A Wizard of Earthsea, the first book in the Earthsea series by Ursula K. Le Guin, has been around a long time. I knew it was old before I started reading it, but it wasn’t until I opened the book and saw the publication date that I realized it was from 1968. One of the original magical school books, beating out Harry Potter by over 20 years. This is a series that has been on my to-do list for a long time, but I have constantly held off on due to the consistent complaints I have heard about the book: it’s well written, but slow and boring. With Le Guin’s passing this year, I have been making an effort to read all of her work that I have held off on too long. So, do these complaints have merit, or are they just the words of ignorant fools who don’t understand Earthsea’s greatness? Read on and find out.
The plot of A Wizard of Earthsea is very straightforward. Ged, our protagonist, is a boy with great magical potential who is learning to become a wizard. The book follows his life from early childhood, where his aunt helps him discover his powers, to early adulthood where he becomes a wizard of some renown. The book focuses on Ged’s struggle with his inner demons, metaphorically represented by a shadow that he released into the world when he was a young man in a moment of arrogance. The book is split between three time period arcs: Ged’s time with his family and first magical master, Ged’s time at a magical university, and Ged’s first forrays into the greater world and his confrontation with his shadow.
Ged is an interesting character and one whose head I enjoyed spending time inside. Le Guin did a great job of making him flawed, but very likable, in order to make a vehicle to portray the experience of growing up and learning humility. He initially is an arrogant and lonely child with a streak of spite and jealousy in him. However, Le Guin does an incredible job of showing Ged’s simple desire for a place to belong, and it makes his flaws feel both understandable and sad – as opposed to making me irritated with him as a character. His personality is not particularly deep, but I think this was an intentional choice on Le Guin’s part in order to leave as much room for projection from the reader as possible. Instead, Le Guin spends her time going into the philosophy and psychology of Ged’s actions on the world – which makes Wizard a great book for introspection.
The philosophy and psychology is fairly light though. Circling back to my comment in the introduction, a lot of people have told me that these books have beautiful prose but can be painfully slow. I think the prose of the book is pretty good, but it is definitely evident that this is one of Le Guin’s earlier works. While nice, it doesn’t quite live up to the standard of excellence that comes to mind when I think of her later work (understandably). On the other hand, I also think that the claim that the book is slow is overstated. I think the book is quiet, and that is not the same thing as slow. Modern fantasy has a lot of flashy explosive books with some huge fighting set pieces, and A Wizard of Earthsea is nothing like that. The book takes place mostly in Ged’s head as he experiences new places and does great things – and it has a somber quiet tone to it. However, I do not think it is slow at all. In 300 pages Le Guin takes us through a sizable chunk of Ged’s life, jumping from event to event. In fact, I sometimes felt the pacing was a little too fast and wish I could have spent more time reading about various places Ged went and things he did.
A Wizard of Earthsea is an impressive book and I will definitely be finishing the full Earthsea series. When you read classics like this, or Lord of the Rings (for example), it is often easy to see the profound historical impact they have had on the fantasy genre and why they are held in such high regard. It is much more rare for a classical book to feel like it still reads as well as a modern fantasy, and I feel A Wizard of Earthsea reads just as well today as it did 50 years ago. I think that if you were to read Earthsea as a teenager it would have a profound and life changing effect on your outlook on the world. If you missed the boat though, it is still a fantastic read to those of us in our later years and you owe it to yourself to check out this timeless classic.
Rating: A Wizard of Earthsea – 9.0/10