A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K Le Guin

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A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K Le Guin

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Category: Fantasy
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: Short but very rich novel that tells the first instalment of the story of Ged Sparrowhawk, a Mage and a dragon lord from Earthsea. If you read fantasy at all but don't know it, go and read it at once. For somebody not acquainted with fantasy it wouldn't be a bad place to start sampling.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 208 Date: July 1973
Publisher: Puffin Books
ISBN: 0140304770

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Somehow forgotten in the post-movie renewed furore over the Lord of the Rings, to those in the know, the 'Earthsea' cycle is up there in the fantasy Pantheon, with Tolkien and the 'Once and Future King', high above all the Belgariads and Shannaras.

Ursula K. Le Guin is not strictly a fantasy writer, in fact she has written much more of sci-fi than fantasy. Her s-f works delight in designing and describing what can be called alternative societal set-ups, sometimes simply different from ours for no apparent reason and often firmly grounded and justified by alternations in biology or/and geography. She is a writer of a great sociological passion and strong convictions, and these show quite clearly here, especially towards the end of the 'Earthsea' series. The whole cycle comprises five titles and spans almost half a century of the author's life, telling the story of Ged Sparrowhawk, a wizard and a dragonlord, the Archmage and a sailor, a goatherd and a farmer, from his childhood on the island of Gont to his journeys to the end of the world and beyond and back to the mountains of his home island.

As befits the first book in the series, 'The Wizard of Earthsea' starts at the beginning: we see Ged as a young lad, a mountain goatherd, before he was even given his adult name, discovering his talent for magic, learning from the village witch and then from a local wizard, and then following to Wizards' island of Roke in pursuit of the power and the knowledge. In this pursuit Ged releases something from out-of-this-world, a dark shadow whose name nobody knows, and ends up being pursued and the pursuing it to the farthest shores of the world and beyond, and in this process discovering Great Truths about nature of the world, and his own humanity. He also learns about friendship, trust and temptation, he speaks to dragons and crosses the wall to the Dry Land of the dead to come back a scarred but - of course - a more developed human being.

It's a small book: the whole series is similar in size to one volume of many modern sagas. 'A Wizard of Earthsea' is mere 200 pages long and could be even classified as a novella on the basis of size and the fact that there is only one plot-line going. But, somehow, the book feels much bigger. It is astonishingly rich in contexts, characterisation and world-description. The whole world of Earthsea unfolds before your eyes, consistent, well designed, fascinatingly real. And all of that description is given in passing, in a very natural way. There is none of this stopping-for-an-introductory-lecture stuff so typical of many mediocre books dealing with different worlds or lives apart form our own.

And of course, as any decent book, it does more than tell Ged's story and describe his world, it can be also read as a metaphor. The key to the story is in this case the psychology of C. G. Jung. The whole series is, in fact, a metaphor for personality development understood in Jungian terms. I will not dwell into particulars as firstly it's not supposed to be an in-depth analysis but a review, and secondly, such analysis would necessarily unravel too much of the plot. But the Jungian symbolism is there for readers who enjoy that kind of thing.

'Only in silence the word, only in dark the light, only in dying life: bright the hawk's flight on the empty sky'. These verses, taken from one of the almost sacred tales/songs of Earthsea are the framework of the novel, important both for understanding its message and for creating the world that the story takes place in. And, at least for me, the best thing about s-f and fantasy is the creation of alternative worlds. I like Ursula Le Guin because she excels at that task.

And the best thing about this novel for me is the world that was created in it, complete with its mythology, epic songs, social system, religion, fairly precise geography and underlying laws of nature and magic. As the title suggests, it is a sea world, comprising of hundreds or thousands of islands (Archipelago and the somewhat hostile and clearly not belonging to the same society Kargad Islands ), surrounded by mysterious Reaches where laws of nature change and then the wide open sea. In the novel I am writing about only some of the islands are visited, others are mentioned or described, but all have their distinct and consistent geological features, climate, populations, industries and even history.

Magic plays important role in Earthsea - magic gives you power over some aspects of nature (not all of them though, for example Old Powers of the Earth are not for human control) through, essentially, the knowledge of the names of things and people in the Old Speech, the language spoken when the world was created, the language of myths and the language of dragons. The role of names, and the language in general allows for interesting parallels with the classic European stories of creation (graeco-christian Logos for example) as well as the fundamental culture-creating role of poetry.

The Mages of Earthsea, seem, at least in this volume, a respectable and venerable lot, concerned with the Equilibrium and the fate of the whole world, aware of their own limitations and proper uses of their powers.

The story is narrated as if a tale told by a traveller (maybe a wizard?) to villagers gathered by a fireside, told or sang to those who have not heard this early chapter of the Gads story. Overall, it's a slowish tale but manages to maintain both its richness and some level of excitement throughout.

The language is not archaic but slightly stylised, a little bit less colloquial or fluid than it would be if told from our perspective in modern vernacular American as is sometimes the case with current fantasy. There is an occasional 'deed' or 'doom' and generally no anachronisms. In parts of the story dealing with internal mental life of Ged, slightly more modern language and syntax is used. I have to confess that it took me some time to get used to the English original - I had read the book previously several times in an excellent translation by one of the best contemporary Polish poets and poetry translators.

What is worth bearing in mind is that the book was first published in 1968, thus if some motifs seem faintly familiar from elsewhere it is likely that they originated with Le Guin in the first place.

As far as almost-unavoidable comparison with Tolkien goes, Le Guin's is a different world altogether, apart from some very superficial similarities. The spiritual sources of Le Guin are in the Eastern philosophies, filtered through the psychology of CG Jung. The world she describes is less knightly, less black-and-white and in some ways more modern, in others - more realistically medieval. I love Tolkien's creation, but if I ever had a chance to visit one fantasy world I would go for the tour of Earthsea. And the poetry is decidedly better (and much less of it...).

All in all it deserves about 4 and half stars - 5 being reserved for the second and best, if smallest-scale book of the series ('The Tombs of Atuan'). Rounding down, we get well deserved 4 for a landmark and an absolute classic of the genre. Recommended for everybody, and also eminently suitable for young readers from about 11 years old.

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