In September 2003, A Wizard of Earthsea was selected as Classic of the Month as part of the ‘Building a Children’s Library’ series run by The Guardian. Amanda Craig’s review of Le Guin’s classic follows below.
Long before Harry Potter came along, Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea imagined what a school for wizards would be like. Ged, its hero, will become the Archmage of a world in which magic is as common as electricity, but this is a tale from before that time.
Ged, a poor smith’s son, is born with a huge talent that he uses to save his village from invaders, but his gifts make him arrogant and impatient. At wizard school, he makes one friend and one enemy, and in a duel summons a monster that scars him and sends him on a deadly quest across the lonely seas full of peril. With the moral, intellectual and supernatural power to outwit dragons, resist evil, change weather and transform himself into a hawk, he is apparently defenceless against an enemy who increasingly takes on his appearance to trick or kill him. How he defeats his enemy is wholly unexpected, yet completely right because, like all great quests, it involves confronting the dark side of the hero’s nature: “Only in silence the word,/Only in dark the light.”
Throughout my life, I have drawn on this, particularly when suffering from depression. I think many children suffer much more from it than has been generally recognised, but if you’re given a story in which you’re made to see that you can only find light in the heart of darkness, you find hope and healing.
Ged is a great hero, and one loves everything about him, from his fiery pride and profound courage to his dark skin and fierce pet rat. Interestingly, Le Guin, who became a noted feminist, initially confines wizardry to boys and men, with witches being mistrusted as weak and wicked. One effect of this is that the bond between Ged and his friend Estarriol is as passionate as it is unadorned by sexuality (she explored this later in her great, baroque SF novel, The Left Hand of Darkness). Estarriol follows Ged unquestioningly to “death’s dry kingdom”, and he’s prepared to kill them both if Ged fails in his battle with his shadow-beast.
The most thrilling, wise and beautiful children’s novel ever, it is written in prose as taut and clean as a ship’s sail. Every word is perfect, like the spells Ged has to master. It poses the deep questions about life, death, power and responsibility that children need answering.
Both story and language lie at its heart, for it contains allusions to fragmented legends about the tragedies of heroes and heroines, and the world of Earthsea itself was summoned by speech. This gives Le Guin’s world the mysterious depths of Tolkien’s, but without his tiresome back-stories and versifying.
Nobody has ever described the wonder and terror of dragons, dancing on the wind “like a vast black bat, thin-winged and spiny-backed”, with such conviction. Although many children will identify with Ged’s angry arrogance, I particularly love it, because it enacts the journey that every true artist must travel. It’s not enough to be born with talent: you have to learn the craft and humility by which it can be used to create, heal and protect rather than mangle, corrupt and destroy. That’s what Ged does, with great pain but to resounding triumph.
Amanda Craig’s review of A Wizard of Earthsea was published in The Guardian on 24th September 2003 and is available here.
Our next event takes place on the 19th November 2018 and will be a celebration of the works and legacy of Ursula K. Le Guin half a century after the publication of A Wizard of Earthsea.
Tickets are available on Eventbrite.