Wednesday, 27 June 2001

Ursula K. Le Guin: A Wizard of Earthsea (1968)

Edition: Puffin, 1971

I enjoy Le Guin's writing much more when it is not being used to promote a particular agenda; this is not because of disagreement with what she is trying to say, but because the serious nature of her intention tends to overshadow the story itself. Even after more than twenty years since I first read this novel, and despite it being aimed at (older) children, A Wizard of Earthsea still holds my imagination more than any of her other stories.

Le Guin's story seems at first to be a retelling of one of the stock scenarios of young adult fantasy, the story of a young magician coming into his power. However, at least two things make the novel stand out. The first is the use which is made of the contrast between the noble, courtly and lettered, and the simple, folky and illiterate. Sparrowhawk, born in a poor village, yearns for the nobility that his magic gifts could bring; but as he grows he takes knowledge from the noble but must learn wisdom - in particular, patience, humility and self-control - from those closer to his own background. Even today, and despite Tolkien's example, most fantasy almost exclusively concentrates on the very highest levels of feudal society, at the expense of the less glamourous commoners.

The other important element is the nature of Sparrowhawk's struggle. This is not a story of a battle against evil in the world or of other men's devising (though he does fight dragons). In a foolish, forbidden duel with another student wizard, Sparrowhawk sets free a shadow, an evil presence from the world of the dead; he himself has to overcome it. It is against the consequences of his own pride that he fights, and le Guin gives the shadow an evil spirituality which is quite frightening. more so than purely phsyical dangers would be.

Through the battle with the shadow le Guin is trying to make a point, but it is kept more in check than usual and is sufficiently general that it doesn't overwhelm the story. This point is that it is often ourselves who are our own greatest enemies when it comes to growing up, to becoming who we could be at our best.

When this slightly deeper than usual storyline is presented in a well imagined and realised background with good characterisation, the result is a classic, and that is what A Wizard of Earthsea and its sequels have become.

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