Sunday, April 1, 2012

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula LeGuin

It feels a little daunting to talk about such a famous book as A Wizard of Earthsea but my blog might be the way some young readers discover this important and classic title. I think the best thing might be for me to talk about some aspects of this book that moved me. The last link in this entry will lead you to the full plot of this book. My edition has an afterword by Neil Philip which sums this up perfectly “Nothing can rival that terrible scene on Roke Knoll when Gen summons Elfarran and looses the shadow-beast. Reading it you forget to breathe.

I read this book as part of an undergraduate Children’s Literature course in 1981 and then a few years later I listened to the audio book on a long country car trip. This is story is indeed breathtaking. Based on A Wizard of Earthsea the word archipelago has long been one of my favourites and I think my delight in books with maps can also be traced to this powerful fantasy novel.

Early in the book we read that Ged is a wild, quick, loud, proud boy who is full of temper. It is this temper that leads to the unleashing of the shadow-beast mentioned above setting Ged on a journey of self discovery and danger through all the islands of Earthsea. This is also a book about balance in the world, personal growth and self-acceptance. Every action has a consequence and this is a lesson Ged needs to follow a hard road to learn.

At its heart this is also a book about identity. Names are a powerful part of our identity. “No one knows a man’s true name but himself and his namer. He may choose at length to tell it to his brother, or his wife or his friend, yet even those few will never use it where any third person may hear it.” Hence Ged is commonly known as Sparrowhawke. “A man never speaks his own name aloud, until more than his life’s safety is at stake.” This is certainly true for Ged so when the shadow-beast says Ged’s name it is a shocking and devastating moment. Yet the beast itself seems to have no name. “You summoned a spirit from the dead .. Uncalled it came from a place where there are no names. Evil, it wills to work, evil though you. … it is the shadow of your arrogance, the shadow of your ignorance, the shadow you cast.” Conversely Vetch tells Ged his real name and thus binds their friendship and it is this friendship that will stand Ged in great stead as together he and Vetch or Estarriol travel to the final confrontation with the shadow.

This powerful fantasy is filled with wonderful place names and perfect language. Earthsea seems so much like a real place. You feel you could travel to Gont or Roke and that you might drink some rushwash tea or pat an otak.

If you love fantasy then add A Wizard of Earthsea to your reading list. Don’t let this be the first fantasy you read, as it is quite complex, nor the last. A mature reader who has already discovered books like the Rangers Apprentice series or Eragon or Narnia Chronicles or books by Isobelle Carmody, Garth Nix, Philip Pullman, Jenny Nimmo, John Nicholson, or JRR Tolkien would certainly enjoy A Wizard of Earthsea. You should also know there are three sequels. Here are some good reviews by young readers.

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