Classic Revisited: A Wizard of Earthsea

Earthsea: The First Four Books: A Wizard of Earthsea * The Tombs of Atuan * The Farthest Shore * Tehanu

I wrote back in January that I felt Ursula Le Guin’s passing was a great loss for both the art of writing and for SFF in particular. I was driven at the time by my memories of reading A Wizard of Earthsea, one of the first fantasy books I ever held in my hands. You know, back when paper was a thing.

Since I wrote that, I’ve thought back occasionally to the story itself, only to realise that I don’t remember it all that well.

Passing through an airport last week I came across a collection of the first four Earthsea books and it felt a little too much like divine providence to ignore. I ploughed through A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan over the next couple of flights, and rediscovered the work.

The front blurb from the publisher tells you that none of these four books have ever been out of print since the publication of Wizard in 1971. Re-reading them, it’s easy to see why that should be.

Le Guin’s writing is clear as a bell. I like to think her editor had great pleasure in working on the book with her, since she had a love of language used correctly and with purpose. If you doubt this about her, then I’ll send you to another book of hers,  Steering the Craft , which contains lessons and exercises for non-beginners taken from her writing courses. Her focus on correct use of language and her insistence of the rules that govern grammar and narrative show how much respect she has for the medium in which she works.

The Wizard in question is Ged, also known as Sparrowhawk, a gifted young man from the island of Gont, who discovers he has a talent for magic. His gifts give rise to arrogance and ambition, which in turn lead to a mistake, which leaves him with scars and requires years of his life to correct. We are told at the very beginning that Ged is going to become Archmage of Earthsea, but this takes nothing away from the trials he must face along the way, and has yet to happen by the book’s end.

The stories have something of a parable about them. Very little of the backstory for either Ged or Earthsea is explicitly provided in the book, other than folklore or what little we see of his younger years. We are given almost no information on the provenance of the dark forces that pursue him, or the dragons he occasionally faces.

None is necessary, Le Guin concentrates on her story rather than any fanciful details in her world-building. We know as much about these things as the characters themselves. These characters act, and in their acts we understand them, up to a point. Few long paragraphs of internal dialogue are provided to enlighten us as to their decision-making, we learn about them through the things they do and the things they say to each other. This makes the novel, clearly destined for young adults, feel very grown up in terms of the respect it has for its readers.

The end of the novel provides a neat and satisfying closure, yet leaves so much of the world unexplained yet hinted at that an infinite number of stories could have been painted on the canvas Le Guin sketched in the first book. The Tombs of Atuan explore only one aspect of this world, and provides a similar, parable-like experience to the first book.

I never went beyond The Tombs of Atuan when I first read the books, and yet find myself impatient for the next flight when I will no doubt read The Farthest Shore in a single sitting.

All that’s left to say is that I highly recommend A Wizard of Earthsea regardless of your age or your prior experience with the genre.

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