Fifty Years in Earthsea

I count myself among the many readers who will greatly miss Ursula K. Le Guin. Although 2018 marks the end of her prolific career, due to her death in January, it also marks the fifty-year publication anniversary of one of her earliest and most beloved novels—A Wizard of Earthsea. Perhaps the best way I know to celebrate Le Guin’s life is to celebrate her literary creations, among which I treasure A Wizard of Earthsea most specifically.

It bears mentioning that many (or all) of Le Guin’s novels deserve commemoration. It’s hard to overstate her contributions to science fiction and fantasy, let alone poetry, translation, or her many other endeavors. For instance, just a year after publishing A Wizard of Earthsea, Le Guin won both the Hugo and Nebula awards for her groundbreaking novel about gender and identity, The Left Hand of Darkness. This made her just the second writer to garner both of science fiction’s highest awards on the same novel, and the only woman to do so for another decade. Five years after this she repeated the feat—also a first for any novelist, which she capped by winning the prestigious Locus award as well—with her utopian science fiction, The Dispossessed. Long story short, she wrote plenty of shatteringly good fiction worth reading.

So. What makes A Wizard of Earthsea stand out in Le Guin’s personal ocean of literary excellence?

First off, a little background on the story, which is a terrific example of fantasy quests truly caused by the character’s own actions, rather than the other way around. This coming-of-age novel follows the youth of a proud, clever boy nicknamed Sparrowhawk. Early in his introduction to wizardry Sparrowhawk recognizes just how exceptional his own power might be. Longing to prove himself, he unwittingly unleashes a monstrous shadow, which scars and permanently weakens Sparrowhawk before hunting him relentlessly across the reaches of Earthsea. The hunt only ends after Sparrowhawk stops running, turns around, and confronts what he has done.

This novel’s biggest contributions might come through its setting. The archipelago of Earthsea is well-drawn, culturally rich, evocative, wild, magical, and boundlessly beautiful even after many re-readings of each book and short story. Its sociocultural diversity is one of its most unique additions to the fantasy genre, combining characters of low and high classes (not just baker’s boys who are somehow long-lost sons of kings), and featuring several distinct cultures, some uncommonly realistic feudal societies, and a strong cast of people of color, including Sparrowhawk himself. Although many terrific works of fantasy do these things today, not so many could be found in the 1960s.

Unlike most of The Earthsea Cycle, A Wizard of Earthsea features a predominantly male cast. However, like so many of Le Guin’s other works, it shows her signature attention to feminism and gender equality with a few cuttingly poignant passages. Take for instance Sparrowhawk’s interaction with his childhood friend Serret, who meets him again as the young bride of an aged noble. Sparrowhawk mourns to see Serret now “like a white deer caged, like a white bird wing-clipped, like a silver ring on an old man’s finger.” He concludes: “She was an item of [her husband’s] hoard.” In another particularly pointed example—one that’s too resonant to be imaginary—we find women’s magic described as “weak” at best, if not inherently “wicked.” Sparrowhawk’s awareness of asymmetrical social structures like these plays only a small role in this novel, but it sets the stage for focal discussions of the issues in four of the following Earthsea books. Furthermore, Le Guin’s fabulous fusion of language and theme makes these and other brief insights as powerful as many entire essays or novels written on the same subjects.

Again connected to setting, Le Guin’s treatment of magic is masterful, creative, robust, and mysterious all at once. In a more technical sense, we might say that Earthsea features several different magic systems, since it combines both the high and low arts of wizardry, the Old Powers, elements of geospatial magic, and dragon lore, just to name some of what plays out in this short novel. The most significant system at work is the system Le Guin first introduced in her earlier Earthsea short stories “The Rule of Names” and “The Word of Unbinding.” In a nutshell, knowing the true name of a thing or an entity gives a mage mastery and power over that thing. Hence Sparrowhawk goes by Sparrowhawk rather than by his true name, which he keeps secret.

If this sounds familiar to non-Earthsea readers, it’s likely because this magic system has been reworked and reused widely. Vernor Vinge’s True Names is largely a literary experiment on this principle (while also cementing an imaginative invention of cyberspace and thus ushering in the cyberpunk genre). The same magic system also shows up in young adult works like Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus books and Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle, and is the basis for magic systems in numerous works of epic fantasy, including Patrick Rothfuss’s popular Kingkiller Chronicle.

Harry Potter also features a magic system that is organizationally similar to Earthsea’s. For instance, the academic divisions at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry—featuring individual teachers in Divination, Charms, Potions and Transfiguration—parallels the organization of the nine masters at Earthsea’s Roke School, such as the Master Summoner, Master Windkey, and Master Herbal. Le Guin’s influence on both the content and structure of future magic systems in fantasy is evident. A Wizard of Earthsea also introduces perhaps the first big example of a magical boarding school story, paving the way for important later works by Rowling, Jane Yolen, and many others.

Its fantasy trappings are hardly A Wizard of Earthsea’s only merits. It’s also a novel of deep literary complexity, with a nuanced and yet accessible take on Jungian ideas like the shadow, and a seemingly Taoist concept of balance and equilibrium. These themes went largely over my head when I read the book as a young teenager. And herein lies another of Le Guin’s great strengths: her ability to explore complexity without either dumbing it down or barring inexperienced readers from the conversation. A Wizard of Earthsea is simultaneously accessible and rich in ways that are hard to find in any literary genre.

On a related note, Le Guin also presents here an intricate but comprehensible account of good and evil. Where many works of fantasy for a few decades following clearly demarcated between villains and heroes, this novel makes few if any such delineations. Sparrowhawk, the clear protagonist of A Wizard of Earthsea, both causes the most apparent evil and experiences the greatest defeats. This novel’s synthesis of metaphorical light and shadow into individual characters (Jungian again) not only avoids clichés that would plague fantasy for years to come, but enriches its characters and story immensely. Such a tale—deeply concerned with equilibrium—would be impossible without this moral balance in its own characters.

Have I mentioned dragons? Le Guin’s dragons are uniquely compelling for a few reasons. First of all, they’re more devious and clever than those to be found in standard fare of the 60s, 70s, 80s or beyond. Secondly, they’re not just fierce and terrifying creatures; they’re beautiful. In them we see something like the “kind of glad fierceness” Sparrowhawk himself shows when confronting them. And herein lies the greatest treasure in these dragons’ hoards. They’re compelling, beautiful, frightening, and alluring because they are so much like humans. Readers may never relate to the experience of true dragonhood, but we can certainly relate to Earthsea’s dragons, because we’re like them.

A Wizard of Earthsea shines in terms of structural strengths as well. First off, it begins and ends powerfully. Its opening sentence is perhaps my personal favorite of any fantasy novel:

“The Island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards.”

The ending is similarly strong and becomes even stronger when taken in the context of the following books. It concludes in triumph, yet without fanfare, in an encounter about which no one truly knows but Sparrowhawk himself and the reader—which makes this shared secret all the sweeter. Readers get to understand even more than those who walk beside Sparrowhawk. Though the people of Earthsea laud and praise him for ages yet, only readers get to know his greatest victory of all.

A Wizard of Earthsea is also amazingly short. Many serious readers could finish the book in a day or two, if not in a single sitting. The pacing is incredibly fast in comparison to most modern narratives, but Le Guin’s zoomed-out presentation of the story makes it feel much more thorough and steady than most books of its length. This novel spends less time on scene and point of view than is typical, yet it infuses much more substance than appears in the average novel of twice or even three times its length. For instance, Le Guin often uses just two or three pages to accomplish plot devices that take whole chapters elsewhere—such as Sparrowhawk’s midnight contest with Jasper, which foremirrors Harry Potter’s planned midnight duel with Draco Malfoy.

What’s more, this novel stands amazingly well on its own, while also rewarding those who read on across the five subsequent volumes. Its conciseness and self-containment make it a small investment in a reader’s time, while its place in a series also offers dividends for fans (like me) of longer journeys into fantasy worlds.

Last but hardly least, the thematic content of this story suit it well for nearly any reader of any age. Perhaps its clearest themes have to do with growing up, redemption, enlightenment, balance, and self-knowledge. What young reader doesn’t want to find their place in the world and come of age? And what older reader won’t find common ground in the hope to set some error right, much as Sparrowhawk toils and sacrifices to do? I submit that nearly any reader might see themselves in this story because Sparrowhawk’s experience is so believably human, and because it celebrates much of what’s best about human nature.

Now, in the 50th year since its publication—and having read this book nearly every year since I was 13 years old—I can’t recommend A Wizard of Earthsea highly enough. Go explore Earthsea for yourself. If you’re anything like me, you might never want to leave.

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