Book Review: A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. Le Guin

A Wizard of Earthsea is the first book in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle. Le Guin wrote this book after being asked by the editor of Parnassus Press to write a fantasy novel for younger readers. Le Guin had never written something for the young adult audience before, and really, when this book was published in 1968, the young adult book market was just becoming a thing.

I read AWoE as part of The Books of Earthsea: The Complete Illustrated Edition, which includes an Introduction by Le Guin that put a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. In the Introduction, she explains why it took her so long to write all six books of the Earthsea series. She wrote the first three over the span of six years, and “confidently” started writing the fourth…and couldn’t do it. She had no idea where the story was going or why the main character was doing what she was doing. It took Le Guin 18 years to come back to the fourth book and finish it.

Feminism saved the day.

Over the span of those 18 years, feminism had “grown and flourished.” And during those 18 years, Le Guin had a sense that there was something missing from her writing that was “paralyz[ing] [her] storytelling ability.” She realized at some point that it was the absence of women at the center of her stories. “Why was I, a woman, writing almost entirely about what old men did?” She goes on to explain why that was happening and how she turned that around.

And then, of course, critics called the change of viewpoint “gender politics” and claimed it was a “betrayal of the romantic tradition of heroism.” (Bleh.)

Le Guin was undaunted.

“…not to change viewpoint would, for me, have been the betrayal. By including women fully in my story, I gained a larger understanding of what heroism is and found a true and longed-for way back into my Earthsea…”

Ursual K. Le Guin, “Introduction,” The Books of Earthsea

Le Guin goes on to talk about why the books could no longer be categorized as “for children” or “young adult” as the series progressed, and I yelled, “YES!” in my living room when I read the following quote:

“The notion that fantasy is only for the immature rises from an obstinate misunderstanding of both maturity and the imagination.”

Ursual K. Le Guin, “Introduction,” The Books of Earthsea

One of my biggest pet peeves is when people think that all fantasy is for children. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

The Introduction is four or five pages long and contains much more than what I’ve written about here, and everything in it confirms why I love Ursula K. Le Guin so very much.

And now I’ve written half a book myself and the review of AWoE hasn’t even started.

A Wizard of Earthsea introduces us to the Earthsea archipelago and to Duny/Sparrowhawk/Ged, one of the main characters throughout the Earthsea series. Duny is born on the Earthsea island of Gont. His mother died before he was one, his father is a bronzesmith, and his maternal aunt is the village witch. One day Duny hears his aunt using strange words to call her goats and decides to try it for himself…and it works.

Making those words work without understanding what they mean shows that Duny was born with innate ability, so his aunt decides to teach him what she knows (which isn’t very much). Eventually Duny is nicknamed “Sparrowhawk” for being able to summon those birds by their true name.

When Duny saves his village from raiders by summoning fog, the news of his ability travels quickly and a powerful mage (Ogion) shows up to take Duny as his apprentice. This is when Duny is given his true name…Ged.

(Illustration by Charles Vess, from The Books of Earthsea: The Complete Illustrated Edition)

Ged is prideful. He doesn’t understand why Ogion won’t teach him things more quickly. Ged decides to leave Ogion and go to a school for mages. While he is at the school, Ged’s seemingly uncontrollable urge to prove himself leads to summoning something he cannot control. The rest of the book is about Ged’s journey to overcome his fears and to deal with the thing he has summoned.

AWoE is essentially a coming-of-age tale. Ged is a young boy who has a lot of growing up to do. He needs to get a grip on that pride (men and their pride, amirite?). He needs to learn patience. He is a typical teenager who feels the need to prove himself and who thinks he knows best. We’ve all been there (and for most of us, it’s probably best that wizardry wasn’t involved).

There is a balance to the world of Earthsea that reminds me of Taoism. When using magic, the user must keep in mind that there are things that might be possible to do, but that would disrupt the harmony of the natural world and cause serious issues. Wizards must always keep this in mind when using their power. Everything is about keeping nature and the world in balance.

Storyline aside, the edition I’m reading was illustrated by Charles Vess, and the illustrations are beautiful. Some are in color and some are in black and white, and they’re all really cool. And there is an Afterword to AWoE that is just as fantastic as the Introduction I talked about at the start of this post.

I really, REALLY enjoyed A Wizard of Earthsea, and will definitely be reading the rest of the series. I have no problem saying that if you like fantasy and/or science fiction, and you’re NOT reading Ursula K. Le Guin, you’re seriously missing out.

5 thoughts on “Book Review: A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. Le Guin

  1. This has been on my TBR list for YEARS. I’ve been meaning to do a Classic Juv/YA post on AWoE (with the caveat that it’s *not* purely Juv/YA). I’m thinking this may be the year I finally get around to it…

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