I may have mentioned this in an earlier review: Every once in a while you come across an author you wish you had encountered earlier in life. This is about one of them.
I loved The Hobbit, and when I heard there was a sequel—not just a sequel, but an EPIC sequel—I jumped at the chance to track it down and read it. Problem was, I was very young and not quite ready for The Lord of the Rings. I barely made it past The Fellowship of the Ring, and even while I was going through it I knew I was having problems. The language was too far over my head at points. I hadn’t worked my mental muscles up to it yet. So my interest in fantasy waned for a time.
This would have been a perfect time for someone to have introduced me to A Wizard of Earthsea, and Ursula K. Le Guin.
The first thing that struck me reading this was how it felt like something on the reading level of The Hobbit, yet with more maturity. There was something more introspective about it. It wasn’t about having a grand adventure, not exactly. To me, this would have been a perfect next step up the ladder for my younger self.
A Wizard of Earthsea deals with the early adventures of a boy named Ged as he becomes a wizard and eventually faces trials against a great darkness that might destroy him. It’s set in the realm of Earthsea, an archipelago surrounded by a vast ocean (imagine something like the Philippines, with the largest island being about the size of England).
Earthsea has the advantage of having familiar fantasy tropes in terms of magic and swords and kings and wizards and whatnot, yet its locations and peoples are completely set apart from any European setting. Most of the people here have skin that ranges from red-brown to dark brown in tone. In fact, the only European-esque people in the story are Viking-like barbarians from the North, who enter this story during a raiding party, eventually targeting Ged’s home village.
Ged defends his village with magic his aunt, a witch, had taught him, but it drains him so much he almost dies. A wizard, hearing of his power, takes him under his wing for a time, and eventually he enters into a school to learn wizardcraft. Later, showing off his power in a fit of pride, he unwittingly unleashes a darkness onto the world, one that wants to consume Ged and use his body to commit great evils.
Le Guin has criticized the assumption that fantasy characters should be white and that its societies should resemble European-style middle ages settings. While she does upend that trope, she doesn’t do it in a way that alienates at all. And that’s important, since for a kid it’s easy to have a “broccoli effect” with stories that are too different from what they are expecting. Despite all their differences, there is something about this story that feels perfectly at home with Tolkien-style fantasy.
One of the things I loved about A Wizard of Earthsea was the way magic works, as well as how it is explained. Everything has a name, and knowing its true name gives you power over it. All magic works around knowing the true name of things, and the study of wizardry involves learning those names, and uncovering new ones. In fact, there is no end to the names that can be learned, in part because of how a true name reflects who and where they are. Casting a spell for a “Fish” might be too general, so what about salmon? Atlantic or Pacific? King or Sockeye? From which spawning river? Upper or lower? And so on…
This even extends to people. When a child comes of age they are given their true name in secret, and once given a person shares it with no one except those they trust their lives with. This becomes a focal point of the story, as the creature that pursues Ged seemingly has no true name at all. How do you defeat something with no name?
The idea of “true names” as a means to control and manipulate objects has been used elsewhere, of course, but her simple yet comprehensive explanations makes it feel real. As a kid, I would have appreciated that level of logic and verisimilitude.
As I mentioned earlier, this felt a bit more mature than The Hobbit, though I’d put the technical reading level of it as roughly on par. This is because The Hobbit is a great adventure about a sedentary fellow being pushed out of their comfort zone and finding unknown resilience. But at the same time it always feels like an adventure.
A Wizard of Earthsea, on the other hand, is more about the journey from childhood to adulthood. And the way it is handled is surprisingly introspective. While there are many adventures within it, in the end, it is not so much an adventure as a solemn and ultimately personal journey.
While there was an Earthsea movie made, I haven’t heard anything good about it. And although it has its problems, fans of Studio Ghibli will no doubt enjoy Tales from Earthsea, set in the same world: