You’ve heard of A Wizard of Earthsea before. It’s an award winning fantasy work featuring a strong cast of characters of diverse cultures and colors, and it’s been famously misadapted for film and television.
I remember reading it years ago thinking it was a stuffy book with an underwhelming ending. I like to believe that I have learned a thing or two in the 25 years since then, so I revisited the book recently and was pleasantly surprised that I was almost entirely wrong.
The first thing you will notice is that the book is written very well. Le Guin’s world is richly imaginative. Her text, sumptuous and detailed. Even the magic system was well thought out with rules and penalties. Most especially, Ged was a sympathetic main character thick inside a coming-of-age story that dealt with the consequences of hubris. Why would some modern audiences find the book dull?
I believe the fault, if you can call it that, lies in the choice of narration. The story is told to the reader, not shown, as a lost folktale from past times. This makes the reader feel like a distant observers instead of pulling them into the action. This is especially evident in the second half of the book during the long journey of Ged first escaping, then hunting, his shadow. It follows the pattern of ancient ballads from our own world.
Still, it’s a short tale and one well worth reading, especially when considering the wealthy descriptions and wonderful settings that Le Guin establishes throughout the story. I read with awe the section where Ged created a wizard’s staff from a simple blade of grass. I was delighted when Ged fashioned seaworthy vessels out of driftwood and words. Also of note were the detailed cultures of this world, both the mage-born and those of the peoples of the sea—exactly the type of story a daughter of an anthropologist would write.
When I was younger the ending left me unsatisfied because, in essence, Ged traveled the world to battle himself. I threw my hands in the air and thought, “What a waste of time!” However, I now understand why I found the ending unsatisfying.
The first half of the book was spent establishing the rules of magic—the power in a word. Then the ending walked into a metaphysical magical lala-land where rules were turned on their heads, ocean was sand, waves were rocks, light embraced dark, and I had absolutely no idea what was going on. Then it was over. At the time, the movie Dark Crystal made more sense to me.
Now, however, I see what I missed. There were copious amounts of foreshadowing sprinkled throughout the book leading to this ending. The ending is intended to make one think. It is a tale of silence, patience, and understanding. It is a tale of self-mastery, not conquest.
Many books are recommended to be read simply by the quality of the writing, and A Wizard of Earthsea is one of those books. Le Guin deserved her awards, and frankly, deserved more. However, beyond the pretty words is a tale that will capture your heart. I highly recommend it.
Release Date: December 1968 (USA)
ISBNs: 0395276535 (9780395276532)
Publisher: Parnassus Press
Violence: 2 (marauding raiders, magic violence, suspense, impending death)