It took me a few months, but I finally finished A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin. It is a very good novel and an especially good fantasy novel.
In high school, I was tasked with reading A Wizard of Earthsea for a book report, and I’m not proud to admit this, but I never read the book. I faked the report by reading information about the book and its themes online. I struggled with reading and wanted nothing to do with it until my early 20s. Revisiting the novel and actually reading it felt as if I was giving it the justice it deserves.
A Wizard of Earthsea is, as the name implies, the story of a wizard in the fictional world of Earthsea. The story follows Ged, a young inhabitant of the Archipelago, and his journey to becoming a great wizard. There are magic and dragons, but it goes against the modern tropes of fantasy for the better. There are no swords, slaying monsters, or armies. It’s about the people, mostly Ged, and the challenges they face as they grow. The magic of Earthsea isn’t an assumed skill that some people have and others don’t. It is something one learns through study. The basis of all magic in Earthsea is knowing the true name of something, which gives one power over it.
While the stakes are moderately high, A Wizard of Earthsea never makes it seem as though the world will completely come to an end. It’s a very personal story, which tightened my bond with Ged as he grew from a boy to an adult. Ged’s friend Vetch makes appearances throughout the book, and their friendship warmed my heart.
I enjoyed following Ged on his journey through Earthsea. Ursula K. Le Guin builds a wonderful world, and it’s the kind of world I want to stay in. I loved when the various regions of Earthsea would get mentioned. I’d find myself flipping to the map in the front of the book to learn the lay of the land. Being able to visualize Ged’s travels on the map was a true pleasure, especially in the latter half of the novel.
A common theme throughout the book is that one cannot take without giving. The law of equivalent exchange, to some degree, is in effect in Earthsea, which is a lesson I find myself thinking about a lot. To accomplish one thing, something else often has to be given up. Finding the balance is key.
The writing, while a tad verbose for my taste, is excellent. The words and sentences and paragraphs all flow together in a way that keeps the story moving, while also occasionally making me pause for reflection. One of my favorite quotes from the book is what one of the Isle-Men of Low Torning had to say about his people:
We are none of us rich, though none starve
It’s in the first half of the book, and it has really stuck with me. It’s so simple and profound.
I found that the little details described of the characters, like skin color, went a long way. While some character details are best left to the imagination, others are important to describe. As a reader, the images I conjure are typically foggy and amorphous, which is one of the things I like about novels. While the characters and settings are described with words, enough can be left out to let the reader use their imagination to paint their own picture. Knowing the skin color helped my mental images of the characters not default to them being white, which is a tendency I now recognize and am aware of. It’s an important detail.
My only major gripe with the novel is that the ending seemed obvious to me halfway through. I kept thinking to myself, It’s not going to go there, right? And it totally went there. The entire book built up to this point, and while it was handled well, I was secretly hoping to be wrong.
The afterword in the edition I read was written 44 years after the book was initially published, and it summarizes the novel and its impact in a way that I found thoughtful and inspiring. Ursula K. Le Guin’s non-fiction is as powerful as her fiction. The thought that Ursula K. Le Guin published a book and then wrote an afterword for it 44 years later is astonishing. That’s something I aspire to do.
If you’re at all interested in fantasy, I highly recommend reading A Wizard of Earthsea. It’s a classic for a reason, and it holds up well.
I enjoy reading one author’s works at a time. I read most of Haruki Murakami’s works back-to-back, and I can tell the same is happening with Ursula K. Le Guin. She has published dozens of books, so I’ll be busy for a while. Up next is The Left Hand of Darkness, which is not part of the Earthsea series. I also started reading her book on writing, Steering the Craft, which I have learned quite a bit from already. I’ll return to Earthsea afterward, and I’m looking forward to it.
Update: I recorded a video review, which is slightly different and more improvised.