October 18th, 2009
A beautiful novel.
I urge anyone to read The Wizard of Earthsea, not just those who are C.S. Lewis & Tolkien fans [two others often mentioned in reviews of Le Guin's work], and not just those who are interested in fantasy and science fiction. The language is spare, noble, at times biblically rarefied. The psychological insights are shrewd and not over-labored. What this slim novel says about the human condition and our collective struggle to overcome fear and be whole could fill a library.
I’m not very good with plot summaries, so I’ll keep mine minimal: the setting is a mythic place called Earthsea, made up mostly of ocean and archipelagos. A boy, Ged, grows up on the isle of Gont with great innate talent for magic. He rapidly grows into his powers, eclipsing his peers, but struggles with pride, anger, and temper. He lets loose a dark nemesis early on in his development which he must spend the rest of the novel coming to terms with and challenging. This struggle of Ged’s to reckon with and integrate a dark side, a shadow, forms the dramatic and emotional crux of the novel.
I loved too how Le Guin explores the idea of True Names; everything in Earthsea has a surface name [the protagonists's birth-name is "Duny"] and also a True Name [his True Name is "Ged"]. Like Plato’s Ideals, this world of Earthsea is made up of transitory markers and their inherent, immortal signifiers. Magic on Earthsea is dependent on a sorcerer’s knowledge of True Names — without the knowledge of a thing’s True Name [be it animal, stone, ghost, person, region of the sea, etc] , one cannot control it or affect it with spells. Much of the action in the novel revolves around Ged, his friends, and his enemies navigating the external world and the unchanging signifiers that world is tethered to. It’s a fruitful and flexible philosophical underpinning that (among other things) distinguishes Le Guin’s world as unique in the fantasy canon.
There’s so much more about this book I loved. For instance, the inhabitants of Earthsea seem to be uniformly dark-skinned — at one point early on, Ged thwarts a pirate raid, and the murderous, pillaging pirates are described somewhat like Vikings, pale-skinned and fair. Ged and most of his friends, meanwhile, are clearly described in many passages as being dark-skinned or black. Not many books of the fantasy/sci-fi canon — and keep in mind the times; she wrote this in the 60s — feature non-white protagonists, let alone entire nations of non-whites. And incidentally, Le Guin doesn’t treat this detail at length or pointedly/politically (it’d be fine if she did, but that would mean a totally different novel); this physical detail of her characters is mentioned very matter-of-factly.
Finally, and I’ve talked about this already in brief — I love Le Guin’s voice. It’s tender but forthright, economical but not dry, careful in its use of details: just enough to keep the novel from being too lofty & allegorical. She spends good, warm, emotional page-time on the friendships Ged forms, the rivalries, the interactions with people and animals which help shape and challenge him — something vital to this novel of otherwise solitary struggle and awakening.
So, anyway: man, book review. Been a bit since I bashed out one of those. I feel like a middle schooler again. Enough — it’s a damned great novel so go to the library, git it, read it.
Order Ursula’s Books
C. Way/ SnailCrow.com © 2009