What I’m Reading: A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

When a powerful young wizard unleashes a monstrous shadow from the netherworld, his life is changed forever: he must defeat the shadow or it will defeat him.

I was not originally planning to review this book this month. I think I mentioned in an earlier post that I was going to review The Children of Hurin by J.R.R. Tolkien. Then I read A Wizard of Earthsea. And I flew through it and got excited about it and decided to switch my reviews, and here we are.

The Story: (Be warned, spoilers ahead. . . .)

Ged (or Sparrowhawk–Ged is his “true name”), a boy sorcerer-in-training at a sorcerers’ school, is proud and heady with power that many say is greater than that of any wizard in Earthsea. Provoked by a rival, he raises a spirit from the dead to prove his superiority–and a shadow-creature comes with it to attack him. He wakes up humbled, scared, and determined to no longer misuse his power. Once a full-fledged wizard, he travels all over Earthsea trying to run from the shadow that wants to possess him, but eventually turns to face it.

Earthsea. (Map from ursulakleguin.com)


And there are really big spoilers below, because the ending is so great that I can’t not talk about it.

In Earthsea, using something’s true name gives you power over it. Ged’s struggle with the shadow is that it supposedly has no true name. As he pursues it and grapples with it, it begins to look more and more like him; islanders he encounters are suspicious of him because they’ve seen a shadowy version of him passing by. Eventually, as he passes over the unexplored Open Sea in the hunt for his shadow, he realizes the answer. When he finally confronts it on the shores of the netherworld, he gives the shadow his own name: Ged. In this act, he recognizes it as the dark part of himself, and he frees himself–he doesn’t win or lose.

This is such a powerful ending, such a great message, and, as Le Guin herself says in her afterword, unconventional. Most fantasy books revolve around wars, which is not all bad (*cough* I’m writing one of those myself), but it’s refreshing to see something different. This whole story really revolves around Ged’s personal journey; his character arc is the story, which, honestly, is the way stories should be.

The one thing I didn’t like about the plot of this book was the way Jasper, Ged’s antagonist at school, was set up as an important character and then disappeared after provoking Ged into releasing the shadow. I feel like he could have been used so much more as a foil to Ged. Besides that, though, two thumbs up to Le Guin for her excellent story!

The Characters: Mainly, there is one character in this book: Ged. There are other side characters, such as the aforementioned foil, Jasper; Ged’s friend Vetch; Ged’s mentor, Ogion; and, of course, the shadow;  but Ged is really the focus. He is drawn from his shaping childhood through the events of his youth, culminating with his encounter with his shadow. And he is an excellently written character. I love how Le Guin went into his childhood to make this prideful boy sympathetic, so we are prepared to like him when he changes later on. Indeed, he is my favorite character in the book.

As far as other characters go, Vetch was my favorite. He is a bit older than Ged and provides the voice of a wiser peer, trying to stop Ged from raising a dead spirit and releasing the shadow. Later on, he is a true friend, and sticks with Ged to the end, even though Ged doesn’t want him to come along. I must admit, I’m a sucker for a good best friend/sidekick, and Vetch fills those roles admirably. I am very pleased with the hints that he’ll end up as Ged’s brother-in-law (although I have to read the rest of the series to find out if that actually happens . . .).

Something else Le Guin mentions in her afterword that is unconventional about the book is that, when she wrote it in the 1960s, she created a diverse cast. You don’t realize it until further in, but most of the people of Earthsea, including the principal characters, are varying shades of brown. I have to admit, I have not read many books with person-of-color protagonists, so this made for an interesting change, particularly since I appreciated the point Le Guin was trying to make at the height of the civil rights movement.

The Writing: As if I haven’t already raved enough about this book, the writing was excellent–the flow, the worldbuilding, the eloquence, all of it. I have to discuss one thing specifically: there wasn’t a whole lot of exposition about the world. It takes a brave writer to just drop the reader into the storyworld with no unnecessary explanation, and Le Guin does that. She explains just enough to keep the reader on track and leaves the unnecessary things alone. We hear about a creation story, legends, the balance of the world, but they’re not explained because they’re not terribly important to the story. The concept of true names is explained because it is important.

And her prose is so beautiful. Consider this bit of dialogue between Ged and Yarrow, Vetch’s sister:

“But I still don’t understand, Sparrowhawk [Yarrow said]. I have seen my brother, and even his prentice, make light in a dark place only by saying one word: and the light shines, it is bright, not a word but a light you can see your way by!”

“Aye,” Ged answered. “Light is a power. A great power, by which we exist, but which exists beyond our needs, in itself. Sunlight and starlight are time, and time is light. In the sunlight, in the days and years, life is. In a dark place life may call upon the light, naming it. . . .”

It makes you think, doesn’t it? The whole book is like that, very philosophical. It makes you (or me, at least) want to read more.

Overall: I really enjoyed A Wizard of Earthsea. It chronicled Ged’s journey of learning about himself, a timeless theme. It was beautifully written, with excellent characterizations and philosophical thoughts on every page. I highly recommend it to anyone who hasn’t read it yet!

What are your thoughts? Have you read A Wizard of Earthsea? Any of Le Guin’s other books? If so, what did you think? (I’d love recommendations!) Tell me in the comments!