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Review of A Wizard of Earthsea

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Seth Tomko is a writer, college-level educator, and adventurer.

Cover of the Puffin edition, 1971

Cover of the Puffin edition, 1971

Follow Ged Sparrowhawk as he begins his magical journey into wisdom in a world of barbarians, mystical islands, dragons, and ancient evil.

The outset of Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle is an adventure tracing Ged’s ambitious years, youthful exploits, and confrontation with an undead menace released by his own reckless vanity.

Wizards of Gont

Though a boy, Ged’s saves Gont, his island, from raiders by magic. His display of wizardry gets him apprenticed to the hermit magician, Ogion, but the relationship strains as the youth sees his potential being wasted through book study and serving the simple needs of his neighbors. He disobeys Ogion, and the old mentor sends Ged to study at the school for wizards on the Isle of Roke, hoping that environment will help give Ged what he seeks.

At the school he meets Vetch and Jasper, and class conflict becomes evident as magicians from wealthy families look down on impoverished Ged. Disagreements with Jasper escalate until Ged uses magic beyond his control and summons a gebbeth, a creature form beyond the wall of death, that injures him and escapes into the wider world. As long as he stays on Roke, Ged is protected; he studies for years and learns humility from his misdeed.

Archmage and Dragonlord

Ged is eventually sent to the Ninety Isles to serve the people there. His magic attracts the attention of the gebbeth he let loose, and Ged feels he must flee. He refuses, however, to let the people under his watch live in fear of a nearby dragon. With astounding magic and knowledge of the type he disdained while Ogion’s apprentice, Ged manages to extract a promise of peace from the dragon.

Pursued by the gebbeth, Ged travels from island to island, trying to stay ahead of the undead beast even as he is tempted by a powerful, evil artifact that could give him the might to defeat the gebbeth. Ultimately, Ged uses his wits and wizardry to escape from all his foes and gain a respite with Ogion with whom he reconciles.

Hunting the Shadow

Ged turns and hunts the gebbeth across the seas. It eludes him, and Ged is shipwrecked. He is rescued by brother and sister hermits who nurse him to health and give him half of an armband as a gift. Afterwards, Ged reunites with his school friend Vetch who agrees to aid him in the quest. They chase the monster beyond the known world to the wall of death where Ged manages to defeat the gebbeth not by magic but by knowledge and acceptance.

The Tone of Earthsea

The perspective of this novel is third person omniscient, and when paired with the diction that has a quality of something that is to be recited. A Wizard of Earthsea reads like a folktale from another world. This quality works as the novel does have lessons to impart about the values of learning, equilibrium, and respectful behavior, but it manages to do so in a way that is not heavy handed or overly didactic.

Rules governing magic are interesting in Earthsea, too. Much is imparted by Ged’s various teachers, but some he must learn through examining his own actions. Understanding the importance of true names, the balance of powers, and various mythic wizards like Erreth-Akbe makes Earthsea seem like a rich world with its own history. Similarly, these rules feed into the themes of the novel, so their purpose is twofold.

Ursula Le Guin’s reputation as a master of fantasy writing is well deserved, and her talent is showcased in this novel which can be ranked among the works of C. S. Lewis and J. K. Rowling.

Source

Le Guin, Ursula K. A Wizard of Earthsea. New York, Bantam Books. 1975.

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© 2010 Seth Tomko

Comments

Seth Tomko (author) from Macon, GA on January 15, 2011:

Smart move, Brixter. Thanks for stopping by.

Brixter on January 14, 2011:

I have read this book but didn't had a change to get the remaining books. But thanks to the net I got read them.

Seth Tomko (author) from Macon, GA on April 22, 2010:

Thank you, Valbond. I encourage you to reread the Earthsea series. The Farthest Shore is one of the best fantasy novels I've read, so the whole series is worth that alone.

valbond from UK on April 22, 2010:

I read this years ago and liked it - I actually read a lot of Le Guin, full stop.

Might go back and re-read the series. Good synopsis.

Seth Tomko (author) from Macon, GA on January 12, 2010:

Thanks, MySciFi Life. I remember being excited by the idea of the Earthsea movie, but I was really disappointed with how it turned out.

My SciFi Life from London, UK on January 12, 2010:

really good review. I remember reading this book decades ago and it was (and is) excellent ... in my opinion the movies that tried to recreate the charm and story just did not do them justice.