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.
Man… I read this book thinking it was a piece of fantasy I had miss. The jacket cover put it on par with Tolkien and it failed to deliver. I found that throughout this book the reader was waiting… and waiting for something.. anything to happen. I found the writing style a bit akward, like watching a B movie on fast forward stopping at the “good parts” only to find the good parts not so good. The end was so anti-climatic that I personally felt angry that I had followed the journey all this way and had nothing to show for it.
I can see how the style of writing in A Wizard of Earthsea could feel a bit strange to readers who are used to more current fantasy, especially if you’ve never read any Kerouac. I may be a bit biased, since Kerouac is one of my distant cousins, so I get fairly inspired by this style of writing. Thanks for the feedback, its good to hear the other side of the coin. I like to give readers as honest an opinion of books as possible.
One of the most beautiful and well structured books in the whole fantasy genre. No actually I’ll rephrase that, simply one of the most beautiful books ever written. Spare and lean. Insightful but never pompous, Ged’s growth from an at times arrogant and brash young man to a humble and wise arch mage across the span of the first three Earthsea books is a triumph of writing.
Urusla Le Guin’s science-fiction work is also well worth reading. Although she is not a hard science-fiction writer and her style falls more into the category of soft sci-fi her ability to deal with complex sociological, moral and ethical topics is outstanding.
Very disappointed with this book. Was hoping to fill in my time until the final book of Wheel of time is released by reading an ‘older’ series so gave this ago due to all the raving about it over the years, but I found it very ordinary.
The narrative was in my opinion impersonal and abrupt, bordering on childish. And the plot development, particularly at the end, was ridiculously simplistic – its like the author decided that the book was geting too long so lets just use the same reason why Ged always leaves a new place.
Perhaps I do it a disservice since I had just finished reading “Shadow of the Wind” by Carloz Ruiz Zafon (not fantasy) which is an absolute masterpiece of writing so my expectations may have been a little high. Any book would pale in comparison to that.
Don’t think I’ll continue with the rest of the Earthsea series.
An excellent book.
Its style belies its depth. It is simple to read but on reflection not so simple to mimic.
Le Guin’s Taoist philosophies infuse the book with the kind of obvious truth that Taoist thought often engenders. Le Guin’s understanding of human development places the fantastic within the everyday. Or is it the other way around? Either way, I have spent many enjoyable hours reading this book trying to work it out.
This is truly an excellent book.