Book Review: A Wizard of Earthsea

Book Name: A Wizard of Earthsea
Author: Ursula K. Le Guin
First Published: 1968

Born in 1929 in Berkeley, California of an anthropologist father and writer mother, Ursula K. Le Guin was exposed at an early age to the life of academia, the art of writing and to the concepts of anthropology. Her father established a department of anthropology at UC Berkeley and her mother wrote her husband’s biography. Le Guin attended Berkeley High School and went on to gain her B.A. from Radcliffe College in 1951. She went on to receive her M.A. from Columbia University.

In 1953, Ursula Kroeber married historian Charles A. Le Guin. They had three children together and four grandchildren. Currently, they reside in Oregon.

Le Guin became interested in literature as a child. She submitted her first short story to Astounding Science Fiction at the tender age of eleven years. It was rejected, but this did not deter her desire to become a writer. She moved to a new genre, that of stories set in imaginary countries, but without the fantastic elements of her early attempts. In time, she grew tired of this genre and returned to her first interest in science fiction and fantasy.

In 1967, Herman Schein, the publisher of Parnassus Press and husband to Ruth Robbins, the woman who would later illustrate the book, asked Le Guin if she would consider writing a book “for older kids”, leaving the concept and subject free of her own choosing. A Wizard of Earthsea followed the next year and was published by Parnassus Press. Le Guin based the novel on a pair of short stories she had published in 1964, The Rule of Names and The Word of Unbinding. In these short stories, she explored the concept that wizards were always portrayed as old and wise figures in literature. The author wondered where the wizards might have learned their magic before they gained their wisdom. These two stories served as the groundwork for the Earthsea trilogy that would follow.

Locus has ranked A Wizard of Earthsea as the third choice among a list of thirty three titles as All-Time Best Fantasy Novels, based on a poll of their subscribers. The Earthsea Cycle has won many literary awards, including:

1968 Boston Globe-Horn Book award for A Wizard of Earthsea
1972 Newbery Silver Medal Award for The Tombs of Atuan
1972 National Book Award for Children’s Books for The Farthest Shore
1979 Lewis Carroll Shelf Award for A Wizard of Earthsea
2002 Locus Readers Awards: Tales from Earthsea, “The Finder”
2002 Locus Readers Awards: Tales from Earthsea, “The Bones of the Earth”
2003 Endeavor Award: Tales from Earthsea

Ursula K. Le Guin has won many more awards for her writing, and I do not doubt that more are due in her future. Her awards are simply too numerous to list in a simple blog post.

A Wizard of Earthsea is the first novel in the Earthsea Cycle series. It is a poetic fantasy that has the feeling of an epic, but is only around 200 pages in length. Earthsea is a series of island nations that exist on small archipelago islands in a vast ocean. The culture is agrarian and weapons are of the iron age, supplemented by the use of magic. Wizardry is the art of learning the true names of things and by knowing the name of a thing, you gain mastery over it. The people of Earthsea are careful to only reveal their true names to those that they can trust.

The novel follows the story of a young wizard, known as Ged. The boy is raised by a well meaning witch, who has recognized the magical power within him, and his father the blacksmith. When their island home is attacked by a marauding army, young Ged uses his limited training to control a mist to confound the army and saves his people. This action brings him to the attention of a powerful wizard named Ogion. The wizard tells Ged his true name, Sparrowhawk. He offers to apprentice the eager Ged in the arts of magic, but once they undertake the training, Ged is frustrated because Ogion is more concerned with teaching Ged wisdom instead of magic.

Ged is given the opportunity to attend the main wizard school on the island of Roke. Once Ged arrives, he learns quickly, but the young wizard is also arrogant and impatient, he gets into a pissing match with a rival young wizard named Jasper and thus makes the mistake of summoning the dead.

Thus begins a journey across Earthsea where Ged battles dragons, fights villagers and ultimately learns to switch from being the hunted to becoming the hunter. Just what is this shadow that he has unleashed? How can he learn its true name and gain control over it once and for all? For this young, impatient wizard, it is the ultimate challenge.

I have a great deal of nostalgia for the Earthsea Cycle. I was one of those kids that hung out at the public library instead of playing sports or joining in group activities. A Wizard of Earthsea was one of the books that I discovered in the YA section of the library. This novel was my first introduction to Ursula K. Le Guin as an author and I have gone on to read most of her novels. She has been an influence over me as an author.

Back then, there were only the first three books. Of the three, I believe that The Tombs of Atuan was my favorite of the original trilogy. To this day, I still can feel the character Tenar, a young priestess, exploring the underground tunnels of her people’s temple. It is a hidden place that only she is allow to go. She travels in the darkness, not aware of all the treasures that stud the tunnel walls because of her obedience to how the priestess’ taught her. It is only when Sparrowhawk bids her to question her existence that she sees all the wonder around her. He helps her find herself. Allegories like this is what makes Earthsea rich as a series.

Another aspect of the stories that I remember clearly is the moment when I figured out that Sparrowhawk was a young man of color, not a white man, as many heroes in fantasy novels are. As a teenager, I remember being flabbergasted by this fact, pausing to reread to make sure that what I saw on the page was actually there, and then I was delighted. This was not a common occurrence in fantasy books at the time. LeGuin was breaking new ground.

There seems to be a disconnect to Earthsea by the younger readers of today. Earthsea is not written as a novelized movie. It is not purely visual as we are growing used to in our novels today. It is a literary adventure with a depth of thought that requires the reader to ponder about the ethics of what the characters do and the price they pay for a moment of youthful folly. These are ideas that I feel are well worth exposing to young readers in our pop culture of instant gratification.

I hope you’ll give The Earthsea Cycle consideration in your reading list and that you check out Ursula K. LeGuin’s work in general. She is truly a national treasure.

A Wizard of Earthsea Book CoverThe Earthsea Cycle:

A Wizard of Earthsea, 1968 (named to the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award list in 1979)
The Tombs of Atuan, 1971 (Newbery runner-up)
The Farthest Shore, 1972 (National Book Award)
Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea, 1990 (Nebula Award and Locus Fantasy Award)
Tales from Earthsea, 2001 (short stories)
The Other Wind, 2001 (World Fantasy Award, 2002)

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