A Wizard of Earthsea, the first novel in Ursula K. Le Guin’s young-adult fantasy series, the Earthsea Cycle, is considered a classic amongst classics. Often declared as influential as some works by Tolkien are, the 1968 novel is the first of Le Guin’s works I’ve had the chance to dive into. And although it stands the test of time remarkably, it feels as though it bows under the weight of the era’s restricting publishing limitations.
It’s super short. At only 56,000 words, it’s as short as fantasy novels come. To put it into perspective, that’s just a smidge longer than Gaiman’s almost novella/accidental novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane. But within its length of time I never feel like I get to know the character of Ged, formerly Sparrowhawk. I rarely get to feel what he’s feeling. Stuff happens, he reacts, and then a year later some other stuff happens and he reacts. When the book is at its slowest, near the middle, it’s at its strongest. I need my fantasies fleshed out.
That’s not to say Le Guin didn’t flesh out other aspects. She has a remarkable grasp on regional divides such as language, accent and culture, each nation speaking things completely different. The worldbuilding here felt the most natural to me. This is an author who understands her world and the people within it more than many understand the world they live in.
This is the first book to heavily feature a wizarding school, a staple for many fantasy books in recent memory, namely the Harry Potter series. But again, everything happens so quickly that you don’t get a feel of the setting until Ged’s just about ready to leave the school. It’s at that point in the story where the novel finds its purpose, though it hints at it throughout much of the beginning. Ged unleashes a shadow unto the world while in a duel – an evil thing that will eventually hunt him down. Unless he hunts it down first.
The usage of naming as a magical power is done particularly well here. As far as I’m aware this is also the first book to use naming as a magical tool, paving the way for countless other fantasies, including The Name of the Wind. One must discover a things true name to have mastery over it, not just what a thing is called.
Ursula’s use of language is poetic, and often the story tells itself like The Odyssey would, for better or worse. In fact, that’s probably the closest comparison that can be had for Ged and his travels. He faces many trials, on distant shores, with unbelievable evils, and the story structure is very similar. The major difference is there was a larger cast of characters in the Odyssey.
The ending was extremely satisfying, despite it all. A proper resolution to an arc that would have taken most authors a whole trilogy, a prequel book, and several other short stories. Although this wasn’t my particular cup of tea, I enjoyed it plenty. As a young adult novel in the ’60s, I understand that there were restrictions on a book’s length, but this certainly hampered my enjoyment slightly, as it often felt truncated and/or abridged. But I can certainly see how this has influenced many an author to take her ideas and flesh them out into bigger concepts, which is interesting. Give this book a shot!