A biweekly series, The Ursula K. Le Guin Reread explores anew the transformative writing, exciting worlds, and radical stories that changed countless lives. This week we’ll be covering A Wizard of Earthsea, first published by Parnassus Press in 1968. My edition is Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Graphia Imprint, 2012, and this installment of the reread covers the entire novel.
Every generation has its wizards.
At least since Tolkien’s Gandalf made the character-type approachable, if distant; an aid, ally, and possible friend, rather than a mystery, threat, or oaf—the subject of Christian damnation and Disneyan animation. True that’s not many generations of wizard-havers, but upon rereading Le Guin’s first major fantasy novel, and her first work ostensibly for children, I cannot help but feel a bit let down that my generation grew up with the middlebrow juggernaut of the Harry Potter series and the lowbrow action of Faerûn’s Elminster, instead of with Le Guin’s excerpts of the mythic Deed of Ged. (Just a bit, mind you.)
A Wizard of Earthsea is as magisterial as, though in an entirely different manner to, the previous books in this reread. The tone of Le Guin’s writing is simpler and sparser than in The Left Hand of Darkness or The Dispossessed, the political intrigue largely absent, but A Wizard of Earthsea for all its scant 200 pages still clings to the heart, impresses with its beauty, and reveals an incredible depth to the storyworld that calls out for exploration. And like the science fiction novels we’ve covered previously, Wizard ends with more questions asked than answered. For heaven’s sake, Earthsea is an archipelago of dozens of nation-states bound together culturally by geographical circumstances, shared myth and history, and a vague infrastructure of college-trained mages. Not to mention dragons, Old Powers, and lands beyond death. There’s so much to explore, and yet we only get glimpses—at least in this book (four more novels and a story collection follow).
In the midst of these fantastic set-dressings, Le Guin’s focus remains tightly on character, on the boy (then man) named Ged who struggles against great powers (dragons, witches, evil flagstones) but none greater than the evil within himself, the truth of his own mortality and eventual death. Wizard isn’t interested in Ged as the all-powerful archmage we are told from the beginning he will one day become; it’s a fact of the story—not taken for granted like Harry Potter’s specialness because, well, he’s the protagonist—but a detail about the future stated and set aside in order to focus on the story at hand. Le Guin instead brings us into the adolescence of a great wizard yet to be, telling the unsung song of how his childish folly, his desire for power for personal gain, forced him to confront the darkness in himself.
That said, I’m not sure I would’ve appreciated this so-called YA novel at 11 the same way I did Harry Potter, which had the benefit of a character roughly my age and with whom I and many others quite literally grew up. But Harry Potter didn’t challenge or call me to some deeper understanding of self; it became a part of me easily without seeking to change me—a comfortable and familiar sweater, something shared by millions of others, each of us nodding in acknowledgment of the other sweater-wearers as though our choice of interest made us unique. Of course, reading Wizard by the millions wouldn’t have made us any more unique than reading Harry Potter did, but it might’ve taught us more. What Le Guin gave us was a song only for us, a song unknown even in Earthsea, a secret shared between Ged and me and you: the Song of the Shadow.
Magic and Power
There are thousands of fantasy novels, many with magic and magic-users populating their worlds, and a great many derive their understanding of what magic is—or could be—from a few sources, Dungeons & Dragons principal among them. Let me pause, however, to say that I do not necessarily find this a fault of fantasy worldbuilding: A great many novels beyond those published with the TSR and Wizards of the Coast imprints are clearly based on a D&D-inspired understanding of fantasy, which itself drew heavily on Tolkien. One of the greatest fantasy series, to me, hews incredibly closely to the D&D formulae, Elizabeth Moon’s The Deed of Paksenarrion trilogy (which is also not a little inspired by Earthsea).
A problem for some readers, however, is that magic in much of fantasy is taken for granted. Even in Tolkien, magic is not so much a thing understood by the reader (or the Hobbits or Men or Elves or Dwarves we come into contact with), as a thing that acts when and where it is needed. This is one of Tolkien’s key plotting strategies: big moments of magic or extra-natural catharsis (the Eagles!). We don’t even know what exactly wizards do except, apparently, know things and make fireworks (a lot more interesting, at least, than that stupid Tyrion Lannister slogan). In Harry Potter, magic may be omnipresent, but its limits, its possibilities, its bases are just as unfathomable as whatever the hell Gandalf does. Sure, “It’s leviOsa, not levioSA!” and you’ve got to wave the wand a certain way. But aside from the occasional rule and magic being semi-hereditary and some people being (naturally or not?) better than others at it, we know next to nothing about it. Harry Potter is encyclopedic in its elaboration of the storyworld, of what magic looks like, but it’s all surface; dig in and it crumbles. A Wizard of Earthsea introduced to the annals of magic in fantasy something quite a bit different.
In the late 1960s, fantasy as a capital-F genre was not yet fully born but in the process of becoming. Tolkien had come into widespread popularity in the U.S. thanks to Ace Books’s bootleg printing of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, followed by a big kerfuffle from Tolkien and a legitimate printing by Ballantine (all of this despite Tolkien’s dislike of the “degenerate” form of the mass-market paperback). What we call fantasy in retrospect had been around for decades (or centuries or millennia, depending on what genre historian you ask and their school of thought), but Tolkien sparked a desire for secondary-world tales like his, leading to a number of efforts to reduplicate his success. Ballantine’s Adult Fantasy series (not as exciting as it sounds, but much cooler!), shepherded by editor Lin Carter, created something of a canon for fantasy throughout the late Sixties and early Seventies by reprinting novels and story collections from the last hundred years, with occasional new works. Ballantine then struck gold with Terry Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara in 1977 and that, coupled with the D&D boom of the Eighties, helped cement the genre as we know it today.
A Wizard of Earthsea came in to all of this as it was happening and provided or enhanced a few staple traits of the genre: the wizard “school,” the magic of names, the questing wizard, rings of power, transmogrification, and wizardly familiars, to a name a few. It is a short powerhouse of a novel that sees Ged grow from boy to powerful wizard in under a hundred pages, and in the next hundred he defeats a dragon (with a conversation based on something he remembered from a history book!), ventures into and out of the land of the dead, journeys across the breadth of his known world twice, fends off a timeless evil (trapped in a castle flagstone) that has manipulated his path since childhood, and confronts his gebbeth-self. It is over in a breath, but it’s the satisfying breath of mountain air or salty sea-wind; it replenishes.
As a short fantasy novel intended for young adults, it might be easy to dismiss Wizard as having little to say about the grand ideas that define Le Guin’s science fiction. This is an unfortunate reduplication of genre self-consciousness that often plays out in SFF circles: “Literary” fiction looks down on genre, but within genre SF looks down on fantasy; within genre, SF is the terrain of ideas and seriousness, fantasy the realm of magic, entertainment, and childishness. But Wizard is surprisingly in tune with a great deal of what is said about power in The Dispossessed, even if it “fails” to imagine wizards as anything but men and relies on the trope of the evil temptress-sorceress to spur the male hero’s development. Like The Lord of the Rings, Wizard contends that power is a constant threat always to be guarded against, ready to corrupt through folly and arrogance and bend to the will of darker, older forces. But whereas Tolkien rarely shows us the possible ramifications of power’s corruption (here I’m thinking of Samwise’s vision while carrying the ring for Frodo, turned into an awesome musical number by Rankin and Bass), preferring to let his Christological conception of good versus evil speak for itself, Le Guin inhabits a much less binarily divergent world. Hers is instead capable of recognizing—and indeed of requiring—overlap between good and evil: Western fantasy written by a Taoist.
Power, in Wizard, is largely a function of magic, but magic is not a force to be used however one desires. It has a cost, it adheres to a sort of arcane physics, each act implying an equally powerful reaction, as well as a moral one; each act done out of greed, for example, furthering the ends of evil. Despite this strong sense of moral compass at work in magic, Le Guin’s Earthsea is not a universally moralizing storyworld as Tolkien’s is. People (or dragons or Old Powers) are not “evil” in the sense that they serve some grand design working toward the end of the world orchestrated by some hidden, all-powerful evil. Rather, evil is evil because it is judged by someone to be of harm to others. It is Odonianism of a kind masquerading in the language of another genre.
Ged’s shadow-self is evil only in the sense that he misunderstands and fears it, unleashing it into the world through the follies of arrogance and pride so tied up in the masculinity of a young boy trying to impress those who challenge him. The shadow is a threat to his life and as a gebbeth, whether killing others or potentially taking his powers to harm others, becomes a threat to more than himself. It is evil because it does harm, not because it is a malevolent monstrosity from a realm beyond death. And what’s more, it is a necessary evil that Ged must recognize as a part of himself, as a thing always to be struggled with—all the more so because he is a mage of significant prowess. Only by coming to terms with this, with the evil (i.e. the ability to do harm to others) in him, does he complete his quest.
Moreover, Wizard shares with The Dispossessed a concern about knowledge and the power that knowledge brings with it. Magic in Earthsea is a kind of knowledge, an arcane knowing beyond the ken of most people, and yet knowledge is also always incomplete. Even the Master Namer—the mage who learns and writes the true names of all beings and things and places—even his work is never done. So vast is the world that it cannot be fully known, yet there are ways of knowing and of gaining power through that knowing all the same. And that knowledge can be a temptation, as the dragon Yemaud and the Old Power of Terrenon demonstrate as they try to bind Ged to their will. Knowledge is power, and that power may be used to better or to harm. The mage may kill and control, but he may also bring a ship safely home and heal wounds.
The Unsung Song
If there’s one thing us lovers of fantasy appreciate, it’s maps and settings. And Earthsea delivers! Le Guin brings us an archipelago of disparate kingdoms and peoples bound together by a semblance of shared culture and languages—Hardic—set against those of people dwelling at the edges of the archipelago, the Oskillians and Kargs. Yet this world, somewhat akin technologically to our Bronze Age, is such that kingdoms remain small, folks travel little, fauna remains local (otaks on Roke, harrekki in the East Reach), and knowledge (in the forms of gossip, tales, and epic songs) circulates through traders and itinerant sorcerers. Earthsea is expertly shaped to the particularities of sea-going archipelagic life and reminds me of nowhere so intensely as the Aegean peoples of Homer’s Iliad—hardy, stubborn, geographically distinct yet bound by shared histories, myths, and enemies to the east (only this time they’re warmongering white-people led by god-brothers, perhaps inspired by Romulus and Remus of Roman myth). Earthsea is a physically known world to its inhabitants, but one steeped in mysteries. As Ged’s best friend Vetch puts it, a ship never arrives from a land whose name is unknown, but dragons and Old Powers and other mysteries (the Ring of Erreth-Akbe, anyone?) nonetheless lie scattered throughout the islands.
Of great importance to the people of Earthsea is song. I’m a sucker for song in fantasy, a bard stan to the end, and it’s an honest shame that Le Guin—a talented poet!—never tries her hand at some of the oral epic poetry that circulates the isles. As in ancient Greece (and among the Indo-European cultures generally, as well as many others besides), stories of Earthsea’s heroes and history are transmitted orally through sung, semi-formulaic poetry. From the beginning we are told by our distant narrator that the present tale about a wizard of Earthsea (and there’s a whole other thing: a wizard, not the wizard!) is about the eponymous subject of the Deed of Ged, but it’s not until the novel’s end that we discovered this is a tale not recorded in the Deed, and even though Vetch promised to weave it into song, no song telling of Ged’s trial against the shadow, himself, is known. Truly, even Vetch does not know what happened between Ged and his shadow—that is for Ged and for us.
It’s an important tale, this Song of the Shadow, so why does it remain unsung in Earthsea, left out of the Deed of Ged? That’s an easy question to ask and inversely difficult to answer, because frankly I don’t know. I like to think it’s because Le Guin keeps the story for us, to teach us, because to know is to have power over. Just as we know Ged’s true name and thus have power over him, so are we able to know the darkest secrets of his life, the folly and greed and ambition that brought him face to face with that which we all fear. To have this story is to have power, for through this self-recognition and shadow-trial Ged gains the fullness of being that allows his power to culminate in him being among the greatest wizards in Earthsea’s history. It is a knowledge we have to use wisely.
But I don’t know. It’s not a wholly satisfactory answer. Maybe it’s because stories of heroes are meant to be about great people without flaws, about warriors and mages at the peak of their power. Great deeds are not deeds of atonement, but of imposition and triumph thereover. Is Ged’s story in Wizard a triumph? Would the people in the meadhall understand the epic meaning of Ged’s confrontation with his shadow-self? But this answer isn’t very helpful either, since anyone who’s pushed through Homeric or Sanskrit or Anglo-Saxon or Biblical verse knows that heroes are usually not ideal beings; like the gods, they’re often assholes. Powerful, yes, but not aspirational.
I’m sure there are many more possible answers, but I’d like to hear your responses: What does this song going unsung in Earthsea mean? Beyond that, what does A Wizard of Earthsea mean to you? When did you first read it and, if you’ve reread it, how has it changed for you?
A Wizard of Earthsea leaves me wanting more, not because I am unsatisfied but because it awakens in me a hunger for more of Earthsea. No doubt, I have not said enough in these hundreds of words to capture all my responses to rereading Wizard, and I’m sure you have thoughts and challenges prompted by what few responses I’ve been able to put down in these dark times. At the very least, I console myself by remembering that I can return to Wizard whenever I want and seek new knowing in its depths. And I can venture to still further shores in the Earthsea books to come.
Please join me in three weeks, April 29, for The Tombs of Atuan, a book I treasure even more dearly than Wizard and am excited to read again after so many years. In the meantime, may the winds carry your ship to gentler seas!
Sean Guynes is a critic, writer, and editor currently working on a book about how the Korean War changed American science fiction, and co-writing a book on whiteness for the MIT Press Essential Knowledge series. For politics, publishing, and SFF content, follow him on Twitter @saguynes.