Review of A Wizard of Earthsea
The Start of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Fantasy Series
Follow Ged Sparrowhawk as he begins his magical journey into wisdom in a world of barbarians, mystical islands, dragons, and ancient evil.
The outset of Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle is an adventure tracing Ged’s ambitious years, youthful exploits, and confrontation with an undead menace released by his own reckless vanity.
Wizards of Gont
Though a boy, Ged’s saves Gont, his island, from raiders by magic. His display of wizardry gets him apprenticed to the hermit magician Ogion, but the relationship strains as the youth sees his potential being wasted through book study. He disobeys Ogion, and the old mentor sends Ged to study at the school for wizards on the Isle of Roke.
At the school he meets Vetch and Jasper, and class conflict becomes evident as magicians from wealthy families look down on impoverished Ged. Conflict with Jasper escalates until Ged uses magic beyond his control and summons a gebbeth, a creature form beyond the wall of death. As long as he stays on Roke, Ged is protected; he studies for years and learns humility from his misdeed.
Archmage and Dragonlord
Ged is eventually sent to the Ninety Isles to serve the people there. His magic attracts the attention of the gebbeth he let loose, and Ged feels he must flee. He refuses, however, to let the people under his watch live in fear of a nearby dragon. With astounding magic and knowledge of the type he disdained while Ogion’s apprentice, Ged manages to extract a promise of peace from the dragon.
Pursued by the gebbeth, Ged travels from island to island trying to stay ahead of the undead beast even as he is tempted by a powerful, evil artifact that could give him the might to defeat the gebbeth. Ultimately, Ged uses his wits and wizardry to escape from all his foes and gain a respite with Ogion with whom he reconciles.
Hunting the Shadow
Ged turns and hunts the gebbeth across the seas. It eludes him, and Ged is shipwrecked. He is rescued by brother and sister hermits who nurse him to health and give him half of an armband as a gift. Afterwards, Ged reunites with his school friend Vetch who agrees to aid him in the quest. They chase the monster beyond the known world to the wall of death where Ged manages to defeat the gebbeth not by magic but by knowledge and acceptance.
The Tone of Earthsea
The perspective of this novel is third person omniscient, and when paired with the diction that has a quality of something that is to be recited, A Wizard of Earthsea reads like a folktale from another world. This quality works as the novel does have lessons to impart about the values of learning, equilibrium, and respectful behavior, but it manages to do so in a way that is not heavy handed or overly didactic.
Rules governing magic are interesting in Earthsea too. Much is imparted by Ged’s various teachers. Understanding the importance of true names, the balance of powers, and various mythic wizards like Erreth-Akbe makes Earthsea seem like a rich world with its own history. Similarly, these rules feed into the themes of the novel, so their purpose is twofold.
Ursula Le Guin’s reputation as a master of fantasy writing is well deserved, and her talent is showcased in this novel which can be ranked among the works of C. S. Lewis and J. K. Rowling.
Le Guin, Ursula K. A Wizard of Earthsea. New York, Bantam Books. 1975.
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