July 13th, 2008

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin (Sunday Salon)

A Wizard of Earthsea
by Ursula K. LeGuin

The Wizard of Earthsea series has quite a reputation amongst fantasy readers, yet I'd never heard of it until a few years ago. Even after I'd managed to find a copy of the first book, it took me over a year to finally read it.  I am quite sorry I delayed; it is a wonderful book.  Let me explain; while I like fantasy in theory I've been having trouble finding some that I consider great that doesn't relate to fairy tales. Susan Cooper's work didn't interest me; Tolkien did but man! is he ever wordy. I have to be feeling exceptionally patient before settling into Lord of the Rings. Tanith Lee and Christopher Paolini I have also sampled in the past year, and while enjoyable I didn't end the book and think, "Wow."

Well, at last the "Wow!" has happened. Earthsea is a fantastic creation, a world Le Guin describes in simple, easy prose. The story feels as though it's being told by the fireside, by an aunt spinning tales of magic from long ago. It also has a "reality" to it; Le Guin makes little references here to other tales or events that happened in Earthsea's world, and this is just one little story. That is to say, Earthsea wasn't created for the story of Ged; Ged's story took place in Earthsea and someone happened to hear it and write it down.

As a boy growing up on Gont, one of many islands on Earthsea, Ged shows a talent for magic at a very early age.  His aunt, the only witch he knows, teaches him what she knows, but his talent quickly surpasses her own.  After fending off an attack on his village, a great wizard named Orion offers to teach him, and Ged eagerly accepts. Magical training isn't all he expects, and after a while Ged leaves his master to attend a wizard school.  It is here that his magic begins to grow in leaps and bounds, as does his pride and his arrogance.  When a failed attempt by him to raise the dead unleashes a shadowy spirit of evil and kills the school's headmaster, Ged's eyes are finally opened to the true nature of magic.  In atonement for his hubris he agrees to work a remote post in a poor village instead of the glamorous position one with his power would normally attain.  He becomes the village's defender, but the shadow creature continues to pursue him, and unless he can break free of his great pride and learn to ask others for help, he will never be free of it. 

Ged is a jerk. He isn't a hero. He's full of pride and arrogant, and at times he is also a coward. He's human. That may be one of the things I like best about this book. It's populated by people. There are no superior elves or grungy dwarves (yet) who are keepers of wisdom and beauty. Just regular folk struggling to eek out a living in a world that also contains dragons and magic.  (I want to know more about dragons after Ged's encounter with Yevaud. That dragon was huge; far larger than Smaug or Saphira. Full-scale battles with dragons must be truly epic in Earthsea.)

If you've somehow missed this series, go out and find a copy of the first book and get to reading, fantasy fans.  I haven't read the rest of series yet, but I'm eager to do so.

Buy the book on Amazon.com, or add it to your wishlist.