“Ged was the greatest sorcerer in all Earthsea. But he was once called Sparrowhawk, a reckless youth, hungry for power and knowledge, who tampered with long-held secrets and loosed a terrible shadow upon the world. This is the tale of his testing, how he mastered the mighty words of power, tamed an ancient dragon, and crossed death’s threshold to restore the balance.” – the summary on the back of my copy.
A Wizard of Earthsea was my first Le Guin novel, and I’m glad I didn’t let it put me off of her adult-audience writing because she’s probably the only sci-fi author I’ve ever consistently liked. Her YA fantasy (or at least this book) is very different in tone, and that’s naturally going to work for some people but put others off. I probably won’t read another book in the series. But my husband really liked A Wizard of Earthsea to the point where he bought the whole series in one (giant, bible-sized) book.
Speaking of bibles, I found Le Guin’s writing style in this book to be almost biblical in the degree to which it feels zoomed-out and summarizing. Like how bible stories will cover the downfall of cities in just a few verses, Le Guin covers years of Ged’s life in a few pages with a similar “and so it was” cadence. I think it thematically works for the story since we’re told in the first chapter that the story we’re about to read is a tale from before the fame of the man who came to be known as perhaps the greatest wizard of all of Earthsea, “who in his day became both dragonlord and archmage.” Le Guin sets us up immediately with the knowledge that Ged not only survives, but becomes famous and great, which gives the rest of the book a sort of well-known legend air.
The story itself is classic in theme and certainly worth telling, especially to the age range of its intended audience. Ged learns that there is no way to defeat the literal darker side of himself, that instead he must accept it for what it is–part of what makes him who he is. Exploring sides of the self in conflicts of dark vs. light, who you are vs. who you think you should be, etc is a common theme in Le Guin’s writing, and reappears in some form in each of the other three books of hers that I’ve read. Ged’s journey, at first running from and then seeking out the mysterious dark being that is drawn out of him in a display of pride in the beginning of the book, is full of Beowulf-like sidequests (go hang out in this village that’s being terrorized by a dragon! now go hang out in this weird tower with a spooky dude and lady!), all with a sort of…not empty, maybe bleak? feeling.
Earthsea is certainly a unique world, composed of fragmented islands and no large continents. It made me really want to play Don’t Starve: Shipwrecked because of all the boat travel. The world is populated mostly by darker-skinned people, and if I’m remembering correctly the only light-skinned people we hear much about in the book are the raiders in the first chapters. The edition I read had an afterword by Le Guin where she talked about writing the book and what the process was like with publishers always wanting to put covers on it with a light-skinned Ged. I love to read Le Guin’s writing about writing, so if you pick up this book my recommendation is to look for an edition with the afterword.