Book review of Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea
I was given this book on loan, thanks to my great friend Rachel, as she thought it would be a good book for me to travel with. This was a very fitting selection, as the novel is filled with voyages into the unknown, the constant charting of new lands, and either chasing after, or running from, dreams or fears in life.
It was originally published in 1968, so I was expecting something akin to the style of The Sword in the Stone, which, even though it was written almost thirty years prior, in my mind seems to get lumped into a big ball of classics as does anything pre-1980. What I was delighted to find with A Wizard of Earthsea was not only a similar writing style to The Sword in the Stone, but also to beat generation novels like Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and The Town and the City. It seems that in the mid-nineteen hundreds a more free-form writing style was the popular practice, while today authors seem to take a much more refined, direct approach. But enough on theory.
Earthsea is an ocean littered with islands, some of which disappear with the tides. The people are wary of travelers, and what they know of the world consists of their understanding of their land, and the few stories they may have heard about other islands over the years, but even those seem distant dreams. There is an average cast of characters here, and it should be noted that I found many similarities between this novel and some of the character and plot aspects of The Name of the Wind. For instance, the main character goes to a school for wizards and meets who comes to be a rival on the first day of school. The magic system is similar in that the characters who truly learn to master different aspects of wizardry do so by learning the true names of things. Its really interesting to see how newer novels were influenced, sometimes more heavily than you realize, by some of the classic fantasy novels.
The pace of A Wizard of Earthsea is very brisk. The author moves from once situation to the next, only dwelling long enough to cover the essentials, without any unnecessary filler or padding. This makes for a very light novel (the paperback I have weighs in at 187 pages), one that does not set you down and give you a chance to rest. This does not result in a lack of quality reflection time. Le Guin covers everything from the responsibility that comes with great power:
Ged, listen to me now. Have you never thought how danger must surround power as shadow does light?
to the intellectual contemplation of nature:
From that time forth he believed that the wise man is one who never sets himself apart from other living things, whether they have speech or not, and in later years he strove to learn what can be learned, in silence, from the eyes of animals, the flight of birds, the great slow gestures of trees.
It is this ability to balance a fast-paced story with the beauty of pondering some of the finer aspects of life that makes A Wizard of Earthsea truly shine.
The most prominent and meaningful aspect of A Wizard of Earthsea is the underlying theme of the main character in a constant battle with himself, and the stark contrast of either running from your problems, or turning to face them head-on. It describes vividly how the way in which one decides to handle life issues can be either a blessing or turn into a disease. It is this concept that I believe makes A Wizard of Earthsea as timeless as it is. Just about anyone can relate to this sentiment on some level:
But as the day passed, his impatience turned from fear to a kind of glad fierceness. At least he sought this danger of his own will; and the nearer he came to it the more sure he was that, for this time at least, for this hour perhaps before his death, he was free.
It this modern world we live in it can feel at times as though we are locked eternally into a struggle to get ahead, but the real joy and happiness is found when we live in the moment, and realize that we are free to enjoy the time we are given as we please.
A Wizard of Earthsea is truly a book deserving of the title “classic”, and has rightfully earned its place upon my bookshelf for years to come. Or at least until I have to give it back.
You can purchase A Wizard of Earthsea over at Amazon.com.