I wonder, given your well-meaning dig about going to a mentor to learn the ways of the “Force”, erm magic, if you are familiar with Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

    1. Great! Well I hope you enjoy it. I haven’t actually heard of The Hero with a Thousand Faces but looking it up it sounds fascinating. From the sounds of it Ged’s narrative arc in A Wizard of Earthsea very much conforms to Campbell’s monomyth idea.

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