If you’ve never heard of Earthsea, don’t let that deter you from checking it out. It wasn’t too long ago that I heard of the Earthsea series for the first time myself, but after reading the first installment, A Wizard of Earthsea, I plan to continue exploring the fictional world that Ursula K. Le Guin has created.
The acclaim of Le Guin’s literary mastery has placed her among the ranks of renowned novelists such as C. S. Lewis, and after reading for myself, I think can understand why. While she may not inject strong theological allusions into her writing, the first story in her series illustrates the danger of selfish pride and untamed anger, the repercussions of misusing our gifts, the power of humility, and the need to face our demons or the consequences of our selfish actions – ideas that are undeniably spiritual in nature.
Le Guin has one of the most straightforward approaches for an author that I’ve ever experienced, but that doesn’t necessarily detract from the puissance of her writing. She may even use simplicity to her advantage. There’s certainly no danger that her readers will get lost in multifaceted plots, as she offers her tale in considerable conciseness. As a result, the potent lessons we can learn from the story are not difficult to decipher; they are right in your face.
The world in which the series takes place is one of oceanic expanse dotted with islands and having no vast land masses, making sea-faring vessels one of the most common forms of travel. Thus you have the name “Earthsea.” A Wizard of Earthsea follows the early life of a wizard by the name of Ged (though he is known by many as Sparrowhawk), and the trials and tests of character he faces as a novice and later as a newly qualified practitioner of his art.
After running a vicious hoard of marauders out of his village with his magic, young Ged’s life is changed forever. His deed becomes known by many, and soon he is apprenticed by the powerful but reserved mage, Ogion. Overeager to learn and increase his power, Ged finds Ogion’s methods tiresome and slow, and his impatience leads him to recklessness, causing Ogion to reconsider the apprenticeship. Not wishing for Ged’s gifts to go to waste, Ogion offers him the opportunity to enroll in a school of wizardry on the island of Roke where he can learn more at a brisker pace with stricter oversight. Though Ged cares for his master and will miss him, his hunger for knowledge and greater power wins out.
Ged excels in his studies, surpassing his fellow students, which only serves to feed his pride. His vigorous pursuit of prestigious accomplishment is fueled by stubbornly strong ambition. It’s not enough to know how to be a wizard – Ged wants to be the greatest of them all. His bloated ego is nearly his undoing. Succumbing to anger and hatred, he is provoked into a forbidden challenge to showcase his skills. While meddling with dark powers beyond his control, Ged pays a near-fatal toll for his rashness. His death is averted, but at a terrible cost.
A Wizard of Earthsea is not just a cautionary tale. It is a story about a young man coming of age. Ged finally begins to show signs of maturity when he is brought low by his unchecked impulses. Though he has brought shame upon himself with his rashness, he forges ahead in his studies and becomes an accomplished wizard, but no longer haughty and overzealous. He will not flaunt his gifts anymore, using his power only when the need arises, having learned the hard way that it can be highly dangerous if used unwisely. Ged’s growth goes even deeper than this, though. Not only does he show discipline by resisting the temptation to stroke his own ego, he also shares his gifts with others by using his wizardry for its intended purpose: to serve and protect. Esteeming others more highly than himself leads him to use his magic for their sakes. Ged achieves a level of selflessness that inspires heroism, and his courage rises even to the height of standing up to wily old dragon. For this bold act he is lauded, though he does not do it for the praise.
Seeing the effects of both pride and humility in Ged’s life is a compelling illustration of the Biblical truth we find in Matthew 23:12. “Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.”
The greatest challenge of Ged’s young life is even more terrifying than confronting a dragon. He is haunted, literally, by the sin of his past, pursued by the evil that he himself gave rise to on the night that his arrogance nearly killed him. As Christians, many of us understand all too well what it is like to be our own worst enemies. Even when we leave our selfish ways behind us, the consequences and scars of a sinful past can linger for years, even for the rest of our lives in some cases. Ged will have to face the ghost of his grave misdeed, but in his efforts to endure the shadow of his past, he must overcome the enticement to employ corrupt forces as a means to persevere against the darkness that chases him.
A Wizard of Earthsea marries some of the same elements found in some of the most recognized novelizations in pop culture. The wisdom, patience, and power of Ogion reminds me of both Dumbledore and Gandalf, and the concept of a wizards’ school smacks of Hogwarts (Le Guin did it before it was cool), while perhaps similar life lessons may be found in The Chronicles of Narnia.
Not only is A Wizard of Earthsea an easy read, it is totally clean. There isn’t so much as a euphemism or a single hint of innuendo to speak of. This is definitely a good one for young readers, but I think anyone of any age can appreciate it. While it falls short of the grandeur of Tolkien’s vision and isn’t as elaborate as Rowling’s literary exploits, if you’re into fantasy, then A Wizard of Earthsea is worth your time.