Ursula K. Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea (1968) is arguably the most widely admired American fantasy novel of the past fifty years. The book's elegant diction, geographical sweep, and mounting suspense are quite irresistible. Earthsea—composed of an archipelago of many islands—is a land of the imagination, like Oz, Faerie, or the dream-like realm of our unconscious. Earthsea may not be a "real" world but it is one that our souls recognize as meaningful and "true." Actions there possess an epic grandeur, a mythic resonance that we associate with romance and fairy tale.
Songs, poems, runes, spells—words matter a great deal in Earthsea, especially those in the "Old Speech" now spoken only by dragons and wizards. To work a spell one must know an object or person's "true name," which is nothing less than that object or person's fundamental essence. In Earthsea, to know a person's true name is to gain power over him or her. "A mage," we are told, "can control only what is near him, what he can name exactly and wholly."
Understanding the nature of things, not possessing power over them, is the ultimate goal of magic. Indeed, the greatest wizards do all they can to avoid using their skill. They recognize that the cosmos relies on equilibrium, appropriateness, and "balance"—the very name Earthsea suggests such balance—and that every action bears consequences. To perform magic, then, is to take on a heavy responsibility: One literally disturbs the balance of the universe.
The young Ged is born—a fated seventh son—on the island of Gont and, by accident, discovers that he possesses an innate talent for magic. Even as an untrained boy he is able to use his nascent powers to save his town from marauders. Soon, though, he goes to study with gentle Ogion the Silent, whom he foolishly fails to appreciate. Sent to complete his studies at the Archmage's school for wizards on the island of Roke, Ged grows increasingly proud, over-confident, and competitive. To display his much-vaunted skills, he rashly attempts a dangerous spell—with dire consequences for Earthsea and himself. Hoping to repair the damage he has caused, the chastened Ged embarks on a series of journeys around Earthsea—and eventually beyond the known world.
"The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards."
—from A Wizard of Earthsea
The hero of A Wizard of Earthsea is called Duny by his family and known to the world as Sparrowhawk. But Ged is his hidden true name, disclosed to him in an adolescent rite of passage. He must learn self-discipline, humility, and the power of silence. By so doing, he gradually acquires the inner balance and wisdom that will make him, in due course, worthy of two other names: Archmage and dragonlord.
Ogion the Silent
This quiet, philosophical magician is Ged's first teacher. He lives on the island of Gont in utter simplicity, yet his powers are formidable. Ogion urges moderation and restraint to the impetuous Ged—to no avail. His manner recalls that of a Taoist master, practicing stillness and non–interference (wu–wei).
Jasper and Vetch
At Roke, where Ged has gone to learn magic, he makes an enemy of the quicksilver Jasper and a friend of the stolid Vetch. These two boys pull Ged in different directions: Jasper taunts him to demonstrate just how good a magician he really is; Vetch, hoping to temper the rivalry, repeatedly urges restraint and caution. Jasper eventually leads Ged into overestimating his powers, with terrible consequences.
Serret and Yarrow
These are the two principal female figures in the novel, one reminding Ged of the dark allure of great power, the other of the satisfactions of an ordinary life. Serret is the seductive chatelaine of a strange castle, who nurses a ravaged Ged back to health—but for purposes of her own. By contrast, Vetch's sister, the kind-hearted Yarrow, offers the even greater temptation of a family, home, and children.
When Ged works a summoning spell over which he doesn't have full control, he releases a dark formless power of "unlife" into the world. It apparently seeks to take over his body and wreak evil through him. Much of the second half of A Wizard of Earthsea focuses on the contest between the young magician and this creature of darkness. But what, really, is the Shadow?
Myths, folktales, animal fables, medieval romances, Arabian Nights entertainments, Celtic accounts of the Other World, fairy tales and tall tales, ghost stories, horror fiction, and much of our greatest children's literature might all be loosely thought of as fantasy. In such works impossible or surreal things happen—and no one seems at all surprised. Animals talk. Wishes are granted. Predictions come true. This is, in truth, the realm of dream, of the unconscious manifesting itself in story. Such narratives hint at our hidden desires, reveal unacknowledged aspects of ourselves, and usually teach us some good lessons, too. The truest fantasies are never frivolous—the smallest action, the least word spoken or unspoken may prove consequential, dire, even fatal. As Ursula K. Le Guin writes, "Fantasy is the natural, the appropriate language for the recounting of the spiritual journey and the struggle of good and evil in the soul."
People sometimes imagine that fantasy offers mere escapism, whimsical adventures full of improbabilities or elves. In fact, the great modern fantasies possess a brilliant purity, often denied to modern realist fiction. They show us the natural world's mystery and holiness, the grandeur of noble men and women, the need for integrity, the beauty of self–sacrifice. Little wonder that fantasy is a cousin to the fairy tale, parable, and religious allegory. As in the medieval Arthurian romances or John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress (1678–1684), heroes are tested, confronted with painful ethical dilemmas and difficult moral choices.
Certainly the great modern fantasies—whether by J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, or Philip Pullman—often externalize what are, in fact, psychological or spiritual battles that go on inside each of us. The clashes of armies in Middle Earth are, in part, symbols of the ashen and weary Frodo's inner fight against the growing power of the evil Ring. Even in a cinematic fantasy such as Star Wars (1977), Luke Skywalker must put his trust in the force that flows through the universe.
Yet while fantasies look at life steadily and hard, they don't end in despair: these narratives of spiritual education, set in what Tolkien called a "secondary world," describe a hero's journey from ignorance and bondage to wisdom and an earned, if unexpected, happiness. A Wizard of Earthsea is more than just an exciting story. Like so many other great fantasies, it is, as Le Guin has written, "a journey into the subconscious mind, just as psychoanalysis is. Like psychoanalysis, it can be dangerous; and it will change you."
The Language of Fantasy
A writer, like a wizard, creates with words. Throughout A Wizard of Earthsea Le Guin's language is plain, strong, and exact; her tone grave and slightly formal; and the rhythm of her sentences carefully balanced and musical. Note the occasional touches of alliteration and assonance—reminiscent of Old English verse—in such phrases as this: "Forest rises ridge behind ridge to the stone and snow of the heights."
This ancient Chinese philosophy pervades Le Guin's work. Lao Tzu's poetic meditation on how to live, the Tao-Te-Ching—roughly "The Classic Book of Integrity and the Way"—emphasizes silence, peace, and non-violence. It rejects dualism—good vs. evil, light vs. dark—for mutual interdependence, typically represented by the yin–yang symbol, made up of interlocking light and dark semi-circles.
The Journey into the Self
Le Guin's work draws on several ideas and symbols used in cultural anthropology (see, especially, Arnold van Gennep's 1909 classic, The Rites of Passage). Some of these elements include rites of initiation, night–sea voyages, rituals of death and rebirth, and what the psychologist Carl Gustav Jung called archetypal images: the wise old man, the helpful animal, the Shadow.
Dragons are ambiguous creatures in Earthsea. They are fearsome and destructive yet they possess great wisdom. While most literary dragons are creatures of darkness—William Blake's horrific red dragon, the covetous Smaug of Tolkien's The Hobbit, the devil serpent defeated by St. George—Le Guin's dragons are great forces of nature, dangerous and sublime.
"But you must not change one thing, one pebble, one grain of sand, until you know what good and evil will follow on that act. The world is in balance, in Equilibrium. A wizard's power of Changing and of Summoning can shake the balance of the world.... To light a candle is to cast a shadow."
—Ogion the Silent to Ged, in A Wizard of Earthsea