A Wizard of Earthsea
December 4, 2020 8:22 AM - by Le Guin, Ursula K. - Subscribe

Ged was the greatest sorcerer in Earthsea, but in his youth he was the reckless Sparrowhawk. In his hunger for power and knowledge, he tampered with long-held secrets and loosed a terrible shadow upon the world. This is the tumultuous tale of his testing, how he mastered the mighty words of power, tamed an ancient dragon, and crossed death's threshold to restore the balance. (Book 1 of the Earthsea cycle)
posted by Cash4Lead (23 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I read these an adult (though not recently) and was like, Oh! That's why everyone's so into Le Guin. I had read The Disposed in high school and found it a bit hard to penetrate at that time.

Anyhow, the story in Earthsea didn't stick with me especially but the feeling does. Like, the atmosphere was extremely compelling and immersive. A very beautiful book.
posted by latkes at 1:05 PM on December 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

Ooh, so I need to re-read now, but some enduring impressions from re-reading the first 3 novels in January/Feburary for the first time in maybe 20 years:

Interesting how my perception has changed since then. As a teenager I loved A Wizard of Earthsea, found The Tombs of Atuan OK but grindingly slow, hated The Farthest Shore. Now, as a (late) middle-aged adult I found Wizard OK but flawed; absolutely *loved* Tombs; still hated Shore. Maybe I'll be ready for Shore when I'm closer to death? but let's punt that to later.

Anyway, this book: dear god but teen Ged is a whiny entitled dick. Annoyingly so. Although I do admire how much Le Guin leans in to making her protagonist kind of unlikeable for such a long stretch of the book.

It's kind of choppily paced I think? Like a lot happens but there's bursts of action between languid drifting and it feels a bit disjointed. It's a relief when it settles down into the long chase of the Shadow and we can feel it building towards a conclusion rather than road-tripping around Earthsea.

Specifically on choppiness, the transition of Ged from bratty teenager to sage young adult feels very sudden and rather unearned. He's an arrogant brat, he summons the Shadow, he spends months healing, and now he's wise? I mean yes, transformational moment, but we don't actually see much of that transformation happen; we're just told afterwards that it happened.

The naming! Love the naming. We spend a lot of time in the first half of book learning how important and powerful true names are and this really pays off in the second half. Ged names the dragon Yevaud and we know this is an amazing feat; Ged reveals his true name to Vetch and we know this is an astonishing act of trust; Ged names the Shadow and yeah.

The absence and/or relative weakness of women, yeah. I found Vetch's sister Yarrow kinda problematic narratively-speaking. It feels like she's only there as a -- not sure of the right word here, temptation? -- for Ged: a beacon of innocence, the thing he could be, could have if he only abandoned his path and chose normalcy instead. She's written as a person but she feels more like an object; more so than the dragon Yevaud.

The ending though; the ending redeems all.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 1:24 PM on December 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

I read this for the first time for the book club! It was...interesting. I haven't read as much LeGuin as I want to, but I did finally just finish The Dispossessed, and loved it.

A Wizard of Earthsea....was interesting. I had about the same problems and enjoyments as We had a deal, Kyle did, actually. Ged is exhaustingly unlikable for the first half of the book, and I was a little frustrated that LeGuin had avoided writing Extruded Fantasy Product, and had populated her world with non-white people who were heroes and had done some fabulous world-building, and then...gave us another insufferable dude as a hero. I would have been okay with a sufferable dude, actually! I appreciated that Ged, personally, became less of a pill directly, but he's still Aloof and Serious and Haunted by His Demons (I mean, literally). Which is...ugh. I loved the adventure and the roaming around and all the islands and the languages and stuff, but I honestly think I would have enjoyed, say, a book about Yarrow (as weird an addition as she is) or the third goatherd from the left much more than I liked reading about Ged fulfilling his destiny.

I'm glad I read it and I'm probably being more negative here than I was while I was reading it. I love the islands and the way it allows for a lot of different things in a small space, and I loved Vetch and learning about Roke. It did feel very sped up, but I suspect I would have been even more annoyed if we hadn't kind of fast-forwarded through a lot of the minutia of the story. (Also, I mean, I assume this was when Giant Tomes for children wasn't really a thing? I definitely remember chapter books being quite short up until...Harry Potter, basically?) Better to get to the good bits!

I think I'll like the next book better; I get the sense it actually starts to question things and maybe continues to be revolutionary with a hero who isn't a Troubled Dude.
posted by kalimac at 1:45 PM on December 4, 2020 [2 favorites]

This is one of those books I've read once every few years ever since I was a kid - this is a great excuse to get back into it! I've often thought of the Earthsea trilogy of one of the twin pillars, along with Tolkien, that all the rest of what you might call "classic fantasy" rests upon. Looking back now, I wonder how much that's just a kind of selection bias, since I connected much more strongly with this book than with other early fantasy trope-establishers like Fritz Leiber, but at any rate it is a lens through which I personally view a lot of other books in its genre.

I agree that Ged in the first book is insufferable, but I think his character becomes much more sympathetic (if maybe not more likeable) in the second two books.
posted by whir at 4:45 PM on December 4, 2020

Not to be spoilery, but Le Guin herself eventually grew dissatisfied with gender roles & representation in the original Earthsea trilogy. That's why she wrote an entire 'nother trilogy set in the same world that addresses these issues head-on, rather magnificently I must say: Tehanu, Tales from Earthsea, and The Other Wind. If you've only ever read the first three, you have a treat in store!
posted by slappy_pinchbottom at 8:25 PM on December 4, 2020 [6 favorites]

Spoilery is OK per the post!

I haven't read the 2nd trilogy; local library doesn't have it on e-book or audiobook, guess I'll have to buy the Big Book.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 8:34 PM on December 4, 2020

The Other Wind is one of my favorite books though I still can't figure out why it speaks to me so much.
posted by small_ruminant at 12:23 AM on December 5, 2020 [2 favorites]

I have the big illustrated edition.. .it's wonderful. And I loaned it to a friend about a month before everything shut down and haven't been able to get it back safely yet. So my re-read for this club was aborted!

But I will say that reading the first Earthsea trilogy was absolutely the seminal moment of my reading life. I guess I first read it... 35 years ago? And still get so happy when thinking about it. Like, I'm sitting here all excited thinking about getting my book back to read it yet again :)
posted by gaspode at 7:56 AM on December 5, 2020 [2 favorites]

I loved Earthsea! I don't remember Ged as insufferable - for me it felt like he was kind of a cardboard character who didn't get in the way of my enjoyment of the Earthsea world with an overabundance of inner dialog or personality. I appreciated that a lot.

Im afraid all the finer points of the books went over my head. What I was most impressed with as a young reader was simply the wizard school. And that part felt way too short for me.

Seriously, the only reason I was able to get through the Harry Potter books later was because for all I disliked about them, at least they weren't stingy about the time spent at a wizard school.
posted by Ashenmote at 1:47 PM on December 5, 2020

Yeah, it's weird that the biggest cultural legacy of the book is the "wizard school" concept when it's actually a fairly brief part of the book and just one component of the world that's built in it.

And in retrospect it's kinda more of a wizard university, I think. With Ged rapidly moving from undergrad to postgrad to (in later books) tenured faculty.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 2:01 PM on December 5, 2020 [2 favorites]

Speaking of The Other Wind here is a rather lovely review of it by Nicholas Lezard from the Guardian in 2002. He talks about the growing maturity of ideas that go from thinking about elite magic to thinking about gender difference and social justice. At least, as I recall. I didn't reread it just now and i've had it saved since it was published having read it in the actual paper first.

I did reread in the end.
Le Guin had imagined what death was like from the first book of the trilogy: it is a wall of stones, beyond which the shades of the once-living mill about blindly.* They neither recognise each other nor care that they do not. This is very much the ancient view: the Hebrew Sheol, the underworld of the Greeks and Romans. Having a vague idea of this, I assented to Le Guin's version; and that Sparrowhawk, in closing the gap in the stone wall between the worlds, terminally exhausted his magical power, made a good deal of sense.

... to fix that, the world has to become like our own, to become like our un-magical selves: to grow up ... the real magic now is the magic of writing. Early on, someone tries a spell on some goats to see if he has any magic power: "Noth hierth malk man," and so on. It doesn't work: "The goats looked at him with alert disdain and moved away a little."

* See also Phillip Pullman
posted by glasseyes at 2:23 PM on December 5, 2020

I guess I first read Earthsea long enough ago that I have never thought of Ged as insufferable - his perspective was unquestioned, I identified with his story, and I loved it.

After that first period of reading (all three of the first trilogy, I loved them all as a kid who loved adventure stories and nature and was also reading Tolkien and like, My Side of the Mountain) I think the next time I read them was after university/art school. That may have been around the time Tehanu was published, which I found initially disappointing. But as the next few books in the new Earthsea writings came out (they include the novels cited above and also Tales from Earthsea, which has important parts of the story in short story form) I came to love them as much or more than the first trilogy.

Ged is an important person because he learns to change. A Wizard of Earthsea is where he learns to change. Ursula Le Guin is an important person too, who learned to change her stories and who made them better for it.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 8:44 AM on December 7, 2020 [7 favorites]

dear god but teen Ged is a whiny entitled dick

I, too, was surprised at Ged's "angry young man" demeanor in the first half of the novel when I first read it. But while Brooding Men of Destiny in fantasy is old hat at this point, I have to remember that fantasy as a genre was still young when A Wizard of Earthsea came out; and indeed I think Le Guin says somewhere that the very idea of a young wizard, or a wizard in training, was relatively new then. I wonder how it might have come across when Gandalf or Merlin were the only major examples of wizards.

the transition of Ged from bratty teenager to sage young adult feels very sudden and rather unearned

Is Ged wise at the end? Certainly the book indicates that in repairing the breach he created by raising the Shadow, Ged also came to a greater understanding of himself, something that he would need for his later success. But then again, the whole framing device of the novel is that this is the story that was left out of the official legend, which we don't get to see (not in this book, at least). I'd say Ged is chastened for much of the back half of the novel, which is a different thing than wise. The fact that he has to make an educated guess as to Yevaud's name, for example, suggests to me that Ged is still operating on moxie, even if he's not as reckless as he is in the first half.

(And without getting too spoilery as to the later novels, Ged may have learned control and how to use his powers for good, but it's not clear whether he's mature emotionally, in a way that non-wizards would appreciate.)

it's weird that the biggest cultural legacy of the book is the "wizard school" concept when it's actually a fairly brief part of the book and just one component of the world that's built in it

Yeah, I was surprised at that, too. There's so much going on in the book, and it goes by so quickly! Definitely not how modern fantasy novels would be written.
posted by Cash4Lead at 8:56 AM on December 7, 2020 [1 favorite]

A couple of years ago, when my twin boys were 13, I shared this book with them for exactly the problems so many seem to have with Ged. They're incredibly bright kids, who think they're already halfway to absolute mastery of the world. (They wouldn't put it that way, but that's the gist of it.)

In Ged they see a young person -- a young man, to be sure -- with great ability, which allows him to save his village and be a hero --but that ability leads to arrogance, with dire consequences for his friends and elders. While that's not the most sophisticated or subtle of messages, it has value. And I can think of few books, in fantasy or elsewhere, that at that time were making that point. It is a children's book, or at least a young adult book, so it is spot-on for its audience.

(An aside -- we can lament that the story focuses on Yet Another Privileged Dude, but it takes him down a few pegs, and maybe that's the part to focus on?)

My kids totally picked up on the hubris and resulting wisdom, or at least chastening, as Cash4Lead puts it. And so they appreciated the continued humbling in Tombs of Atuan.

Time to re-read Atuan and Farthest Shore to be better prepared for the next discussion. When will that be?
posted by martin q blank at 7:52 PM on December 7, 2020 [5 favorites]

There's a thread for that very topic. Everyone, please weigh in!
posted by Cash4Lead at 6:25 AM on December 8, 2020

I think we should be careful in classifying Earthsea as young adult fiction - that's not really a category that existed the way it does at the present. People wrote books for young readers, but the commercial exigencies of the genre as it exists right now were not as codified.

Le Guin is such a stylist. I have the habit, not really fair to myself or to the characters, of comparing myself to them and imagining whether I could live up to their example - could I have had the strength to hold the creature, to name it, to turn into the dark of myself and encompass it? But what I am really wishing for is to live inside the spareness of her language, and that's just not possible. And when I contemplate it further, I don't really want it - not everyone is dry and silent and spare and capable of right action at the right moment. The dangers of reading texts as instructions, I guess.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 10:30 AM on December 8, 2020 [3 favorites]

I read it again and loved it. I’m a fan of her “restraint?” in writing. She’s entertaining without being pandering, serious but not solemn. She gives a kind of sheen of reality to things that isn’t just grit and muck, but makes the fantastic real from the simple respect she gives to story (and by extension to us as readers). There was a moment in reading about the townsfolk being entirely inured to the goings on of the school, and I realized another writer* would have seized the opportunity to have some slapstick fun with the peasantry when I just felt we were in not just good hands, but those of a writer who better things in store for us.

*(naming no names. Other forms of entertainment are also valid but for every thing there is a season, and I’m glad that Le Guin’s thing also exists)
posted by aesop at 4:13 AM on December 9, 2020 [3 favorites]

This isn't book discussion, but this was amusing & Le Guin-related: https://twitter.com/ursulakleguin/status/1336401455348133895
[it's the thread where a PR company got in touch a few days ago suggesting that @ursulakleguin get involved with helping them sell leggings]
posted by aesop at 6:48 AM on December 10, 2020 [3 favorites]

Not naming names in a thread about Earthsea is the most meta of meta-commentaries
posted by wabbittwax at 5:08 PM on December 10, 2020 [9 favorites]

we can lament that the story focuses on Yet Another Privileged Dude, but it takes him down a few pegs, and maybe that's the part to focus on?

Does it, though? Ged is poor and uncultured, at least relative to his classmates on Roke. Possibly he belongs to a majority ethnic group despite being dark-skinned, though Le Guin doesn't really talk much about people's preconceptions of each other from their skin color in the original trilogy (that I can recall, apart from some references to white-skinned people being seen as barbarians in this book and The Tombs of Atuan).

Definitely Ged fits into any number of Promised Child that Was to Come tropes, albeit without the prophecy.
posted by whir at 6:52 PM on December 10, 2020 [2 favorites]

Four or so years ago, while I was trying to level her up out of a steady diet of simplistic chapter books, I tried reading A Wizard of Earthsea to my daughter. It proved a little too advanced, but before we gave up I do remember being a bit shocked by the passage describing the lore about women's magic being weak and wicked. Fortunately, after a 20+ year Earthsea interregnum, I had recently read Tales from Earthsea and The Other Wind. So I knew LeGuin had changed that tune.
posted by house-goblin at 8:11 PM on December 13, 2020

I just finished my re-read of this yesterday. It's a beautiful book; the prose is better than I was able to recognize when I read it at age 12. A few things that I was struck by this time around:
* How much I liked Vetch. The scene where he and Ged exchanged true names was very touching.
* The way in which the the earth, the land, is depicted as a dark place, and the sea light. This comes up both in the story involving the evil stone kept beneath a cursed castle, and in Ged's "horror" at the thought of encountering the shadow again on land, rather than at sea...where if nothing else, Ged can hope to drag it into the the depths.
* The scene at the end, where the ocean is perceived to have become a desert, reminded me very much of some of the more dream-like sequences from the recent "Twin Peaks" revival.
* I didn't know much about Jung when reading this the first time around. The Taoist elements aren't a surprise, but the Jungian stuff is so clear that it's not even subtext. It's just the literal text.
posted by Ipsifendus at 2:16 PM on February 9, 2021 [1 favorite]

Realizing that most of the people in the cycle are BROWN. That Ged is brown, and Vetch even browner.
posted by divinitys.mortal.flesh at 12:20 PM on October 19, 2021 [1 favorite]

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