Review of A Wizard of Earthsea

I’d first read Ursula K. LeGuin’s book The Dispossessed several years ago. Though I loved the book, I’d departed from my normal habit – once I’d find an author I like I read all their books – as I’ve never wholly resonated with fantasy literature. Despite my reservations and with some encouragement, I decided to read A Wizard of Earthsea.

The novella is in its essence a variant of the hero’s tale as described by Joseph Campbell as well as a journey story. Le Guin, however, expands upon Campbell’s model by making ingenuity and erudition as components of a heroes’ development. I resonate with this as despite its fantastical setting these are indeed the components required for modern heroes. Super strength, agility and other such brute qualities may make up the majority of the “hero” tales of Hollywood cinema, but such an emphasis in cultural production ignores the greater life conditions win by hard and social scientists.

The plot itself is rather simple. A “special” young boy, who earns the nickname Sparrowhawk, attracts the attention of an older, wiser magician following his use of a simple spell to save his village from invaders. He goes off for training due to a number of “innate qualities” that only the older magician is able to see and despite that latter’s reservations (Star Wars?). After a major accident that disfigures him and kills another, he adopts a new humility and gains a new sense of responsibility (Spiderman?).

This simple distillation of plot, however, ignores the imaginative descriptions of the various places and peoples that live on the archipelago of the Earthsea. Part of my aversion to fantasy in general was the supernatural elements – as I prefer social realism and science fiction – however the magical framework that Le Guin describes has an aura of basic plausibility to it that makes it easy to suspend my normally incredulous disbelief in the bizarre and paranormal.

One of the components that I enjoyed of the book was the good use of foreshadowing. Long before the main confrontation I’d figured out the symbolic meaning behind the evil that Ged had unleashed. Even prior to that specific incident there are many moments where the narrator make a brief assessment of Ged’s potentially problematic characteristics. Once the significance is revealed the prior instances of struggle – between Ged and a dragon, between Ged and another magician under the influence of a devious Old Power – take on more clearly moralistic characteristics that echo other instances of temptation.

I’d read in several reviews of Le Guin’s work that her dragons represent a meaningful divergence and complication of their normal depiction in literature. As I only read one brief exchange between man and dragon here and as I deeply enjoyed the story, the setting and the characters I am now interested in reading the rest of the saga.