A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
For some reason, growing up I never got around to reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s “A Wizard of Earthsea.” Part of it could be that I heard it compared to the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, a series that I couldn’t quite plow my way through, despite multiple attempts as a younger reader. And part of it could have been that I was enamored with the tie-in novels for “Doctor Who” and “Star Trek,” that I never got around to some of the other original stories from the genre.
When ads began running for an “Earthsea” mini-series a few years ago on SciFi, I admit I was tempted to pick up the books, if only so I could say how the movie wasn’t as good as the books. But then I recalled how tedious I’d found “The Dispossessed” and decided against it, writing off the series as probably more of the same.
Finally, years later, I’ve finally got around to the first book of the series. I decided I’d approach it with an open mind, hoping for the best. After all, my favorite Tolkein is the book he wrote targeted for children (“The Hobbit”) so it’s possible that Le Guin could improve when writing a novel and series aimed at young adults and children.
Unfortunately, I can’t say that I came away from “A Wizard of Earthsea” liking Le Guin more than I did when I started. On a positive note, I didn’t find myself not wanting to read her works ever again as I did when I finished “The Dispossessed” and I’m actually curious to read the second installment of the series.
Dury is the son of a bronze-smith whose mother died in childbirth. From an early age, Dury shows an aptitude for magic, training with his aunt, the village witch and then apprenticing with a powerful wizard. In the world of Earthsea, people and things are given one name upon their birth and later given their true name in a coming-of-age ceremony that signals their journey into adulthood. Dury becomes Ged.
As an apprentice, Ged is proud of his magical powers and eager to learn more. He’s a bit impulsive and impatience in the early stages, leading to his leaving his original master and heading out to the school for magic in Roke. He carries with him a letter from his former master saying that he could be one of the greatest wizards of all time. Ged finds out this when he reads the letter to the overseer of the academy who is slowly going blind.
This knowledge leads Ged to become a bit more arrogant in his assumptions about his power. During a duel with a fellow rival, Ged calls up a dark spiri that also brngs a black mass which attacks Ged, scarring him for life. Ged hovers between life and death while the nameless evil shadow roams Earthsea. Ged finally recovers and receives his yew staff, embodying his achievement of magehood.
If you’re worried that I’m revealing a lot of plot details from the book, don’t be. Most of what happens in those paragraphs takes place within the first 40 or so pages of the novel. “Earthsea” is one of those stories that is a blink and you’ll miss it for the plot developments. Le Guin really packs the story in, giving little or no time to readers to catch their breath, despite the fact that large chunks of time are passing during the story.
As Ged heads out into the world, he realizes what he’s done and what he’s called up is something that will haunt and pursue him until he can find a way to defeat it. This leads to Ged going from place to place, trying to avoid the future that is bearing down on him.
“Earthsea” is a coming of age story for Ged. Watching him grow from a prideful young boy into a fearful young man is a fascinating journey as is his decision about what must be done to stop the forces pursuing him. And while Ged is reasonably well developed over the course of the novel, a lot of the other characters aren’t given much time or drop out of the story once their purpose to the plot is complete. It’s a bit frustrating at times or maybe it’s that I’m too used to the current fantasy-writing conventions where every character has his or her own backstory for pages on end, even if it’s not required by the plot. There has to be a reasonable middle ground, doesn’t there?
One interesting aspect to the story is the power that learning the true name of things has. I’ve seen this element in a variety of genre stories and it’s fascinating to see it incorporated here. Ged uses it to bind a dragon and make it agree not to attack a village and the power of knowing the true names of things is a fascinating one. It’s something I hope we’ll explore more in future books.
The problem with the book is the pacing. Le Guin leaps from one plot to the next with little or no time for reflection. I don’t necessarily want to see pages upon pages of Terry Goodkind-like summing up the plot by reflecting on what’s happened until now in the story, but I’d also like to feel like what’s going on is having some kind of greater impact on Ged. We do see him growing and he does change in many ways over the course of the book, but I found myself feeling like the story was too plot dependent by the time I got to the final confrontation. A bit of character work in there would have been welcomed.
However, Le Guin does avoid the temptation to make Ged go through too much of a change over the course of the story. He does learn from his errors and while he becomes more tempered as the story grows along, he still is prone to making the same mistakes. Often times, he gambles on things and he loses as often as he wins. He wins early in the story, holding off an attack on his village but overuses his powers. He also wins in researching the name of the dragon and it pays off. However, he also gambles and is pushed into it by others (it’s interesting to note how Ged is easily persuaded to push his powers by females) and it doesn’t always pay off. His being tricked by the daughter of the village witch and the magical duel are both prime examples.
“A Wizard of Earthsea” is a good book, but not a great one. I wonder if I’d read it at an earlier age if I might have been a bit fonder of it.
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