When I was 14 or so, I tried to read a Dutch translation of A Wizard Of Earthsea, but stopped a few chapters in. It didn’t click – maybe because it was a bad translation, or maybe because this might not be a children’s book at all.
Or maybe it was because at 14 I was too old to appreciate it as a child, and too young to appreciate it for what it really is: a humbling, brilliant piece of writing.
Le Guin’s first book in what would eventually become a cycle of six – The Tombs Of Atuan (1971), The Farthest Shore (1972), Tehanu (1990), The Other Wind (2001), and Tales from Earthsea (2001) – appeared a year before her other landmark work: The Left Hand Of Darkness.
TLHOD is a favorite of mine, but I think this surpasses it, easily. Why?
Because it succeeds on its own terms. To wit the Taoist principles Le Guin advocates here and in other books – failing miserably in The Lathe Of Heaven, if you ask me. No such failure in this little gem of a book. The protagonist, Ged, or Sparrowhawk, learns not to act unless absolutely necessary.
Le Guin had already mastered that principle when writing: nothing in this book is superfluous. A remark like that is often made about good books, but I know of no other book where it is true to such an extent. Another important Taoist theme is the existence of a natural, even cosmic equilibrium. And yes, A Wizard Of Earthsea is exquisitely balanced. A critic in The Village Voice worded it better than I can ever do: “Composed sparely, shaped by narratives so basic they must be inscribed upon our cells, they read as if they were not written but found, dug out like jewels from rock.”
A Wizard Of Earthsea is a Bildungsroman. What sets it apart from a lot of other works involving children growing up is its brutal honesty about the human mind: heroes aren’t necessarily born noble. Sparrowhawk is not a sympathetic character during his training as a wizard. There’s pride, envy & greed, and lots of it. Katnis Everdeen is 16 when The Hunger Games start, and Harry Potter is only 11 when he hits the scene, but they don’t achieve the depth Sparrowhawk, only 19, has by the end of this first book, and that in only 167 pages.
Still, do not mistake depth for complexity: A Wizard Of Earthsea is a straightforward, linear story, and Sparrowhawk a straightforward character. Likewise, the world Le Guin paints feels ancient & fleshed out, yet the life of its inhabitants is a simple one. It borders on the incredible of how Le Guin manages to convey the people populating it with just a few paragraphs, calling to mind entire lives – at times grim and harrowing, alone on some godforsaken, barren island. The sense of desolation and tragedy in Earthsea is real.
The way Le Guin manages to get all these emotions out of rather few words reminded me a bit of what Guy Gavriel Kay would do later in The Fionavar Tapestry – books with the same mythological feel. I wrote a bit about that in my review of The Wandering Fire, but the gist of it is this: both Kay and Le Guin write about universal, recognizable emotions, and evoke them simply by naming them.
Le Guin’s tempo is fierce, yet this does not feel as a rushed story. The prose is a treat – both polished and rough, wild.
Under his feet he felt the hills going down and down into the dark, and over his head he saw the dry, far fires of the stars.
There’s a parallel between Frodo’s quest and Sparrowhawk, but again I feel Le Guin manages to write a more convincing story: ending not in the ultimate binary rejection of the dark, but with a solution that is much more true to life – and probably easier to achieve too.
‘Only in silence the word, only in dark the light, only in dying life : bright the hawk’s flight on the empty sky.’
If he would not be a stick whirled and whelmed in the stream, he must be the stream itself, all of it, from its spring to its sinking in the sea.
So, a brutally honest book for all ages, as the lesson is blunt: one needs to accept death.
There’s a reason this has become such an influential classic of adult literature too, and it deserves all the accolades it has been given over time. A Wizard Of Earthsea will still be read in 2068. By then I’ll hopefully have finished the other books in the cycle – for those reluctant to start a new series: it stands perfectly well on its own.
If you passed on this for whatever reason, and if you’re a serious fan of fantasy: do yourself a favor.
That was his wish; but his will was other.