A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin

A Wizard of Earthsea, cover by David Smee

A Wizard of Earthsea, cover by David Smee

I love a well-done wizard. Just as much, I hate a badly-done one. For me, ‘badly-done’ means the wizard is exactly like any other person, she or he just happens to be able to fling bolts of magic. (Usually, such fling-around-bolts-of-magic wizards are also kick-ass and cool, and I hate kick-ass and cool, too.) A wizard, as far as I’m concerned, must have been changed by their path to wizardhood, and changed deeply. I want to read about that change — about its depth, not its surface glitz. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by A Wizard of Earthsea, which must be one of the earliest fantasy books I read (so long ago, I can’t remember a time when I hadn’t read it — in fact, my earliest memory relating to the book is going into a library, wanting to read it again, and being thrilled to find there were two more in the series). It’s one I keep coming back to, and it’s one that repays every re-read by constantly deepening its truths. It’s that rare, rare thing: a childhood read that remains as relevant to the adult as it was to the child.

The book came about when Le Guin was asked to write something for ‘older children’ (what would now be called YA, but which didn’t exist as a separate category back then). Wondering ‘How did kids get to be old wizards?’, she wrote a tale about ‘a child gifted with an essentially unlimited power who needs — urgently needs — to learn how to know and control such power’. The child is Duny, later to be named Ged, but mostly known as Sparrowhawk. Names in Earthsea are important, for to know the true name of a thing is to have power over it. (And so it’s a world in which wizards must hide their true names, telling them only to those they most trust; and it’s a world in which only dragons, to whom it’s a native tongue, can lie or deceive in the Old Speech of magic.)

illustration by Ruth Robbins

illustration by Ruth Robbins

After showing early magical ability (summoning a fog to help defeat raiders), Ged is taken under the wing of just the sort of over-wise wizard designed to test a young would-be-mage to breaking point. Ogion is more interested in teaching Ged the names of useless herbs than any of the flashy, impressive magic the boy wants to learn (and, let’s face it, the reader wants to see). One day, having been sent to gather more useless herbs, Ged meets a young, somewhat sorcerous temptress, who beguiles him into boasting about abilities he doesn’t have. Returning to Ogion’s house, Ged sneaks a look in his master’s books of magic so he’ll have something to impress the lady:

‘He looked for a spell of self-transformation, but being slow to read the runes yet and understanding little of what he read, he could not find what he sought. These books were very ancient, Ogion having them from his own master Heleth Farseer, and Heleth from his master the Mage of Perregal, and so back into the times of myth. Small and strange was the writing, overwritten and interlined by many hands, and all those hands were dust now.’


illustration by Ruth Robbins

One spell draws his eyes, and soon he’s not so much speaking it, as it is speaking through him. It summons a shadow, a nameless, baleful thing beyond his, or any other mage’s ability to understand or control. And so begins Ged’s true lesson in wizardry. For this shadow-thing wants nothing more than to make him a ‘gebbeth’, a puppet-man whose sorcerous power will be its own to use. And it’s a very personal battle: this shadow-thing is born from Ged’s weakness — his pride, his boastfulness, his need to demonstrate his power — and so is rooted in the very facility with magic that makes him who he is. But because the shadow is, being nameless, beyond the power of magic, the only way to defeat it is to go beyond magic, beyond spells, to forge an entirely new path, and thus learn wisdom the only way wisdom can be learned — from experience, not rote learning, a process that’s inseparable from Ged’s own coming of age, his becoming a man:

‘…who, knowing his whole true self, cannot be used or possessed by any power other than himself, and whose life therefore is lived for life’s sake and never in the service of ruin, or pain, or hatred, or the dark.’

The story is similar to the Hans Christian Andersen story Le Guin outlines in her essay, ‘The Child and the Shadow’ (in The Language of the Night), about a young man who, afraid to cross the road to speak to a young woman he sees in the garden opposite, jokingly sends his shadow instead — and it goes. Le Guin reads the story in Jungian terms, with the shadow as the repressed, ignored or feared aspects of oneself, which must be mastered and absorbed before one can become a whole human being. This, to me, has always seemed like a good reading of A Wizard of Earthsea, too (the main difference being that, in Andersen’s tale, the shadow wins the eventual power struggle, and the young man fails to individuate). As an example, at one point in Ged’s story, the young wizard realises that ‘the shadow had tricked him with his own trick’; in Four Archetypes, Jung writes: ‘A man who is possessed by his shadow is always standing in his own light and falling into his own traps.’

illustration by David Smee

illustration by David Smee

Elsewhere in The Language of the Night, Le Guin says that fantasy gets its power by speaking ‘from the unconscious to the unconscious, in the language of the unconscious’, and I have to say that the fantasy books that have most affected me have usually done so through the power of their stories first of all, not how I later come to understand those stories. The initial impact is unconscious. A Wizard of Earthsea is a primal tale, of coming into selfhood, of the battle with one’s darker side, but it works without you having to know that’s what it is. The reason the book repays every re-read is, I think, not that I understand it more each time, but that I understand my understanding more — I find myself nodding at what, before, I was completely carried away by. But the wisdom it contains is right there in the story — delivered whole and intact like a jewel — which is how it should be, with fantasy.

Comments (5)

  1. Aonghus Fallon says:

    Your comment about conscious vs unconscious reminds me of a review of ‘The Dispossessed’ which I came across on goodreads a few days ago (I’m currently halfway through the book itself). The reviewer argued that there were two Ursula le Guins – Good Ursula and Bad Ursula. Good Ursula’s work has a point, but she never gets overly didactic – she lets the story tell itself. Bad Ursula will always prioritise the message over the story. Funnily enough I found the next book after the Earthsea Trilogy (‘Tehanu’) being a good example of an agenda working against narrative flow whereas the Earthsea trilogy – the first book in particular – has all the qualities of a good fairytale: not unlike the Hans Anderson story you mentioned (I’d read this but never made the connection until you pointed it out).

  2. Murray Ewing says:

    Interesting. I haven’t read much of Le Guin’s fiction other than her fantasy. I didn’t really get on with her Left Hand of Darkness, for some reason. I read Tehanu when it came out in PB, but can’t remember much about it. (I’m working my way through all her Earthsea books at the moment, some of which I’ve read before and some of which I haven’t.)

  3. Aonghus Fallon says:

    Apparently Le Guin got some flack for how the original trilogy featured a male mc inhabiting a predominantly male world and was trying to redress the balance.* Ironically, I found the end-result overly-reliant on gender-based stereotypes (ie men are narcissists, woman are carers) at the expense of the original characters: neither Tenar nor Ged resemble their younger selves in any real way. Crucially, the book lacks the original trilogy’s mythic appeal.

    *This would be disregarding ‘The Tombs of Atuan’ which I read again recently and thought excellent (even though I found it a bit dreary as a teenager).

  4. Murray Ewing says:

    Maybe that lack of ‘mythic appeal’ is why I can remember so little about reading the book! I’ve got my review of The Tombs of Atuan coming next week.

  5. Aonghus Fallon says:

    Look forward to hearing what you made of it!

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