Le Guin’s The Wizard of Earthsea and Comparisons in Recent Fantasy Literature

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After read­ing my last post, where­in I sug­gest­ed that mat­ters of race were per­haps glossed over in Bujold’s Shards of Hon­or, a fel­low tweep sug­gest­ed that I read some­thing by Ursu­la Le Guin.  I did.  The Wiz­ard of Earth­sea is the first book in the Earth­sea series pub­lished in 1968.  I thor­ough­ly enjoyed this tale and hope to even­tu­al­ly read them all.

In brief, as I do not wish to drop too many spoil­ers, The Wiz­ard of Earth­sea is about Ged, the youngest of many sons whose moth­er dies when he was still a baby and whose father paid lit­tle atten­tion to him.  Ged is an inquis­i­tive naughty child who learns quite by acci­dent how to use mag­ic.  He is tak­en under the care and tute­lage of his aunt, a witch, and taught ele­men­tary mag­ic.  Ged’s life on the island of Gont is fair­ly idyl­lic until it is raid­ed by out­siders.  In a show of incred­i­ble strength and courage, young Ged weaves a spell that gath­ers fog around the vil­lage and uses it to hide his peo­ple and trick the raiders long enough for them to fight back and pre­vail.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, Ged uses all of his strength in the cast­ing of this spell and is left in a trance­like state in which he nei­ther eats nor sleeps.  News of his deed reach­es the wiz­ard Ogion the Silent who even­tu­al­ly takes Ged with him for train­ing in the ways of wiz­ardry.

This is just the begin­ning of this flaw­less­ly woven tale.  Ged does not remain with Ogion.  He ends up going to a school just for wiz­ards which is locat­ed on an island.  He makes friends, and an ene­my.  He often doesn’t fol­low the rules and his most unfor­tu­nate down­fall is hubris, so much so, that in an effort to prove him­self, he casts a dan­ger­ous spell he’s been warned against.  This act changes his life for­ev­er.  Ged even­tu­al­ly grad­u­ates and so begins the sec­ond half of this tale, which in my opin­ion is the best half.

Does any of this sound like Har­ry Pot­ter to you?  If you read this tale, you’ll cer­tain­ly find mul­ti­ple sim­i­lar­i­ties, and on the flip side, just as many dif­fer­ences not the least of which is the writ­ing style.  Le Guin’s prose is flu­id as is this tale, where­as, in my opin­ion, HP’s lan­guage is col­or­ful and tense.  While both sto­ries are well writ­ten and feel clear­ly as if intend­ed for a younger audi­ence, Earth­sea unlike HP, focus­es on the entire­ty of Ged’s life, up to about 19 years old, as relates to his par­tic­u­lar life chal­lenge, an arro­gance that leaves him scarred in more ways than one.  We don’t get a blow by blow of each year at the school as in HP, how­ev­er each chap­ter in Ged’s life is riv­et­ing and well draw guid­ing us to the final defin­ing event of this tale.

There is a cen­tral mes­sage here.  Actu­al­ly, there are sev­er­al.  I like mes­sages in my fic­tion. They help me con­nect with the char­ac­ters and make me care about the events of the sto­ry.  As with HP, we see the impor­tance of friend­ship and per­se­ver­ance, but more deeply, we see Ged learn patience, humil­i­ty, and the impor­tance of know­ing one­self.  While I am mak­ing com­par­isons, I’ll men­tion that I liked Ged more than Har­ry because he was so much more flawed and had so much more inter­nal work to do.  He wasn’t as much of an under­dog as Har­ry, but his own per­son­al fail­ings were, as I’ve already men­tioned, his great­est chal­lenge in life.  Ged does tri­umph in the end, but not after great per­son­al sac­ri­fice and hard work.

Ah, I did men­tion mat­ters of race, didn’t I?  Let me start by say­ing that Le Guin wrote a clear­ly mul­ti­cul­tur­al, mul­tira­cial tale, but it was done in such a way as not to give the dif­fer­ences any more impor­tance than they ever should in life.  In oth­er words, the char­ac­ters were diverse, but this diver­si­ty only served as enhancers and descrip­tives, nev­er as points of divi­sion or deri­sion.  This is going to sound cliché, but Ged’s best friend was black.  And guess what?  So what?  Who cares?  It didn’t mat­ter, and it didn’t mean any­thing oth­er than, he had dark skin.  I love that!

I’ll soon be mov­ing on to the sec­ond book in this series, The Tombs of Atu­an.  I hope that I get to see Ged again.  I’ve grown to care about this char­ac­ter and I feel invest­ed in his con­tin­ued growth.

Of note, I’d like to men­tion one oth­er ele­ment of this sto­ry that I’ve seen echoed in recent fan­ta­sy lit­er­a­ture.  In Earth­sea, every­one has a real name, one that is kept secret because those who do know the name can exert a bit of con­trol over the own­er.  We see a very sim­i­lar theme repeat­ed in Paolini’s Inher­i­tance Cycle.  While I do not per­son­al­ly believe that Paoili­ni or Rowl­ing stole ideas, I do think that this goes a long way toward prov­ing the point that few ideas are ever real­ly orig­i­nal.  Won­der­ing if any­one else saw the sim­i­lar­i­ties, I Googled a bit and came upon a state­ment made by Le Guin in which she states, “could have been more gra­cious about her pre­de­ces­sors. My increduli­ty was at the crit­ics who found the first book won­der­ful­ly orig­i­nal. She has many virtues, but orig­i­nal­i­ty isn’t one of them. That hurt.”

Ouch.

I give The Wiz­ard of Earth­sea a 4.25/5.  I liked Earth­sea and rec­om­mend it to adults and chil­dren alike.  It is a good clean read.

  • Hi Khaal­i­dah,

    So glad you liked A Wiz­ard of Earth­sea — one of my all-time favourite books (and far bet­ter than Har­ry Pot­ter in so many ways). I think you’ll have a lot of plea­sure read­ing the rest of the series, though each book is dif­fer­ent. (Don’t let that “Earhsea Quar­tet” cov­er fool you, btw — there are more than four books in the series.)

    One thing — you noticed that “Le Guin wrote a clear­ly mul­ti­cul­tur­al, mul­tira­cial tale, … in such a way as not to give the dif­fer­ences any more impor­tance” than they should have in life, and then you men­tion that Ged’s friend is black. You’re right, of course, but did you notice what colour Ged is?

    • Thanks for stop­ping by.
      Yes, The Wiz­ard of Earth­sea is a won­der­ful book. I was total­ly enchant­ed. If I can recall, Ged is described as sort of red­dish brown. I imag­ined him as look­ing like an Indi­an (from India). Am I recall­ing cor­rect­ly?
      I start­ed the next book, The Tombs of Atu­an, and I kept get­ting side tracked. You’ve inspired me to go back.
      BTW, I agree that I pre­fer Leguin’s sto­ry to HP, although I like HP as well.