Ursula K. Le Guin,
A Wizard of Earthsea
(Bantam, 1975; 2004)

These days, you can walk into a bookstore and find plenty of books concerning the education of wizards. Once upon a time, however, that was not the case. Long before Harry Potter was a gleam in J.K. Rowling's eye, Ursula K. Le Guin started wondering how wizards were educated. She noticed that most wizards in books appeared on the scene as wise old men like Merlin or Gandalf. But how did they get to be wise old men? Her search for the answer to this question led her to create one of the classics of fantasy, the Earthsea series. She has recently returned to this world after a long hiatus and written more fiction set there, new books and stories that reflect her evolving interests. But the Earthsea series was the Earthsea trilogy for a long time, and A Wizard of Earthsea is the first book in that trilogy.

Earthsea is an archipelago comprised of hundreds of islands. The mountainous island of Gont is known for its wizards, but there are also plenty of hardscrabble farmers just trying to eke out a living. Sparrowhawk comes from a farming family in the village of Ten Alders; his mother dies when he is young and his aptitude for magic is revealed more or less by accident. His aunt, a witch, teaches Sparrowhawk charms and lore, but his magical education does not begin in earnest until after he uses magic and fog to protect his village from invading Kargish warriors. Tales of that exploit reach the ears of Ogion the mage, who has been educated at the magical school on Roke. Ogion gives Sparrowhawk his adult name of Ged and takes him as an apprentice.

Names are the essence of Earthsea's magic. While illusions are easily created, magicians must know the true name of what they are attempting to change in order to work a true change. As a result, true names are carefully guarded. The language of true naming is an ancient language spoken by dragons. A large part of a wizard's education is learning lists of true names and developing the ability to research them or guess them when they are not so easily found out.

Young Ged is eager for power and Ogion's slow method of teaching makes him impatient. He sneaks a peek at one of Ogion's books and unwittingly summons an evil shadow. Finally, Ogion gives Ged the choice of continuing to study with him or going to the academy on Roke. Ged chooses Roke, and that is when the trouble really starts. What follows is a series of adventures and journeys as Ged seeks to dispel the evil he has summoned while carrying out the responsibilities his education imposes upon him.

This is a book that can be read with pleasure by children or adults. Kids will be caught up in the adventure and magic of the plot, while adults will appreciate the wise narrator's voice and Le Guin's way of making Earthsea real. Le Guin's plainspoken style is reminiscent of a folk tale, yet it is equal to depicting wonders of magic, dragons, ruined cities, malignant shadows and islands beyond the known edge of the world. The coming-of-age plot is one of the oldest in the world, but Le Guin keeps it interesting with the vividly-realized setting of Earthsea. Her characters are believable too, and they will likely remind any reader, young or old, of people they know.

All in all, Le Guin's Earthsea is well worth visiting whether you are going for the first time or returning to it. If you want creative original fantasy made out of well-worn themes, look no further. A Wizard of Earthsea is fantasy at its finest, suitable for all ages.

[ by Jennifer Hanson ]
Rambles: 21 December 2002

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