Book Review: A Wizard of Earthsea

I’ve just re-read Ursula K. LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea after a long absence. Today my reading of it is colored by the mending scene in one of the later books, as nifty a piece of wizardry as has been written in a long time. There are bits of magic in this book, too, but what really holds up is the philosophy of magic.

The story should be familiar to most of my readers. Duny, a young boy on the verge of manhood who has spent the last several years apprenticing to his aunt the village witch-woman, uses magic to weave a fog around his home village and hide it from the marauding Kargs. The effort leaves him stunned and speechless, until the wizard Ogion, who stilled the earthquake, comes calling for the boy to heal him and take him away to learn magic.

Duny, now going by the usename Sparrowhawk but secretly and truly named Ged, chafes under Ogion’s so-called instruction, and opens forbidden lorebooks in search of a spell to raise the dead and converse with them. In the process he looses something temporarily, a shadow from the other world, that threatens to destroy him. Only Ogion’s power drives it back, but a destined path is open. When Ged’s pride is wounded in the wizard-school of Roke by another boy’s challenge, he tries the spell again, and the shadow is loosed on him. Forever damaged by the shadow’s release, Ged must find a way to end what he began, and restore the balance.

In reading this book, I realized how many of my own thoughts about magic are in fact governed by what LeGuin wrote. To light a candle is to cast a shadow; to make magic is to change the world, and thereby restructure it for good or evil. Knowing the need for Equilibrium — for balance between all forces, between the sea that divides the islands and unites them, between the sky and the land, the light and darkness, is the root of the responsible exercise of power.

LeGuin’s magic works on the basis of knowing the true names of things, and she delivers on this promise in the book a hundredfold. Ged never simply stands on a beach; he stands on Southcliff Beach. When he stands on a cliff looking down on Gont Port, he stands on the Overfell. The island where he makes a brackish spring into fresh water is known ever after as Sweetwater Island, though the reasons for its name become lost in memory. The names show, over and over again, the power of place — and by extension, the damage we do with our own culture’s placelessness. As sketchy and simple as her maps at the start of the book are, she always knows exactly where she is, and so do her characters — they live in a world as fully named and known as possible, the basis for all magic.

Ged’s quest to find his shadow and end the imbalance he created in the world takes him to many magical places: the Immanent Grove, the home of Ogion the Silent, the source of the Ar river, the Court of the Terrenon, the Isolate Tower, and the Open Sea. He learns arts of illusion, and changing, and chanting, weather-working, patterning, and simple kindness. Throughout the book, there are reminders of rivalries and challenges that must exist among practitioners of the Art Magic, as wizards test one another’s knowledge and capabilities against one another. “Infinite are the arguments of mages,” runs one proverb, and another, “Two staffs in the same town must come to blows,” suggest that the folk of the Earthsea Archipelago both fear and enjoy the rivalries of their guides and elders. Another wizard says to his people, “I am pleased to be your wizard, and I am a servant, but you have forgotten that I am not your servant,” before he takes his leave of them for a time. There’s this elegant combination of arrogance, humility and noblesse oblige in LeGuin’s wizards that I find deeply moving.

Stars: 5 of 5. It holds up well to a late adulthood reading, despite having been a favorite in late childhood.

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7 comments

  1. Re: I have…

    nice on the baldness 🙂 i’ve actually had hair for the past 6 months, and a beard 😀
    good choice. us blond guys dont generally do dreds that well.

    i wont be around except for RoS next week.. doing a red-eye flight on tues night and then again on tues afternoon. i’m happy to drop this book in an envelope when i get back, though, if you don’t mind a totally beat up copy.

    see you at SFF, at least???

  2. Re: I have…

    I won’t be at RoS, but if you’re going to be in the area for a while afterwards, and I would love to see you. School doesn’t end for me until June 1. After that I’m pretty much free.

    I shaved my head before NOLS last summer in Wyoming…. too much hair, not enough chances to wash… I thought Dreadlocks or bald?, and that was that.

  3. Re: I have…

    did you ever get a copy of this?
    i just picked up a $3 used copy i’d be happy to pass along when i finish reading 😉

    could bring with it next week, assuming you’ll be at RoS.

  4. Re: I have…

    ya, i agree about the lack of continuity of feeling/theme. i guess that’s what happens when later books are written decades later.

    on a related note – check out Patricia A Mckillip’s “Riddlemaster of Hed” series, if you haven’t read that.

  5. I have…

    and I like them. They’re clearly different, and good, but in some ways they don’t fit, quite, with what came before.

    That said, the mending of the pitcher in one of those later books is as nifty and cool a scene of magic as ANYTHING I’ve read elsewhere, because it’s so ordinary.

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