My rating: 5 of 5 stars
How is it that I have been a constant reader all these mumble, mumble years and I've never read any of Ursula K. Le Guin's work? It defies comprehension. How many other wonderful writers have I overlooked along the way?
I was reminded of Le Guin recently when I was reading an article about influential women writers and her name was on the list of ten presented by the author. It seemed like a kick in the pants that I needed to stick one of her books into my reading queue and finally make her acquaintance. I decided to start with the Earthsea Cycle, her series of fantasy adventures. A Wizard of Earthsea was the first in the series.
Earthsea is Le Guin's equivalent of Middle Earth or the Seven Kingdoms - a fantastical world where sorcerers, wizards, witches, and dragons hold sway. A Wizard of Earthsea introduces us to young Sparrowhawk, a child who early on shows that he possesses the powers of a wizard. He is sent to apprentice with a master called Ogion, and his true name, Ged, is revealed. But at a certain point, the impatient Ged comes to feel that Ogion is holding him back. He's teaching him foundational stuff but what the youth wants is to learn "real magic."
Ogion offers Ged the opportunity to go to a place called Roke where there is something like an academy of wizardry that has an advanced course of learning. There, Ged makes a friend, Vetch, but he also makes an enemy, Jasper. He and Jasper are consumed by jealousy of each other and they engage in schoolboy dares, each trying to best his opponent.
In response to one of Jasper's dares, Ged summons the spirit of a long dead woman, but when the spirit comes, there also comes a shadow that is loosed on the world. That shadow becomes Ged's nemesis. It hunts him to annihilate him. The rest of the story tells of Ged's quest to master the shadow and destroy it before it destroys him. As he becomes the hunter rather than the hunted, he is joined by his friend, Vetch.
Ged is a flawed character, a stereotypical cocky adolescent who thinks he knows it all. Even though he is a wizard of formidable talent, he screws up time and again and must spend much of his time trying to rectify his mistakes. He seems, in other words, altogether human.
The story reminds the reader of many others that concern the hero's journey. Most obviously, perhaps, is The Lord of the Rings with the perilous journey of Frodo and Sam. But it also has clear connections to the Arthurian legends and the struggles of the Knights of the Round Table against evil in the world. This is a much slimmer volume than those tales and much of it is taken up with exposition of Ged's childhood and adolescence, background material for the rest of the series.
It's interesting that there are no armies, no wars here and not much bloodshed - unless you count the blood of the six dragons that Ged kills. In an afterword to the Kindle edition which I read, the author makes the point that this was deliberate. She set out to write a fantasy featuring the struggle between good and evil that was not drenched in blood. In her telling of that struggle, the key turns out to be to know yourself and to remain true to that self. Another important key is to know the true name of the evil you are wrestling. To know a thing's true name is to know its nature and to be able to gain power over it.
Also, in the afterword, Le Guin makes a point that her heroes in the story are people of color, a refreshing change from most contemporary fantasies or sci-fi of the time this book was published in which the heroes are almost always white guys. Even though she didn't make a big point of the characters' color in telling the story, this was her subtle bit of subversion back in 1968.
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