A Wizard of Earthsea: Yester-year’s Magic is All the More Potent

Illustrated by Charles Vess

Ursula K. Le Guin’s legacy will echo throughout the world of fantasy for as long as the genre is read. Chief amongst her works are the six novels (and several short stories) based in Earthsea, a world of seas and islands, and adventure most of all. I’ve had this classic on my TBR pile for ages, and when I stumbled on an excellent Black Friday deal on the Complete Earthsea Illustrated Edition with art by Charles Vess, I knew the time had finally come.

A Wizard of Earthsea is a 56,000-word novel, less than 200 pages in length in most paperbacks, a mere 125 pages in this glorious edition; for all that, it took me several days to make my way through. This is no page-turner that keeps you on your nails; rather, it’s a slow dive in a world that is half fairy tale, half “Young Merlin and Gandalf going on a quest of self-discovery”.

Self-discovery is something Le Guin places emphasis on. Our main character is Sparrowhawk, who will one day, we are told, grow up to be among the greatest wizards of Earthsea and certainly the greatest voyager and adventurer the world has ever seen. But before he became a legendary Archmage, Sparrowhawk was first known as Ged, an apprentice prideful for the depth of his talent and the well of his power. Going yet further back, he was a child on the island of Gont, motherless and raised by a blacksmith father without an ounce of tenderness; and taught in his first words of power by a village witch whose own knowledge of magic consists as much of truth as it does of old wives’ tales and fraudulent imitation.

Ged’s thirst for learning takes him far, to an unknown land where he studies among some of the greatest of wizards; but one lesson, more important than all others, he learns all on his own.

Power used unwisely and to one’s own prideful ends, is not the wizard’s way. 

It’s a hard lesson, and one that haunts Ged, defines his journey as the wizard recovers from a terrible ritual that let loose a thing of shadow into the world. 


“To light a candle is to cast a shadow…” 


Ursula K. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea

A Wizard of Earthsea is about Ged’s moral journey and his coming face-to-face with his personal demons — and not dispatching, but embracing them and becoming whole. It’s a book also about friendship and the strength of kindness, which is often more powerful and significant than the greatest magic worked by master wizards. It’s about trust. Time and time again, it’s about “unshaken, unshakable” trust. 

“If plain men hide their true name from all but a few they love and trust utterly, so much more must wizardly men, being more dangerous, and more endangered. Who knows a man’s name, holds that man’s life in his keeping. Thus to Ged, who had lost faith in himself, Vetch had given that gift only a friend can give, the proof of unshaken, unshakable trust.” 

Illustrated by Charles Vess

But I’ve said enough about Ged. To learn the full length of his journey from a brash boy to a humble wizard, take the time to read the novel. And hey, if the journey of self-discovery isn’t enough…

A dragon awaits within these pages, and his face-off with our young wizard is a thing to behold, a thing of great beauty.

But before I let you go, I’d like to turn your attention to Le Guin’s prose, and her. Her words have a magical, enchanting quality about them. They seep into you gently, unerringly; and the lessons of the book stay once you’ve closed and put the book away. Long after, I’m willing to bet.  She does so much with little enough — the supporting characters aren’t particularly deep and they won’t offer some thorough observation of the human soul; and as I previously mentioned, this is no sprawling epic. It is, however, compelling to no end, and the world of Earthsea is a magical place.

And — something I didn’t know until I saw Charles Vess’ illustrations; Ged isn’t white. Funny how so many of the covers (and subsequent fan art) I’ve seen completely misrepresent the colour of the main character, portraying him as your run-of-the-mill white wizard. But he’s not, in a book originally published in the late 60’s — and that’s enormously important. Le Guin continually subverts expectations in tiny ways, even this early on in the genre’s history, even when, in some ways, this is the most traditional of fantasy stories. It receives my glowing recommendation.

You should read this if: 

  • You enjoy quests of self-discovery;
  • You’re looking to explore the roots of the fantasy genre;
  • You, like me, love the grimdark genre but could occasionally use a break and a reminder that the human condition is defined by more than just pain, betrayal, and loadsa murder! 
  • You have a love for magic that works on the basis of naming objects and creatures by their true names;
  • You’ve ever had a passing interest in the works of Ursula K. Le Guin;
  • You enjoy prose on the edge of the fairytale-like! 
  • And more! Prob’ly.

 
“You thought, as a boy, that a mage is one who can do anything. So I thought, once. So did we all. And the truth is that as a man’s real power grows and his knowledge widens, ever the way he can follow grows narrower: until at last he chooses nothing, but does only and wholly what he must do…”

Thanks for reading, everyone! It’s been a long time since I’ve posted on my blog, mostly because I’ve been posting my reviews over at the wonderful BookNest.eu ; but I hope to be doing more on here, as well! Discussions such as this, not quite reviews, about older books; some lists I’ve been working on; maybe a few “Favourite Male/Female Characters in Fantasy (2018)” lists! There’s plenty more to come.