Books That Shaped Me: A Wizard of Earthsea

Earthsea Trilogy by Ursula K. LeGuin, cover illustrations by Pauline Ellison

Ursula K LeGuin - A Wizard of Earthsea - Bantam Cover  illustrated by Pauline EllisonUrsula K. LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea sank into me like a song.

I don’t recall the exact summer that I first read it. It was somewhere between Patricia C. Wrede’s Dealing With Dragons and Mercedes Lackey’s Arrows of the Queen, and I was somewhere between ages nine and thirteen. It was probably one of those summers I spent reading from dawn ’till dusk, literally. One of my parents would drive me to the library twenty-five minutes across town and drop me off, and two to three hours later they’d return for me and my waist-tall stack of borrowed books. A week later, we’d repeat the process. I escaped from the hot, humid Illinois summer into the cool, oddly scentless air of the library, and wandered among the stacks for as long as it took my parents to run errands in town. Once we were home, I lost myself in my many-paged finds, quiet and hidden in my room, listening only to the buzz of cicadas outside the window and the occasional panting dog at the foot of my bed, hearing only the words on the pages.

Even though I don’t remember the first time I read it, A Wizard of Earthsea has always been there for me. When asked to list my favorite books, I groan because choosing is hard, and rattle off five or six titles. A Wizard of Earthsea is always among them. I’ve read it many times—during childhood, during my teen years, during college, and when I ventured into the working world. As I’ve grown, so too has Earthsea. Every time I sink into its pages, I discover additional depths to the story.

“Only in silence the word, only in dark the light, only in dying life: bright the hawk’s flight on the empty sky.” -The Creation of Éa, Ursula K. LeGuin

For those who haven’t read it, A Wizard of Earthsea is the story of a young mage who would later be a great mage. He’s called Sparrowhawk, but his true name is Ged. Earthsea is a world of islands and archipelagos, seafaring peoples and dragons, magic and heroics, deeds bright and dark. It has a long, rich history and a deep lore.

Sparrowhawk grows up in a small village on the island of Gont, the youngest son of the village bronze-smith. His mother died when he was very young, and his siblings were much older than he, so he grows up wild and rough, herding goats and working in the smithy and learning magic from his aunt. He is brash and bold, confident and cocky, and ever so eager to learn. When he is twelve, his village is attacked by raiders from neighboring isles, and he successfully saves it by use of magic. Shortly thereafter, the wise and quiet Mage Ogion gives him his true name, Ged, and takes him as an apprentice, but Sparrowhawk has no patience for silent observation. Ogion sends Ged to Roke Island, the Isle of the Wise, to study magic with the great masters there.

Island of Gont - Ursula K LeGuin, A Wizard of Earthsea - Illustration by Ruth Robbins
Island of Gont, illustration by Ruth Robbins

At Roke, Ged takes to magic like a dolphin to waves. He revels in it, he hungers for it, he immerses himself in it. He is quick to learn, but also quick to anger. He is full of pride and a yearning for power. He believes that once he has mastered magic, he never need be afraid again. When his pride and knowledge is challenged, however, he reaches beyond the living realms and unleashes a dark shadow upon the world. The shadow almost kills him before it escapes. Ged, although alive, is nearly broken. He is injured and scarred, not just in body but also in soul. Gone are the confidence and cocky pride; what remains is a nearly silent youth, thoughtful and thorough and constantly fighting off fear. The rest of the book is about his quest to understand and vanquish the shadow—and thereby understand himself.

What first drew me to the book was undoubtedly the dragon on the cover. What kept me reading were the fantastic elements: magic, sorcery, and power gained through knowledge and study. Dragons and hawks and Ged’s small weasel-like familiar, the otak. At age 10ish, I put myself in Ged’s shoes; I wanted to be him. I cringed at his pride and his folly, reading quickly past those parts that uneasily reflected qualities of my own that I didn’t want to examine.

Ged and Otak - Ursula K LeGuin, A Wizard of Earthsea - Illustration by Ruth Robbins
Ged and Otak, illustration by Ruth Robbins

“I must go where I am bound to go, and turn my back on the bright shores… I traded all the sunlight and the cities and the distant lands for a handful of power, for a shadow, for the dark.” – Ged, Ursula K. LeGuin

It took years for me to come to terms with Ged’s prideful mistakes. I had to grow up myself to understand it, to see the fear at the heart of his pride, to recognize the fear at the heart of my own pride. At its own heart, A Wizard of Earthsea is a coming-of-age tale. As the shadow chases him, Ged loses himself, and only recovers when he returns to his beginning, back on Gont. Once he accepts who he is and what he has done, Ged faces the shadow and begins to chase it instead. He learns that he must embrace his mistakes and take responsibility for them if he is to move forward with his life.

While that simple lesson may be at the core of Ursula K. LeGuin’s young adult tale for the ages, it is far from a simple book, and it is the complexity that makes the rereading worthwhile. LeGuin’s language is poetic but spare; details are rich, but are conveyed in so few words that sometimes it is startling. There are times when, while reading, I realize a year has passed for Ged, but only two pages for me, and I have no idea how that happens because it doesn’t feel like anything is left out. In Earthsea, words hold power, and LeGuin conveys that by showing as well as telling.

The tale is rife with overtones of environmental stewardship, of the beauty and delicate balance of the world. It shows the joy and the gravity of life as two sides of the same coin. It revels in possibility, but also in responsibility. All in all, it’s a book to grow old with, and if you haven’t read it, please do.

Lookfar - Ursula K LeGuin, A Wizard of Earthsea - Illustration by Ruth Robbins
Ged travels in his ship Lookfar, illustration by Ruth Robbins

[Please do, however, ignore any and all recreations. Hollywood whitewashed the story (of course they did) in a 2004 miniseries, and I’m not impressed with Studio Ghibli’s version either (and neither is Ursula K. LeGuin). Stick with the original story, it’s worth it! I will, however, absolutely track down the version that Charles Vess is illustrating right now…]

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Amanda Vail

Amanda Vail

Amanda is a staff writer for WWAC. She is also a developmental editor and copywriter in less-than-sunny Seattle. She likes to poke her nose into things, mainly manga, graphic novels, sci-fi & fantasy books, and art galleries. Then she writes about them. She also drinks a lot of coffee. Tweet her @amandamvail.

2 thoughts on “Books That Shaped Me: A Wizard of Earthsea

  1. Great article and stirred some wonderful memories.
    I’ve read A Wizard of Earthsea three different times and come away with three different, but equally wonderful experiences. The first time, I was around your age and mostly just got the magic and dragons and stuff. The second time I realized a lot more of what was going on and really got a lot of empathy for the characters. The third time I was blown away by how rich the world was and how many interesting things could be done in an island world. I’m really looking forward to my next read through, especially since I now own the full series! ^_^

  2. There is so much focus on epic trilogies, and they are filled with all tired tropes and excuses for those tropes. LeGuin does so much in barely 300 pages. Pithy fantasy > epic fantasy

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