I’m not sure exactly how old I was when I first read Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, but 23 seems like a decent guess. I was definitely under 24, as I read it when I was still living in Burnaby. I have no memory of why I read it. Maybe it was recommended by someone. Maybe I read something about it being a children’s classic (at the time, no one talked about “YA”). It was certainly before I started the Harry Potter series in 1999, so it definitely wasn’t any particular attraction to the word “wizard.” At any rate, I read it.
I didn’t like it.
For 23-year-old Kari, A Wizard of Earthsea dragged. It was extremely serious in tone, especially when compared to other children’s literature, which often involved at least some humour (A Wizard of Earthsea has some blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Ogion-related humour in an early chapter, but otherwise, it’s all solemnity all the time). It featured an arrogant hero who seemed to believe he deserved to succeed because he was talented. The few female characters were all untrustworthy, greedy, stupid, naïve, or just plain evil. The entire plot revolved around this unlikeable hero making a colossal mistake, then spending several chapters sailing around trying to deal with it, which he finally did seemingly by accident and ever so slightly offstage. I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about or why people swore this was one of the best works of fantasy ever. I had no desire to read the other books in the series.
This year, I decided to try again. I read A Wizard of Earthsea over the course of ten days, at the rate of one chapter a day. If you’re interested, you can find my immediate reaction to each chapter in the comment section of the blog post “A Wizard of Earthsea: Let’s Get This Reading Party Started.” I wanted to find out whether twenty years and two graduate degrees had made a difference in my approach to this book. A Wizard of Earthsea is a classic, after all. I know many people who say reading it was a formative experience for them. Was 23-year-old Kari just a terrible reader, doomed to be attracted to fluffy writing while disdaining the meatier stuff? (Do keep in mind that whether I read this book at 18 or 24 or anywhere in between, I would have been taking some sort of English degree at the time. I read Beowulf in the original Old English. I could write at length on Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene. I was completely in love with George Eliot’s Middlemarch. I was not averse to the meatier stuff.)
So…which is it? Is A Wizard of Earthsea overrated, or was 23-year-old Kari wrong?
I’d have to come down on the side of…neither.
43-year-old Kari says:
This book is justifiably considered a classic. The writing is utterly beautiful; Le Guin knows how to build a world piece by piece, sketching out the islands of Earthsea relatively sparsely but with enough detail and flavour that it’s easy to recognise the difference in atmosphere between earthy Gont, scholarly Roke, ominous Osskil, and homey Iffish. Some of the later chapters, in which Ged is alone on the freezing sea in the depth of winter, are reminiscent of Anglo-Saxon works such as “The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer.” It’s not just the language that works here, however. Le Guin structures her story via a series of mirror images. Just as Ged is split in two throughout the novel, with his shadow side first pursuing and then being pursued by him, his adventure is a progression of paired, reversed movements: Ged will set off (physically or metaphorically) in the wrong direction, reach a crisis point, and correct his course. Often, the crisis point will happen in the middle of a chapter, with the chapters on either side mirroring each other.
A couple of prominent examples of this technique are Chapters 3/4/5 (Chapter 3: Ged goes to wizard school, and his arrogance and pride cause problems centred on the rivalry with another student, Jasper; Chapter 4: the Ged/Jasper rivalry comes to a head, resulting in Ged making an appalling magical mistake and releasing the shadow creature that will haunt him for the rest of the book; Chapter 5: a humbled Ged saves a town from a family of dragons by making a profoundly unselfish choice, something he would have been incapable of two chapters earlier) and Chapters 6/7/8 (Chapter 6: Ged flees from the shadow, heading north into cold and darkness; Chapter 7: Ged nearly makes another appalling magical mistake but this time corrects it in time, choosing to fight darkness with light, not more darkness; Chapter 8: Ged turns the tables on the shadow, chasing it over the sea instead of being driven before it. Ultimately, he heads south, reversing his flight into the dangerous north). These six central chapters are preceded and followed by two chapters each; Chapters 1 and 2 deal with Ged’s childhood and the early mistake that sets him on his eventual path, while Chapters 9 and 10 involve his coming of age, in which he learns to recognise and embrace both sides of himself, effectively correcting that early mistake. Since the book centres on the concept of self and shadow-self, the potential for good and evil contained not in some world-spanning conflict but in a single person, the mirrored structure works to accentuate and deepen Ged’s journey to maturity and self-knowledge.
I still find it hard to warm up to Ged as a character, but I also think that’s part of the point. Le Guin is building a legend, a tale of the early life of a great wizard; when the reader is forced to remain at arm’s length from the protagonist, his story feels loftier, even while the novel’s structure is simultaneously showing us how personal it is. Ged does turn into a less insufferable person after Chapter 4. The conflict with the shadow brings out some of the humanity he lacks when he’s going around getting offended every time someone doesn’t give him the respect he thinks he deserves.
The elephant in the room is the treatment of women in the novel, so let’s talk about that. Le Guin’s 2012 author’s note acknowledges this element. She remarks that where gender is concerned, A Wizard of Earthsea is “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.” The novel was, after all, published in 1968, and while it’s tempting to claim that since the book is revolutionary enough in other ways, Le Guin could have made the effort not to make all the female characters terrible, that might be a bit unfair. Besides, those other revolutionary ways are pretty astounding. This is a novel full of brown and black characters. The hero has red-brown skin. His best friend is black. The few white characters are screaming barbarian hordes or untrustworthy northerners. Le Guin points out in that same author’s note that this was unheard of in 1968, but it somehow flew under the radar. She describes the book’s “subversive elements” as “deliberately sneaky,” though she never actually hides Ged’s skin colour; she just doesn’t make a big deal of it, a technique that reads today simply as a good idea. Yes, I wish the gender-related elements were also deliberately sneaky, but they aren’t, so I’ll allow myself just one paragraph of ranting about the issue:
Oh, so women’s magic is “weak” and “wicked,” is it? Untrustworthy Person #1: Ged’s aunt. Untrustworthy Person #2: the daughter of the Lord of Re Albi. I am sensing a pattern. The third woman in the book is a beautiful lady who is described as “childlike.” Lovely. Here’s the daughter of the Lord of Re Albi again, except now she’s obviously evil instead of a more subtle temptress. She gets eaten! Ged runs into an exiled prince and princess on a tiny island, and the woman is clearly the less intelligent of the two. Ged’s friend Vetch has a sister named Yarrow; Vetch introduces her as “prettier than I am . . . but much less clever.” Then, in the next chapter, he gives Ged her true name without asking her permission (this is a giant Earthsea no-no). What the hell, Vetch? Why can’t we have one female character who is not somehow inferior?
Okay, I’m done. I do understand that 1968 was fifty years ago. I just had to air my feelings.
One element that is a little amusing now is that a 2018 reading of the book might find it full of clichés, whereas a 1968 reading of the book would not. A Wizard of Earthsea is the origin point of many current fantasy clichés. Le Guin mentions that in the late 1960s, wizards were Gandalf or Merlin, and that was about it. She wrote us a world in which wizards could be young and not yet in possession of wisdom.
A Wizard of Earthsea is, above all, a work of art. Works of art are not always books you would necessarily want to curl up with after an exhausting work day, and that’s fine. Just because a work fits into the “fantasy” category doesn’t mean it can’t make you think. I don’t think this novel will ever be comfort reading for me, as the works of Terry Pratchett, Diana Wynne Jones, and Diane Duane are. Those authors also make you think, but their works are also very focused on plot and character, while Le Guin’s novel is less so. In A Wizard of Earthsea, she has given us something cold and beautiful, with a simple but profound message at its heart. Therefore, while I do sympathise with 23-year-old Kari’s reaction to it, as 43-year-old Kari, I would like to say that I no longer dislike the book. I very much appreciate it and feel it deserves its reputation as ground-breaking fantasy.
Tomorrow, I’ll write an introductory post to The Tombs of Atuan, and I’ll begin reading it on Saturday.
Weird Little Addendum: I have decided for no particular reason that I’m going to use a different bookmark in every book in the series. I have developed a small collection of weird and pretty bookmarks, and I may as well put them all to use. The bookmark for A Wizard of Earthsea was this beautiful wooden Game of Thrones bookmark. All hail the Mother of Dragons.