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A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

I’m struck by how original I found this nearly 50-year-old staple of fantasy.

An open book rests upon a table next to a stack of books and a cup of tea. Sunlight shines upon the table.
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Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. Originally published by Parnassus in 1968.

Ursula K. Le Guin knows what makes A Wizard of Earthsea a good book. In a 2012 afterword, she describes the major reasons why A Wizard of Earthsea succeeds. I think this book succeeds, and I’m glad to be able to say that 48 years after its initial publication (although I’ll digress on this later). So not only has this literary titan written a classic, but she has simplified my job of responding to it.

A Wizard of Earthsea chronicles the formation of a young boy, Ged, into a wizard. A young Ged, foolish and hotheaded, unleashes a hellish shadow from a realm of unlife which stalks him and which even Ged’s teachers don’t understand. Before Ged can truly be a free wizard, he must confront his shadow.

On the face of it, this book may look like any other fantasy bildungsroman: a male hero in a patriarchal world, gifted with enormous powers, leaves his home, encounters a shadowy evil power, overcomes it, goes on to greatness, and becomes the stuff of legends. As Le Guin writes in her 2012 afterword, “It’s in this sense that A Wizard was perfectly conventional. The hero does what a man is supposed to do: he uses his strength, wits, and courage to rise from humble beginnings to great fame and power, in a world where women are secondary, a man’s world.”

But even in 1968, Le Guin was all too bored with fantasy conventions, so she tweaked the pattern, ultimately leaving me delighted and charmed.

First, she upends the racism ingrained in many of our stories. The hero and his comrades have copper, brown, and black skin. The only white characters we meet are the barbaric Kargish raiders. Le Guin doesn’t dwell on these differences; she calmly and simply notes it as she would any minor regional difference. As she writes, “I was bucking the racist tradition, ‘making a statement’—but I made it quietly.”

Most refreshingly, Le Guin rejects the fantasy trope of a Great Battle Between Good and Evil. Instead, she happily writes that “there are no wars in Earthsea. No soldiers, no armies, no battles. None of the militarism that came from the Arthurian saga and other sources and that by now, under the influence of fantasy war games, has become almost obligatory.” Le Guin argues, “War as a moral metaphor is limited, limiting, and dangerous.” What does she offer instead? Rather than fight a war or vanquish a foe, “Ged has to find out who and what his real enemy is. He has to find out what it means to be himself. That requires not a war but a search and a discovery … The discovery brings him victory, the kind of victory that isn’t the end of a battle but the beginning of a life.” We need more stories like this, stories which challenge our moral imagination.

Le Guin also avoids the problematic trope of rugged individualism. All too often we glorify characters who go it alone, thereby undervaluing cooperation, collectivism, and human solidarity. At one point, Ged insists to a friend that since he started his quest alone, he will finish it alone. His friend gently reminds him that “Pride was ever your mind’s master,” and that there are a host of good reasons why they should go together. When the two friends agreed to venture together, I was surprised and delighted.

My only critique of the book is the extensive foreshadowing of Ged’s legendary status. The shadow is a worthy enemy, but the occasional references to Ged’s future great deeds eliminated much (yet not all) of the dramatic tension. The climax felt less powerful than it otherwise might have as a result.

Nonetheless, I’m struck by how original I found this nearly 50-year-old staple of fantasy. Le Guin deftly avoids the tired, problematic cliches of the genre while sketching a haunting villain, an archipelago brimming with adventure, and a magic system beautifully concerned with true names. A Wizard of Earthsea is exactly the sort of fantasy adventure I’m looking for today, almost fifty years after its initial publication.

However, I must now digress, for while it speaks to Le Guin’s talent that her old book still feels original, this might also speak to the failure of the larger field. Admittedly, I am less well read in fantasy than I am in science fiction, but I find myself asking: why haven’t more authors followed Le Guin’s lead and more often broken these conventions? Why do fantasy stories seem to feature predominately white or light skinned characters? Why do our stories seem to overvalue rugged individualism? And — my largest complaint — why, when I think of fantasy, do I think of a Great Battle Between Good and Evil? (Again, admittedly, I am less read in fantasy than scifi, and perhaps this trope is no longer prevalent in literature, but surely it remains dominant in film.)

If it meant that our stories featured more persons of color, valued an ethic of cooperation, and lacked a blind adherence to militaristic metaphors, I would be happy to have A Wizard of Earthsea feel less original today. But as it is, the book still feels contemporary, important, and challenging.