Books are an escape. Pick one up and it whisks you away into its time and its place, its people and its action. Yours fade into the grey distance and you absorb only what’s on the printed pages, at least for a little while.
That’s why books like Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea exist. They make fantastical worlds and wizardly deeds accessible to us lowly muggles (to borrow a term from a different fantasy world). They’re pure, delightful, fulfilling distraction. Le Guin’s novel, a slim volume filled with straightforward prose, is also a classic bildungsroman with deceptively simple themes.
In this novel, the first of Le Guin’s larger Earthsea series, Ged, a budding wizard, is the narrator. The story follows him from his early teachings at the hearthside of an aunt to his apprenticeship with a wise and powerful sorcerer to his time at a famous wizard academy to a battle for his life with a deadly foe. Throughout the novel Ged grows equally in his wizardly powers and as a character.
He starts out as a curious little boy, but his curiosity quickly turns to smugness when he realizes the extent of his inborn talent. Before long he’s casting circles around his aunt, and even saves his village from a murderous invasion. This catches the attention of Ogion, a powerful wizard from northern lands. He takes Ged under his wing and attempts to round out his teachings.
This doesn’t go so well. Ogion’s epithet is “the silent,” and at this point in the story Ged can muster nothing but scorn for Ogion’s humble manner. Ged wants to rush, to learn, to absorb, and to reach the extent of his power as quickly as he can. Swayed by ambition, Ged instead travels to Roke Island to attend the wizard academy there.
Roke isn’t good for Ged. He excels in classes but is jealous of other wizards-to-be, and his jealousy draws him into a dangerous challenge. He attempts to call a spirit from the underworld and instead unleashes a horror: a shadow that will hunt him for the rest of his life, intent on sucking away his being and possessing his body for evil.
Ged’s mistake is his turning point–he folds to temptation and pride. Afterward, as he recovers from the blow, he realizes that what he has released will haunt him wherever he goes. He matures because he must. He’s now wise enough to know that there’s no escaping the evil he has unleashed. It must destroy him or he it–there’s no alternative.
Surprisingly, this realization occurs only halfway into the novel–the rest is spent on a harrowing journey across land and sea to confront that which would destroy him. At first he’s on the run, but gradually Ged learns that his fear gives the shadow strength. To defeat the shadow, he must master himself and become the fearless hunter.
Ged’s series of realizations throughout the novel are what mark his maturation as a character. His mindset evolves from a need to prove himself to devastating uncertainty in his own abilities to gradual, mature confidence and acceptance of his limitations. His story is one of taking destiny into one’s own hands, and of refusing to be conquered by fear of the unknown.
Countless other characters enter the narrative and contribute bits of wisdom to Ged’s growing collection. Ogion reappears to guide him; Serret, an enchantress, tempts him with limitless power; and his friend Vetch instills in him a sense of duty. The novel reads like a miniature Hobbit, with each location offering a new cast of characters and a new set of challenges. The chronicle stretches like a single thread, then loops back on itself to connect certain characters at crucial points.
Refreshingly, those characters are as ethnically diverse as the inhabitants of the modern world. The people of Earthsea primarily have “red-brown” skin, although those from the south and east are much darker. Characters from the northern island look mediterranean. Only those from the north-east have light skin and hair. In an article for Slate, Le Guin stated that this choice was “conscious and deliberate from the start.” She was tired of fantasy tales that only resembled medieval Europe. The diversity of her characters makes the novel not only more inclusive, but also more representational.
If you read through A Wizard of Earthsea, subtleties such as these become apparent. Each new reading brings to light a different detail. So many subplots and layers of theme run through the novel that, although it’s an easy read, its simplicity seems like a cover-up. Much larger messages are at work in this simple coming-of-age tale, but they don’t detract from the pleasure of disappearing into Earthsea for a while.