Themes Explored: friendship, power, coming of age, pride, language, supernatural, man and the natural world, education, duty, personal responsibility, arrogance, death, death, balance, coming-of-age, fantasy, dragons, magic, wizardry, consequences
Summary: Ged, the greatest sorcerer in all Earthsea, was called Sparrowhawk in his reckless youth.
Hungry for power and knowledge, Sparrowhawk tampered with long-held secrets and loosed a terrible shadow upon the world. This is the tale of his testing, how he mastered the mighty words of power, tamed an ancient dragon, and crossed death’s threshold to restore the balance. (From Goodreads)
Review: Fantasy is one of those genres that manages to capture the imagination and transport the reader to magical new worlds. Many authors tend to write stories with similar plots, but each one carries a unique stamp that no other author can recreate. That is because fantasy is an extension of an author’s imagination and not two people will create identical worlds. Decades before J.K Rowling conquered the world with her Harry Potter Series, another young wizard at school captured the imagination of young children. His name is Sparrowhawk and he is the main character of Ursula K Le Guin’s Earthsea series. Over the course of the series, Ursula shows Sparrowhawk’s journey from reckless youth to sage adviser. The first book, A Wizard of Earthsea, follows Ged’s adventures at the wizard school on Roke Island.
Ged, whose “use name” is Sparrowhawk, is the youngest child of a poor smith’s son. He is born with a magical talent that he uses to save his village from invaders when he is a young child. However, his gifts make amplify his feelings of arrogance and impatience. Shortly after saving his village, Ged goes to the wizard school on Roke Island and makes one friend and one enemy. During a fit of rage and anger, he challenges his schoolyard enemy to a wizard’s duel and ends up summoning a monster. After a frightening encounter with the personification of darkness, Ged embarks on a deadly quest across the lonely seas full of peril. This journey teaches Ged many valuable lessons about the appropriate use of his magic powers. He begins the journey as an untested youth and matures into the greatest wizard of his generation.
Highly inspired by Celtic and Norse mythology and written in formal language, A Wizard of Earthsea does not is not a by-the-numbers sword and sorcery, action fantasy. There is no real villain, unless facing the darkness of your own soul counts as villainy. The climax of the novel is incredibly sedated and Ged is more likely to use diplomacy than a sword. So what exactly makes the story compelling? It all lies in the intricate character and world building. Ged is a flawed hero, more prone to cause problems from rash actions than be a perfect hero. While there is a lot of action, it is definitely more sedate than other similar stories. Le Guin tends to write literature that requires a lot of thinking and analysis to fully understand. Her children’s’ books are no different. A Wizard of Earthsea is for people who enjoy a slow burn instead of a fast paced rollercoaster adventure.
At its heart, A Wizard of Earthsea is very straightforward a coming-of-age story. There is a young boy who is reckless and proud. In a moment of anger he commits a terrible and life altering mistake that forces him to confront something he is not powerful enough to defeat. Once he has grown up a little, he has to try to right his wrong. Ged’s coming of age is incredibly dramatic: he fights off raiders, goes to a magic school, unleashes a shadow monster, defeats a dragon, and sails to the end of the world. Through these trials, Ged learns where he fits in this magical world.
What sets this book apart from similar stories is the idea of choice. Ged is not fated to make decisions or to save the world. He is not destined to defeat a great adversary and free the world from magical enslavement. Instead, Ged has the freedom of choice. It is up to him whether or not he uses his gifts for good or ill. If he wants to use his gifts for good, then there is only one path available for him to travel. There is always a choice and, sometimes, he makes terrible decisions that wreak havoc with the natural order of things.
Overall, this is an excellent start to a great series. Le Guin manages to interweave valuable life lessons with epic adventures. However, the story is written in a now old fashioned literary style. You will need to actively engage with the text in order to fully appreciate the story. It is definitely worth reading and each addition to the story adds another layer of intrigue.
A Wizard of Earthsea, Bantam Spectra, 2004 (Reprint), ISBN: 9780553383041