Wednesday, August 15, 2012

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin

Ursula Le Guin’s classic A Wizard of Earthsea was one of those books on the list that I had read before. However I read it many years ago when I was a child, more than once I believe, but I couldn’t remember a huge amount of it, beyond that the main character was called Sparrowhawk and he had attended a school for magic.

This time around it was a lot gentler and less exciting than I remembered. As it was originally written for a younger audience it does seem rather light in tone, not big on the description, but there’s a lot of darkness in it, and Sparrowhawk himself is not a particularly likeable protagonist for much of it, although he does pay a heavy price for his earlier hubris and does his best to put it right.

The plot is simple and easy to follow. A young man grows up in a remote community, shows some aptitude for magic is initially instructed by a local female, and then fostered by a gruff old wizard, eventually being sent to a thriving metropolis to a college where he can hone his abilities. He unleashes a darkness upon the world and spends the rest of the book trying to put right what his actions have caused.

It’s very much a coming of age book and it deals with complex and interesting characters who are neither all good or all bad, but a combination of the two. It’s deeply atmospheric and Le Guin uses her words with economy. The book is one of those that can be read by young or old alike and appreciated for different reasons.

The world was, for the time, rather unique. Earthsea is a collection of islands of varying sizes with their own histories, languages and cultures. Geographically it reminds of the Philippines or Indonesia. Further books explore more of the islands and their culture.   

At the time when A Wizard of Earthsea was published (1968) not many genre books wanted to stray too far from the ground broken by earlier writers. Le Guin dared to do this with her Earthsea concept and it was a welcome change. I rate A Wizard of Earthsea as importantly in the genre as The Lord of the Rings, and I think it’s been almost as influential.

It’s take a long time, but over the last 20 years authors have begun to look to A Wizard of Earthsea for inspiration as much as they used to look at The Lord of the Rings. If you wanted to read more of Earthsea, A Wizard of Earthsea is often thought of as a trilogy along with The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore. A fourth book; Tehanu, came along in 1990, 18 years after The Farthest Shore, and it does largely complete the story begun in A Wizard of Earthsea, although all the books can be read as standalones. Although Tehanu is titled The Last Book of Earthsea, two further books; The Other Wind and Tales from Earthsea (a collection of short stories) came out in 2001. Many say that Harry Potter was significantly influenced by A Wizard of Earthsea, and the idea of a magical college is certainly present, although I think Hogwarts owes it’s creation as much to the British novels of the early to mid 20th century that spoke of boarding school life (Elinor Brent-Dyer, Angela Brazil and Enid Blyton were prominent authors of this type of work) as much as it does to A Wizard of Earthsea. Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind contains a section at a magical college which reminded me very much of the same scenes in A Wizard of Earthsea, and Lev Grossman’s Magicians also takes place in a magical college. The latter two are fairly recent publications and owe a great debt to Le Guin’s ground breaking work.  

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