Review of A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin
A Wizard of Earthsea
by Ursula K. Le Guin
This what A Wizard of Earthsea taught me: * To know a thing's true name is to know its nature. * Don't fuck with dragons (unless you know their true names). * Summoning the spirits of the dead is a bad idea, especially on a schoolboy dare. * Truly changing your form is dangerous, because you can become lost in the aspect you assume. * If you find yourself hunted, turn it around and become the hunter. * Above all else, know yourself.
I don't know how I acquired this particular copy of A Wizard of Earthsea. It's an old, 1977 reprint that is, aside from its yellowing pages, in remarkably good condition for something that, in its day, cost $1.50 in Canada or 50 p in the UK. It bears no evidence of a previous owner, be that person, library, or used bookstore. Perhaps someone gave it to me. However I got it, I remember that I read A Wizard of Earthsea for a second time through this copy. I read it mostly in the backseat of my mom's van and then in a hair salon while waiting for her to get her hair done. So this book is firmly ensconced in my mind as a book I read "when I was younger," and I associate it with my childhood (even though I suspect I was probably in my early teens).
When I first came upon China Miéville a few years ago, I was an adult and approached his books with an adult's ideas about fantasy. I've only ever known Miéville's works through the eyes of adulthood, and that is something outside of my control, but it definitely affects how I view his works. In contrast, Ursula K. Le Guin has been with me my entire life, stalking me, if you will. Curiously enough, her books have never played the formative role in my reading, especially my fantasy reading, that others like The Belgariad, A Song of Ice and Fire, or Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy have done. I don't have a pithy story about reading a Le Guin book as a child or adolescent that then opened my eyes and inspired me to read more fantasy. So it's all the more intriguing that I distinctly remember Le Guin being in my life ever since childhood. I don't remember when I first read one of her books, only that I did. And when I pick up A Wizard of Earthsea, I'm connected to my childhood, to that memory of this particular copy, as well as to memories of reading fantasy in general. This is a gateway book, and that's why it means so much to me.
If you don't have this type of connection to Le Guin or to A Wizard of Earthsea, I can understand how easy it is to dismiss this book as a 2- or 3-star endeavour. It's a condensed story with a small cast of characters who aren't necessarily the most intriguing bunch you'll ever meet. There's a lot of narration and exposition covering most of Ged's childhood and adolescent years. It's not exactly the big-budget, epic type of fantasy story that is so popular now. Nor is Ged your typical fantasy farm boy Called to be the Chosen One. He's a wizard of no small talent who, because he's a cocky adolescent boy, screws up and spends no small part of his adult life attempting to rectify the mistake.
There's a lot of darkness in this book. It reminds me, this time around, of Arthurian legends: well-meaning, valorous people struggling against their darker selves, and sometimes losing. Even the Knights of the Round Table had the advantage of knowing they were heroes though—Ged is not a hero; he's just this guy, you know? He's not preternaturally gifted with good sense, so like any inexperienced adolescent, he makes bad decisions and is full of flaws. He ditches his master on Gont, Ogion, to go learn wizardry at Roke because he's eager to learn "real magic." He feels like Ogion is holding him back (we readers, of course, recognize that Ogion is the wise sensei who teaches his student the value of wisdom and work first). At Roke, Ged allows himself to be manipulated into magical pissing contests by his rival, Jasper. The result is the escape of a "shadow" into the world of Earthsea, and its encounter with Ged leaves it with some of his power and a hunger to absorb the rest of his aspect. This would be bad, for Ged, and for the world. But A Wizard for Earthsea shares with Arthurian legend that underlying motif of temptation and the sin of pride: people and magic continually tempt Ged, and his successes are measured in the varying degrees by which he overcomes and rejects those temptations. Sometimes he fails miserably, resulting in the unleashing of a gebbeth into the world! Other times, he succeeds admirably, such as in the case of the dragon Yevaud.
Ged's encounter with the dragon of Pendor is nominally what turns him into a legendary "dragonlord." He manages to learn the dragon's true name, and with it he wrangles from the dragon a promise never to fly to the Archipelago. The safety of the islands of Earthsea thus secure, he departs Pendor to resume his life and his apparently-eternal flight from the gebbeth.
Ged's confrontation with Yevaud is right out of the classical "man versus beast battle of wits" canon. What stuck with me for the rest of the book, however, was how Ged deals with Yevaud's brood. He ruthlessly does battle with these dragonspawn, killing six of them. Dragons in Le Guin's Earthsea are predators but intelligent ones: their speech is the same Old Speech from which Earthsea wizards draw power. So I can't help but feel that in slaying these creatures, Ged is wreaking destruction on a much larger scale. He's destroying something unique and wonderful, even if it is dangerous to humans. And Ged is rather cavalier about it: he goes to Pendor because he's decided to leave the town he was protecting from possible dragon attacks, and before he goes he wants to ensure the town will be safe. This is his first act of major wizardry as a full-fledged wizard, and it is interesting that it is one of destruction, even if it benefits those he swore to protect.
After his encounter with Yevaud, Ged bums around Earthsea for a little while, faces another great trial, and almost doesn't survive. Fortunately he finds his way back to Ogion, who sets him straight and gives him the best possible advice:
If you go ahead, if you keep running, wherever you turn you will meet danger and evil, for it drives you, it chooses the way you go. You must choose. You must seek what seeks you. You must hunt the hunter.
If you read A Wizard of Earthsea as a straight fantasy story about good versus evil and wizards and dragons, you will probably be disappointed. Read this way, it's a good book, but it isn't great. It's too brief to be a satisfying epic meal. The strength of Wizard of Earthsea is neither its style nor its substance but its subtext. This book embodies "literary fiction" a lot better than much of what gets marketed under that term today.
The cover of my edition, aside from its regrettable whitewashing of the characters, seems to support the idea that this is a children's book. The brief description on the back of the book continues this illusion: "A tale of wizards, dragons and terrifying shadows, in which the young wizard Sparrowhawk strives to destroy the evil shadow-beast he has let loose on the world." This description does not do the book justice, nor do I think calling A Wizard of Earthsea a "children's book" does any favours for the book or for children. This is not a children's book any more than other books that children or adults might read are "adult books." This is a book, a book for children and for adults, and frankly one that people should read early and often.
I read A Wizard of Earthsea as a child, again as an adolescent, and now I've read it as an adult. Each time, I've read it slightly differently, and it has told me different things; my opinions of Le Guin and her works have changed as my perspective changes from childhood to adulthood. For me, A Wizard of Earthsea is memorable and magical because of what it teaches through its story. It deserves five stars because, for a fantastic tale at a slim 200 pages, this book seems to contain an inordinate amount of truth.