Written by Ursula K. Le Guin
I discovered Le Guin’s writing a few months ago. There is a shopping centre near my apartment that has a bi-annual used book sale. I picked up the first of a two volume collection of short stories by Le Guin as well as one of her most celebrated science fiction novels, The Left Hand of Darkness. This short story collection, The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, volume one, had quite the variety of genres and styles. It’s also quite interesting that some of the short stories here have serves as the basis for some of Le Guin’s later novels and series, specifically The Earthsea Cycle, The Left Hand of Darkness, and Rocannon’s World.
One of my favourites was The Rule of Names which was the second story to be set in the world of Earthsea and establishes one of the more important elements of the series: the importance of true names in magic. The story takes place in a small coastal village where there is a village wizard who also serves as a school teacher and a healer. The little town is visited by a strange mage and with his arrival he unveils the dark and hidden secrets that, unbeknownst from the villagers, plague their quiet lives.
In this short story, Le Guin established the look and feel of Earthsea and also clearly identified one of the most important elements to the magic system of the series. It doesn’t hurt that she does all this in a humorous way and, for good measure, she includes a wizard or two, a dragon, a lost and stolen treasure, quite a bit of magic and a quaint, completely endearing, village populated with charming characters. It’s a spectacular little story and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Needless to say, this story along with The Words of Unbinding has made me want to read Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle. After several months I finally read the first book and unsurprisingly I really, really enjoyed it.
In short, the book is the story of Sparrowhawk, the greatest wizard in all of Earthsea. Well, in truth, it’s the story of how he became the greatest wizard in all of Earthsea. Ged, Sparrowhawk’s true name, found out at a young age that he possess great power and affinity for magic. Under the tutelage of his aunt, the village witch, he took his first steps on the path to becoming a magician. After finding a mentor, he eventually travels to a school for wizards where he trained several years. After attaining his wizard staff, Ged travelled the Archipelago and took on his first job as a trained wizard.
Said like that the story is quite simple, and it is. It’s in part because of the simplicity of the narrative that A Wizard of Earthsea packs such a punch. It’s a powerful story about growing up, power, pride, friendship and responsibility. As a young boy, Ged is prideful and arrogant because of the knowledge of his great power. He’s quick to learn magic but he does so without great effort. He’s quick to take action but he plows ahead without thinking. On more than one occasion his excessive confidence and desire to be recognized lead him to make brash decisions that forever changed him. During a particularly destructive event, Ged unleashed an Evil upon the world. Afterword, he is haunted and pursued by this Shadow which feeds upon his strength. Every time they encounter one another, Ged is left weakened and alone.
As a young boy he wanted his strength to be acknowledged and he wanted to be respected. Following the events that took place during his stay at the school for wizards, Ged wants nothing more than to be left alone for fear of endangering those he cares for and to be given a chance to banish the evil he let loose.
In the end, after much personal growth and hardship, Ged is able to recognize and accept his fears and doubts and he becomes a stronger person, and a stronger wizard, because of it.
Le Guin’s story is incredibly focused. A Wizard of Earthsea is about Ged. Unlike many books, the supportive characters are not given their own side stories. From beginning to end, Le Guin forces us to follow Ged on his difficult journey to wizardry and adulthood. I say forced because Young Ged is a difficult character to deal with. He’s unlikeable and part of me was happy when his actions forced him to look at himself in new ways. That may be harsh, but it feels true and some of the lessons in lived are learned with much hardship.
Le Guin also manages to create a world that feels rich in detail and history in few worlds. A Wizard of Earthsea is less than 200 pages but they’re a dense 200 pages. This book doesn’t feel bloated or padded because it isn’t. There is a trend in fantasy writing where longer is better and it’s not always clear to the reader that this isn’t always a good thing. I can understand that for writers, having invested so much time in creating and building a world with a rich and diverse history and cities and lands that are populated with different cultural and sometimes ethnical groups all of whom have their own legends and customs that you would want to include all of it in your stories. As for readers, I can also understand the desire to be so fully immersed in a world so wonderfully detailed, inviting and rewarding but we must careful not to overstay our welcome. The more time we spend in a fabricated world the most adept we become at seeing the cracks in the wall and the glue that holds it all together. Much like horror and violence in movies and television can and often is more effective when portrayed off screen; fictional realms in fantasy novels can feel more real and more substantial when it’s not explained to the reader in all its detail. It’s far more interesting to read a novel than it is to read a visual dictionary of a fabricated world.
With relatively few pages, Le Guin makes the world of Earthsea feel real. I can smell the salt in the air. I can feel the oppressive dangers of sailing in a storm. Ged’s
Magic in Earthsea:
Magic in Earthsea is about words. Magic isn’t set in specific, unbreakable ruless. It’s fluid, it changes depending on the circumstances and the magic that is being cast. Despite this seemingly undefined quality to magic in A Wizard of Earthsea, Le Guin manages to make it feel very coherent.
Magic is also about knowledge and understanding. Wizards, mages and archmages alike, all discuss and debate on the mysteries of magic. There are some set rules but the extent of those rules and the minutiae of the mystical arts are somewhat open to discussion. The way Ged resolves conflicts with magic makes sense within the boundaries set by Le Guin earlier in the book. I’m very impressed that she was able to conjure such a believable and organized magic system without having to pummel the reader with endless explanations. It’s structure yet it retains some fluidity. I guess you could say she did it with magic, by using words to shape the world of Earthsea before our very eyes.
The world of Earthsea:
Earthsea is a planeet composed mostly of water. The story takes place in a large Archipelago where hundreds, maybe thousands, of islands are in relatively close proximity to each other. Despite this relative proximity, different languages and social norms and yes, even different cultures, exist in different parts of the Archipelago. On some islands slavery is perfectly acceptable. On most islands, wizards and users of magic are considered to be very important people and often times a city or village has a wizard to lives and serves the townspeople. He’s the wise man and a healer and a school teacher all wrapped into one person. Their currency is magic and it’s how they make a living.
The people of Earthsea aren’t your average white guy. Ged’s skin, like that of most of the characters, is a brown colour. These are people who live on islands and sail the seas. Their skin colour reflects their living habits and their homes. The people of the Archipelago are often outdoors and their isn’t the milky white of maidens who live in castles or even the same as the pink colour of a knight who’s always wearing leather and metal armor. The climate of Earthsea is similar to that of the Mediterranean or even that of the Caribbean (well maybe not everywhere, there was some snow and sleet in one of the chapters). Ged’s mage friend, Vetch, and his family have much darker skin. Again, this is presumably a result of his village being on one of the warmer and southerly islands. My point simply being, that it’s refreshing that Le Guin’s characters aren’t all young white males.
It seems odd to me that women don’t play a larger role in Earthsea. There are female characters that play a role in Ged’s life and his adventures once he leaves the wizard school but they’re minor characters at best. As a woman, I was expecting a more prominent female presence in the Earthsea novel. Le Guin’s portrayal of women and their relationship to magic is also interesting. Women seem to be relegated to the role of village witch, familiar in low level magic and spell that any male child can master with relative ease. It’s possible I missed something, but I did not see any sign of women having any sort of presence at the wizard school. Le Guin never addresses why or if men are the only magic users in Earthsea other than some limit magic that are used in some day to day life situations.
As the first book to be read in my Blog Fantastic series of post, A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin was an excellent read. It’s very clear to me why Le Guin’s Earthsea series is considered a classic fantasy series. With this first book Le Guin demonstrates her subtle and important skill as a writer of serious fantasy. I’d like to point out that my copy of this book was found in the Young Adult section at a large chain bookstore. I remember reading somewhere that Le Guin wanted to write this first novel specifically for the younger market. I think she succeed but she also wrote one of those somewhat rare books that transcends age and can easily be enjoyed but the very young, the very old, and anybody in between. I look forward to revisiting the world of Earthsea with the second novel in the series (whenever I get a hold of a copy) as well as rereading A Wizard of Earthsea.