Review: A Wizard Of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

A Wizard Of Earthsea is the third novel by Ursula Le Guin novel I’ve read, after her two offworld novels The Dispossessed and The Left Hand Of Darkness. I have to say I enjoyed those much more than this rather strange and meditative novel. Not that either of those novels aren’t meditative. A hallmark of the Le Guin novels I’ve read is a certain stillness, of journeys inwards, despite their fantastical settings and expeditions her characters undertake.

The world of Earthsea is an appealing setting: a global ocean peppered with islands, including a central group referred to as the Archipelago. From Gont to Roke to the Ninety Isles to Astowell, Le Guin creates a world thats seem to draw from many real locations, from Norway to Iceland to the Mediterranean. It’s a watery tale, like The Odyssey, reminding us that to land-bound creatures the sea is quite fantastical enough without magic. As Le Guin tells us, “out of the sea there rise storms and monsters, but no evil powers: evil is of the earth.” 

Earthsea is the story of the wizard Ged, born Duny on the island of Gont. His mother dead, he discovers he has wizardly potential through his aunt, and swiftly demonstrates how powerful he will be. At 13 he becomes an apprentice to the wizard Ogion, who emphasises a meditative practice based on asceticism, like the Buddha or St Francis. But Duny, now Ged, is tempted by more ostentatious displays of power.

Choosing to study magic at wizard school on the island of Roke, Ged’s pride causes him to make a fateful mistake, releasing something terrible upon himself, and possibly the world. The novel is essentially one long chase to the far corners of Earthsea, as Ged attempts to atone for what he did.

I wasn’t as gripped by the plot as I was by the setting, which is really just one thing after another until the story simply ends, all at sea, in an abstract final encounter stripped of action and physicality. But I liked the weight of history Le Guin has created, with reference to Old Powers that have been replaced by new. I enjoyed the magic too, derived from knowing a thing’s True Name and hard work, emphasising balance in the world.

Nature is as bound up in this magic as people. Ged comes to realise that “the wise man is one who never sets himself apart from other livings things.” Should the balance in the world be broken, it is said that “the unbalanced sea would overwhelm”, and doesn’t that take on a new meaning in our time of climate change? As Ogion explains rather beautifully of a what is essentially a weed:

When you know the fourfoil in all its seasons root and lead and flower, by sight and scent and seed, then you may learn its true name, knowing its being: which is more than its use

There’s a subtle racial dynamic at play in the Archipelago. Ged and his fellow Archipelagans are dark-skinned, while the predatory Kasgardians are white with blonde hair. Like Le Guin’s gender play in The Left Hand of Darkness, this element of the book is understated, testament to an early attempt at making popular fantasy more representative.

Gay rating: not gay

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