A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin
In 1968, Ursula K. Le Guin was a little known writer relegated to the shelves of science fiction readers. Quietly though, she’d begun to lay the groundwork for something special. Her publisher had requested she write a fantasy novel for younger readers and in a pair of short stories she started to figure out exactly how that might work. In the realm of fantasy fiction, European-like kingdoms often dominated the genre. In her world though, the land would be a sea of craggy islands, the heroes who populated it would be diverse in culture and skin colour, and though at the centre of it there’d be a boy who was destined for greatness, his greatness would turn out to be the least important part of his journey. She named the book A Wizard of Earthsea and It would go on to become one of the most intriguing coming of age stories ever told.
A Wizard of Earthsea is set in the middle of a vast archipelago. Here, wizards act as spiritual guides and as the advisors to kings. Dragons are a threat to the people. Demons and powerful sorcerers are too. But as with many an epic tale, the beginnings of it lay with a much more insignificant person: In this case, a poor village boy you’ll come to know as Sparrowhawk.
Childhood is a miserable affair for Sparrowhawk. Even when he’s recognised as a magical prodigy and made the apprentice of a wise old mage, his life feels pointless and dull until he’s given the chance to attend a school of wizards where he receives a painful lesson in the dangers of power. One night, when he‘s working a spell to impress his fellow students, he’s mutilated by a vicious shadow that he accidentally lets slip free. The experience leaves him traumatised and physically scarred. He’s unable to speak for months and when he recovers he’s told that the shadow he unleashed has escaped into the world. For the rest of his life, it will stalk him, waiting for a moment to possess him and turn him into a puppet of the dark powers. Sparrowhawk is safe at the school of wizards, but only by leaving it can he hope to defeat the shadow and reckon with the consequences of what he’s done…
On many levels, the events in A Wizard of Earthsea align with Joseph Campbell’s theory of the The Hero’s Journey, a fundamental story structure he believed to be at the root of myths and legends throughout the world. Within the structure, a protagonist’s journey must start with a departure, continue with an initiation stage, and end with a return home as well as a hardwon sense of freedom. Though you could argue that The Hero’s Journey is far too general a concept to be considered an actual phenomenon, if it wasn’t one before Joseph Campbell outlined it, it certainly became one in the aftermath. Countless books, TV shows and films have been built on the format. The best of these are now cultural touchstones, but hundreds more could be described as just plain bland. So if Le Guin’s story share’s such a basic framework with so many others, what is it that makes Sparrowhawk’s journey in particular such a stirring read?
A Wizard of Earthsea is framed as but an episode within a much bigger tale. In the beginning, we’re told Sparrowhawk will become Archmage of the wizards, the greatest and most powerful among them, but when we’re actually introduced to him it’s clear that we’re not going to learn much about that. Similarly, as Le Guin takes on the role of an omniscient narrator, she’s able to share the songs, traditions and lore of the archipelago, though she frequently chooses to obscure the details by stating that a lot of them have been lost to time. The ultimate effect is that while you get a solid sense that Sparrowhawk’s life will become steeped in legend, the story itself is of a much more intimate nature.
When Sparrowhawk releases the shadow that attacks him, it’s as a direct result of the faults in his character. Arrogance, recklessness and vanity, they all feed into what make him attempt such a dangerous spell and in the years that follow, it’s the humility he learns that enables him to see the shadow as an intrinsic part of himself. When he does, the great victory isn’t that he prevented a global catastrophe, but that he was able to make peace with his demons and by doing so discover a newfound harmony with the world. Throughout it all, Le Guin abstains from simply jumping from set piece to set piece and creates a narrative that reads both like an epic poem and that of an intensely personal character analysis in which the protagonist is forced to descend into the very depths of his soul. At times, this two-fold approach can feel a bit jarring. An enormous battle with a brood of dragons is dealt with in a swift few lines while Sparrowhawk’s relationship with a down-to-earth fisherman is treated to an entire chapter of delicately constructed prose. You’re never quite sure what elements of the journey Le Guin will give more weight to, but while she might drift away from episodes you wish she’d spend more time on, the story also gains an uncanny ability to evoke complicated emotions from a number of unexpected detours.
On one such occasion, Sparrowhawk is shipwrecked on a sandbar where he stumbles upon a famished pair of siblings. Their clothes are in tatters. They survive in a decrepit hut. Yet they manage to overcome their naive fear of the wizard to share a little kindness and help to set him on his way. More often than not, it’s tender exchanges like these that linger longest in memory, and though even Sparrowhawk might not see how they stack up, they’re easily some of the most important contributions toward his eventual salvation.
Of course, A Wizard of Earthsea is a wizard story, so no matter how contemplative things get, magic is still the order of the day.
At the school of wizards, Sparrowhawk learns how to do all kinds of extraordinary things, from changing his shape to soaring like a bird. What’s more, when he braves the wider world he comes to realise that it’s a lot more perilous than his teachers warned. Everywhere he goes, the shadow he unleashed hangs over him and while most of the time this is only experienced as an ever present sense of regret, there are actual threats from it along the way too.
The weaker souls that Sparrowhawk meets are prone to become hosts for the dark powers who want nothing more than to see his shadow consume him. When he discovers one such possessed man, it chases him across a snowy landscape to a lonely castle where a beautiful woman who worships an ancient source of evil tempts him into becoming her king. He rejects the offer, knowing now how terrifying the dark powers can be, but he’s all too aware that wherever he escapes to eventually he won’t have anywhere left to run.
There’s a genuine atmosphere of dread that pervades these sections of the book. It works in large part because Le Guin doesn’t just rely on the magical circumstances to accomplish it, rather, the shadow at the centre of the story is inextricably linked to a normal world, full of normal people doing normal things. To put it another way, while Sparrowhawk can learn to control the wind, the sailors he meets had to spend just as long learning how to best capture it in their sails.
Likewise, he might be able to put a spell of protection on the boats of his village, but only by studying the intricacies of carpentry can he achieve the finesse required to interweave his charms with the expertly jointed wood.
While this juxtaposition of the mystical and the everyday often helps to highlight how fantastical Sparrowhawk’s journey is, the way in which they interact with each other also reveals the holistic nature of everything that happens – good and bad, ordinary and extraordinary, they all connect to create a world that’s utterly brimming with supernatural danger yet feels just as authentic as our own.
In the past, Le Guin likened the philosophy of her Earthsea saga to that of Taoism, an ideology that emphasises the need to achieve balance with the universe. It’s fair to say she was a good on authority on the philosophy, having reinterpreted and published a version of The Tao Te Ching herself. But she also drew upon her experience with Native American culture which she got through the work of her father, an anthropologist who acted as a guardian to the last surviving member of the Yahi tribe, and her mother, who wrote the man’s biography and published a collection of Native American legends. Even so, while it’s fascinating to draw parallels with these real world influences, it’s amazing how well Le Guin’s literary brand of magic works on its own merit.
Every person, animal and object in the Earthsea has a name – not only the common words used to describe them, but rather, a true name that comes as close to expressing the very essence of a thing as you could ever get. By knowing these names, Sparrowhawk has the ability to manipulate almost anything around him, but in order to reach a complete understanding of his power he’s forced to recognise that even the smallest of threads has its place in a pattern that should not be altered on a whim. After all, if no man can see the entire tapestry of existence then there isn’t any way he can know whether he’d be changing it for the better or for worse. As Sparrowhawk is compelled to travel farther than any wizard before him, the realisation of this allows him to appreciate his own humble position in the universe and by doing so grants him an intensely felt insight into one of the most significant motifs of the book.
‘Only in silence the word, Only in dark the light, Only in dying life: Bright the hawk’s flight on the empty sky.’
The Earthsea is a place of contrast and division. As an archipelago, every country is separate just as every person is an island distinct from the next. If you were to look at it a little pessimistically you could say that the people who populate the story will never truly be able to connect with each other. There’ll always be some aspect of their personalities that are tucked away from reach, even if they don’t know it themselves. In a sense, the names that wizards use to cast their spells can also be regarded as labels that emphasise this division, but thinking of it this way actually helps to highlight a more nuanced view of the problem. While in one respect each word of a sentence exists in isolation, in the way that language makes use of them, you can also see how words, like people, can only be understood in relation to each other. There is no hot without cold. Just like there is no joy without sadness. By comprehending this dynamic Sparrowhawk’s revelation encompasses everything from the nature of his own personality to the inseparable relationship between life and death itself.
Throughout her career, Ursula Le Guin explored emotionally complex ideas in a calm and deliberate manner. The events portrayed in A Wizard of Earthsea have not only been associated with Joseph Campbell and his vision of The Hero’s Journey but also with the work of celebrated psychiatrist Carl Jung, who believed we each have a shadow to face in order to completely understand ourselves.
Nevertheless, Le Guin always denied having any knowledge of either man’s work before she wrote the book. While you could find a degree of satisfaction in her being unaware of these supposedly universal concepts, yet fulfilling aspects of them regardless, it’s fair to say that the richness of her story comes a lot more from her own perspective on life than from her familiarity with any academic theory. The idea of a hero attaining balance with the universe in order to achieve their full potential has become such a commonly used trope in popular culture that it’s often just a serviceable reason to create an action-packed story with a beginning, middle and end.
What raises Le Guin’s work is her sincerity.
The growth of her character’s self-awareness truly is at the centre of everything that happens. Her great ability was to merge her deep understanding of human nature with an appreciation for the multifaceted aspects of the world as a whole.
In A Wizard of Earthsea, you can’t fully appreciate one element of the story without considering it alongside another. Every character gives the impression of having a vibrant inner life, even when their purpose in a scene is only to cause some petty disturbance, and while they might not be about to undertake their own heroic quests, you often get a sense of how they exemplify the elusive truth that Sparrowhawk struggles to reach. The quality of writing used to achieve this is obviously a huge factor in the book’s appeal, but what makes it especially interesting is how the adeptness of craft that Le Guin demonstrates connects with the source of magic in the land of the Earthsea. Language, words and names are something she grants mysterious power and through the effect the book has had on thousands of readers you don’t doubt that it’s a very real power indeed.
To put it another way, even though you might not be the one to travel halfway across the ocean, if you’re ever feeling a little disconnected from life there’s a good chance that Sparrowhawk’s journey can act as a transformative experience for you. It’s worth pointing out that while coming of age stories are generally associated with youth, their purpose isn’t only directed at the young. Interestingly enough, Le Guin once said she didn’t come into her own until she was thirty-three years old. It’s this maturity that’s at the heart of her wizard’s shift in perspective. Mortality, responsibility and humility, they’re all a part of what he has to accept in order to attain equilibrium and it’s fair to say that a person’s appreciation for these things can develop at any time in their life and that ideally they should only deepen with age.
All said, none of this describes the quiet joy that radiates throughout much of the A Wizard of Earthsea. From the very start, Sparrowhawk’s discovery that names are the key to magic is treated with childlike glee. As he sails away from home, he’s still just a country boy from a rural island, ignorant of the archipelago but exhilarated to explore it. His ambition is his weakness. He leaves behind a loving master who has already shown him everything he could possibly need to know, but the wisdom Sparrowhawk so desperately lacks can only have been achieved through an epiphany like the one his shadow provokes in their final confrontation. By story’s end, you can’t help but feel as content as he does when embraces the thing that haunted him and drifts at peace atop the sea. A great evil is subdued. The world hasn’t changed, but he has, and maybe so have you.
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