A Wizard of Earthsea - A Review
I’ve read a lot of books in my years. Half of them I can’t remember and the other half, I can only half remember. This is an attempt to capture some of that in my own writing, and to also do a bit more writing. I’m not one of those people that goes back and reads books more than once and I find myself listing the books that I call my favourites, but only remembering snippets of what happened. Mainly, I remember thinking at the time that it was one of the best books I’d ever read. Now i’m not so sure, because it has been so long since I actually read it. So here we go.
A book review. (With spoilers, but not really.)
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin
I’m 50 years late to this party, so it's the anniversary of the book. Ursula K. Le Guin died about a month before I started writing this, which is why I bought a copy in the first place.
I was born 25 years after the book was originally published and I wish that I could say that it was the fantasy novel that got me into reading and writing or something like that. But I can’t.
Or maybe I can.
I see so much of this book reflected in the stories of Naomi Novik, Robert Jordan, Scott Lynch and Patrick Rothfuss - Authors that wrote adventurous romps through fantasy worlds, where small town kids - nobodies - end up heroes in epic and dangerous quests. These are the stories that cemented my dream of being a reader and a writer, and they are so obviously inspired by the works of Ursula K. Le Guin, that so too must I be.
As you can probably guess, A Wizard of Earthsea is an adventurous romp through a fantasy world.
What is it about?
A boy named Duny is born on the poor island of Gont, and he seems to have a natural affinity with magic. He learns all he can from the town witch, but women in this world don’t have the power of men, and few men have power to rival Duny. He quickly becomes her equal, saving the town from an invasion of Kargs, some warriors from another region. A local and legendary wizard hears of his feat, gives the boy his true name, and takes him under his wing. Now named Ged, this is the beginning of his journey into the world and into magic.
Names are really important in A Wizard of Earthsea - and in the rest of the Earthsea novels. You need to know something's true name to be able to be able to control it. That's how the magical lore in the universe works.
Ged actually has three names. Duny, Ged and Sparrowhawk. Sparrowhawk is a nickname, because you can hold a lot of power over someone by knowing their true name. Le Guin switches between names expertly and it never becomes confusing. You know exactly who he is, the whole way through.
Why Ged is one of my favourite fantasy characters?
Ged is a wonderful character. He’s an impatient little prick and he sees the wizarding world for what it is - stuffy, dusty academia and a bunch of old, quiet men that don’t use the power that they have access to. Because Ged is a power hungry and irresponsible little shit, he fucks up royally and ends up unleashing something terrible upon the world, just to prove he’s a better wizard than one of his peers.
This is another thing that I like about Ged, he hates Jasper for almost no reason. Jasper is a bit patronising early in the book and he definitely does not deserve Ged’s disdain. But I can see where Ged is coming from, I would have hated Jasper too. He’s a twat. Ged puts his head down and becomes the best wizard in wizard school, just so he can make Jasper look like an idiot. Ged isn’t a valiant hero who learns magic for the good of the world, he does it because he’s selfish. Ged is ambitious, power hungry and has the capacity to be unpleasant.
Ged is Human. Jasper is a twat.
He then has to spend much of his formative years living in sheer terror of this thing that he unleashed until he can figure out how to defeat it. This is another brilliant part of this book. You know Ged is growing up, and it is happening so naturally that you don’t realise this is a coming of age story. At least not until it is pointed out to you near the end. You see a boy unleash this thing on the world, then you see a man deal with the consequences. His development isn’t forced; It’s seamless.
Le Guin’s creation of the villain is also great. You don’t know what it is until right at the end. It’s haunting and claustrophobic. It’s unseen. Ged is scared of something that he doesn’t understand, something that he can’t grasp, literally and figuratively. There’s something maddeningly threatening and gothic about it. The description is intentionally vague and you find yourself filling in the gaps, creating a monstrous shape in your mind.
Not only does Le Guin create atmosphere with her characterisation, she builds this rich and magical world through her active description. She doesn’t simply tell you the colour of the grass, or how cold snow is, she tells you how it affects the characters. You can taste the sea salt in the pages of this book. The landscape is rough, and rugged and clear in your mind as you read. The only other writer I can think of that replicates this kind of world building so effortlessly is Margaret Atwood in books like The Mad Adam trilogy and The Handmaid’s Tale.
I can see why Ursula Le Guin has written several other books in this universe. There’s no feeling that Ged is the centre of the story, and that the world moves with his actions. Earthsea would be there regardless of Ged. He’s just one character that exists on the map. You meet Ogion, the Wizard that discovers Ged, someone that is a legend in his own right in Earthsea. Vetch, one of Ged’s only friends, meets Ged at the Wizard school, only to return to the story later on, having grown into a man just as Ged has.
What was shit?
The one criticism that I do have is completely irrational. This book was written 50 years ago, so although the conclusion creeps up on you, it was a bit obvious.
I shouldn’t blame a book that was written in 1968 for inspiring a bunch of literature, film and TV that I happened to come across first. I was born in 1992 after all, I didn’t really have any choice but to favour the screen over the page. In fact, the first I came across Le Guin and Earthsea was in the animated The Tales of Earthsea by Goro Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. So I guess I’m kind of defrauding you anyway.
What did I think?
I would recommend this book to anyone and everyone, especially readers of modern fantasy. You won’t find it challenging - a child could read it - so you can blast through it in a few days, then give it to your kids, they’ll love it too. The characterisation is convincing, the characters are real, the world is believable and the villain is genuinely terrifying.
I don’t really know what the moral of the story is though… Ged is a little shit. He abuses his own power and talent to humiliate another kid, and ultimately he becomes a powerful wizard, respected even by his seniors. Am I being told that I should use my talents to step over anyone who gets in my way? If I’m ultimately better than them, will I be successful regardless of the fact that I’m a terrible person? I don’t know really…
All I do know is Jasper failed to graduate Wizard school. Ged wins. Fuck you Jasper.