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.