Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Thoughts on A Wizard of Earthsea

A Wizard of Earthsea (The Earthsea Cycle, Book 1)I recently read Ursula K. Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea. (Yes, I know it was published in 1968 but I've been busy.) As one would expect from someone of Le Guin's talents, the writing and story-telling are first-rate, extraordinary. It's a coming-of-age story that follows the life of Sparrowhawk, whose true name is Ged, from his early years in an obscure village to his education at a school of wizardry to an epic struggle with his shadow. It's not hard to find any number of plot reviews online so I won't provide one. Instead, I want to comment on some elements of the book that impressed me.

The writing is thick like velvet and patient. Le Guin has a story to tell but she's not going to rush into it. She also makes adept use of Tolkien's trick of creating a deep context for the story through reference to past and future events and stories from the fantasy world she has created. Here's the novel's opening paragraph to give you a sense of the writing's texture.

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. From the towns in its high valleys and the ports on its dark narrow bays many a Gontishman has gone forth to serve the Lords of the Archipelago in their cities as wizard or mage, or looking for adventure, to wander working magic from isle to isle of all Earthsea. Of these some say the greatest, and surely the greatest voyager, was the man called Sparrowhawk, who in his day became both dragonlord and Archmage. His life is told of in the Deed of Ged and in many songs, but this is a tale of the time before his fame, before the songs were made.

Part of the story's power comes from the ease with which the reader can relate to Ged's experiences. For example, when Ged arrives at the wizards academy, Jasper, an older boy from an upper-class background, gives him a tour. Ged, who has come from much more humble circumstances, takes an instant dislike to Jasper, whom Ged believes is patronizing him. Ged has yet to learn humility and many of his later problems can be traced to his conflict with Jasper. Although he does not recognize it at the time, Jasper also performs a great service to Ged when he introduces him to Vetch who becomes Ged's most trusted friend. Later in the story, against the advice of Vetch, Ged attempts to demonstrate his superiority to Jasper but succeeds only in releasing a "shadow" that nearly kills him. The archmage of the academy forces the shadow to leave but saps all his strength in the effort and dies soon afterward. The shadow becomes Ged's nemesis for the remainder of the story. Ged learns humility from this great mistake of pride and spends many years regretting his unwise use of power.

Ultimately, Ged discovers that in order to defeat his shadow, he must stop running from it and face it. The shadow has the same name as Ged, so he is in effect battling with himself. When he flees from the shadow, the effort saps his strength like a disease, but when he turns on it, he gains strength. I found the ending perplexing. It appears that Ged unifies with his shadow.

Ged reached out his hands, dropping his staff, and took hold of his shadow, of the black self that reached out to him. Light and darkness met, and joined, and were one. (p. 179 of the 1984 Bantam edition)

Does this mean he has mastered or subdued his dark self? Are they now coequals? As a Christian, I can appreciate the inner struggle between "light" and "darkness", but I would like to think the light has gained supremacy over the darkness even if the darkness has not been defeated. Critics claim that this interest in balance is an expression of Le Guin's Taoist beliefs (see Andrew Gordon's entry on Le Guin in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 52).

Early in the story, Ged receives a warning of sorts from one of his teachers but is too immature to understand it. It comes when he asks a wizard about changing something from one thing to another instead of merely creating the illusion of change. The wizard says:

But you must not change one thing, one pebble, one grain of sand, until you know what good and evil will follow on that act. The world is in balance, in Equilibrium. A wizard's power of Changing and of Summoning can shake the balance of the world. It is dangerous, that power. It is most perilous. It most follow knowledge, and serve need. To light a candle is to cast a shadow. (p. 44 of the 1984 Bantam edition)

I like the last line. In the light of all the environmental disasters of late, we could use a little humility with our own wizardry.


  1. Very interesting. Thanks for posting excerpts--I agree, I like the writing style. Hm, another for my to-read list!

  2. I read that book about four years ago. I actually found the style rather boring.

  3. You should definitely read the other two in the original trilogy (I can recommend those, having read them myself). I found the first book to be exceptional in terms of world-weaving, but not quite as excellent when it came to personal story and emotional developement of the characters. The second and third books are completely different in this respect. Of the entire series, the second book is the one that stands most prominently in my memory.

  4. Let me encourage you to read them out loud, at least sections of them, and particularly the first few pages of A Wizard of Earthsea. On a second (or, if you are like me, a seventh or eighth) reading, perhaps, so you don't miss out on the story while swooning over the prose.

    They really are written to be enjoyed in the speaking. And as you stumble occasionally over her unusual phrasing, her exquisite punctuation (yes, there really is such a thing), you come to see where part of her genius lies.