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Fantasy novel by Ursula K. LeGuin. The first novel in her Earthsea trilogy1. * * * * *

The wizard Ogion notices a great deal of magical power in a boy on his home island of Gont, and takes him into his home as apprentice and student.

The boy, called Sparrowhawk2, chafes at the slow pace of his tutelage and Ogion has no choice but to send him to the Wizard's School on Roke.

There Sparrowhawk learns to be a wizard, in the process setting off events that will set the course of the rest of his life.

Pay no attention to those other writeups until you have read the book and its two companions.
1The other novels are called The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore.
2Never reveal your true name to anyone but your closest, most intimate friends, for it gives them power over you.
This book is the first in a series of fantasy books from an author who otherwise writes mostly science fiction and nonfiction, this book is a fairy tale story that frequently waxes poetic.

The book starts with a poem:

Only in silence the word,
only in dark the light,
only in dying life:
bright the hawk's flight
on the empty sky.
The Creation of Éa
This poem emphasizes the contrasts needed to appreciate what we have. The story of the book tells the beginning of the first phase of Sparrowhawk's life, and the contrasts he creates in it. Early on in his career as a wizard, he unleaches a powerful evil, which in turn gives him the power to do powerful good for the rest of this phase of his life. But first he must pay the price...

next book: The Tombs of Atuan

A Wizard of Earthsea is the first book in the first trilogy of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin.

The style of the first trilogy, and especially this book is that of oral tradition of an epic story focusing upon the Deed of Ged (the second trilogy focuses upon Tenar). This reads more like a classic oral tale from ancient Greece than the every day fare of fantasy stories that exist. For this reason alone, it is an interesting story to read. However, the characters and the story itself is fascinating. Le Guin does a superb job of fleshing out the characters, and tying up every loose end that needs tying (some are left open for other stories). The following is the first paragraph of the first chapter of A Wizard of Earthsea.

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 the towns in its high valleys and the ports on its dark narrow bays many a Gontishman has gone forth to serve the Lords of the Archipelago in their cities as a wizard or mage, or, looking for adventure, to wander working magic from isle to isle of all Earthsea. Of these some say the greatest, and surely the greatest voyager, was the man called Sparrowhawk, who in his day became both dragonlord and Archmage. His life is told in the Deed of Ged and in many songs, but this is a tale of the time before his fame, before the songs were made.

The Deed of Ged is mentioned in the starts and ends of the books. Just like all oral tales, different people have slightly different views of the story that happened long ago.

In A Wizard of Earthsea we are introduced to a young boy. At an early age he learned a bit of magic from overhearing a aunt call out the true name of the goats to help control them. The boy was fascinated by this and called out the rhyme several times only to have the goats cluster around him and stare at him. He was rescued from the goats (not that they were a threat, just scary to a young boy) by his aunt - a village witch who recognizes the power within him.

As a student of his aunt, he learned the true words for all manner of animals and was called Sparrowhawk for his ability to call down birds from the sky. He also learns various weather magic from a sea captain who would like Sparrowhawk on his boat.

A major turning point in the boy's life comes when raiders attack the island of Gont and he uses his abilities to bind the fog to stay and make ghostly shapes in it to scare the raiders while the men of the village attack them and eventually repel them. From this, he becomes exhausted and word of his power reaches Ogion, a mage who lives in the hills of Gont.

From Ogion, Sparrowhawk is named 'Ged'. Its been mentioned above, 'true name'. A true name of a thing allows a mage (or anyone who knows the original language from which the world was made and named) to have some control and power over the object (or person). For this reason, the true name is highly guarded and only given out to the most intimate of friendships and the closest trust.

After Ogion teaches all that he can to Sparrowhawk, he gives the boy a choice - to stay there or go to Roke - the island home to the Wizard's School. It is here, as a student that Sparrowhawk meets his friends and summons a shadow into the world.


The essence of A Wizard of Earthsea is that of Ged the student. Within classical guild structure there are three phases to a career:

  1. Apprentice
  2. Journeyman
  3. Master

The second and third books can be thought of as addressing the later two portions of Ged's career as a mage. However, the focus here is A Wizard of Earthsea. In the story, Ged learns about good and evil and responsibility that comes with power. Ged is twice given the opportunity for a 'quick fix' and refuses realizing their high cost.

A Wizard of Earthsea was originally published in 1968 and has influenced fantasy and science-fiction for well over 30 years. The idea of guarding a name comes from many superstitions and mythologies in our own world. The most obvious (not to mention that Le Guin was cited in the introduction for the story) reference to this is True Names and Other Dangers by Vernor Vinge. The Wizard's Bane series by Rick Cook also has true names play an important role.

First Earthsea Trilogy (story of Ged)

  1. A Wizard of Earthsea
  2. The Tombs of Atuan
  3. The Farthest Shore

Second Earthsea Trilogy (story of Tenar and Tehanu)

  1. Tehanu
  2. The Other Wind
  3. (forthcoming)

Short stories

Wrote this as an English assignment ... I figured what the hell, someone would enjoy it, right?
Shadow of a Doubt

Since the dawn of mankind, humanity as a race has been looking out beyond the circle of firelight that defines their world with a mix of curiosity and apprehension. Nobody knows for sure what is out there, but everyone has a creeping suspicion that it will not be friendly. Sometimes, these feelings manifest themselves as a healthy desire for self-preservation; sometimes, they instead transform into an unwillingness to venture away from the warm glow of the known world. A Wizard of Earthsea is a book that masterfully illustrates humanity's fear of the unknown, and in it Ursula LeGuin uses one's man terror as a magical shadow to demonstrate that in the end, as Winston Churchill once stated, all there is to fear is fear itself.

Ged, the main character, is a prime example of overconfident youth at the start of the novel. Intelligent and strong, Ged becomes an ambitious apprentice to a wise old mage who advises patience above all else. For someone like Ged, this could spell disaster, and eventually does as his desire for more power and his pride get the best of him when he reads a spell from his master's book.

As he read it, puzzling out the runes and symbols one by one, a horror came over him. His eyes were fixed, and he could not lift them till he had finished reading all the spell . . . the horror grew in him, seeming to hold him bound in his chair . . . looking over his shoulder he saw that something was crouching beside the closed door, a shapeless clot of shadow darker than the darkness. It seemed to reach out towards him ...
Enchanted by a witch's daughter, Ged had been charmed into reading that spell. This weakness opens a chink in Ged's armor, where previously he had shown nothing but bravery and curiosity marked by pride. That single creeping string of terror, the unshakable feeling that something large, powerful and unpleasant is chasing after him, haunted Ged through most of the book.

The shadow hangs over Ged like a curse. When it reappears thanks to his use of a spell of summoning, Ged is weakened and reminded of his folly. His decision then is to run from the shade. His fear is expressed as he talks to his close friend, Vetch.

'I am no seer, but I see before you, not rooms and books, but far seas, and the fire of dragons, and the towers of cities, and all such things a hawk sees when he flies far and high.' 'And behind me -- what do you see behind me?' Ged asked, and stood up as he spoke, so that the werelight that burned overhead between them sent his shadow back against the wall and floor.'
In this scene he expresses the heartfelt terror he has regarding the shade, which is a nameless terror he is unable to fight against. In Ged's world, magic revolves around names. To work magic on something, a wizard would need to know that thing's true name. The shadow does not have a true name, and therefore has no substance. The problem this makes for Ged is that while it can name him, he can't name it. The shade is an unknown to him, and that makes him afraid. This fear overcomes him, because the last time he really felt fear, his power defeat it. However, it was his power which created the shade in the first place, so his primary resource is useless. To defeat this enemy Ged will have to get a new weapon, one he had all along but which the shade used trickery to take from him: courage.

Ged spent his next few years at work, encountering the shadow every now and again and running from it each time. This continued until he slowly became closer and closer to the shade, finally fleeing from it by changing form into a hawk and risking his life to fly to the home of his former master, Ogion.

. . . Ged went on, falcon-winged, falcon-mad, like an unfalling arrow, like an unforgotten thought, over the Osskil Sea and eastward into the wind of winter and the night . . . a great hawk came down with loud-beating wings and lighted on [Ogion's] wrist . . . then Ogion began to lay a spell . . . when the spell was whole and woven he said softly, --'Ged,'-- not looking at the falcon on the hearth. He waited some while, then turned, and got up, and went to the young man who stood trembling and dull-eyed before the fire.
When Ged arrived at Ogion's house, the older mage advised him to turn around, and to run at the shade instead of from it. Ged took the advice to heart, and with the help of his best friend Vetch he chased the shadow to the end of his world and beyond. The final confrontation was that of a man facing every midnight terror he has ever experienced.
At first it was shapeless, but as it drew nearer it took on the look of a man. An old man it seemed, grey and grim, coming towards Ged; but even as Ged saw his father the smith in that figure, he saw that it was not an old man but a young one. It was Jasper: Jasper's insolent handsome young face . . . hateful was the look he fixed on Ged . . . the look of Jasper fell from the figure that it approached, and it became Pechvarry. But Pechvarry's face was all bloated and pallid like the face of a drowned man, and he reached out his hand strangely as if beckoning.
The shade flashed through all the figures in Ged's life that could cause him to turn away or become intimidated, and each one Ged faced in turn. In the end, the young mage defeated the shadow by using its true name: his own.

Ged's fear owned him because he did not know its nature. He gave in to the desire to run from it, and the shadow grew strong from his fear. The shade mastered him only as long as he let his fear continue. It fed on his terror, which was the only weapon it had and the only thing it was. As soon as Ged faced his fear and was no longer afraid, the being dissipated. Throughout A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula LeGuin uses the character of the shadow as horror personified to illustrate that the only thing that must be feared is fear.

A Wizard of Earthsea is in many ways an utterly delightful novel. Ursula Le Guin’s poetic prose combines the best of fairy tale and myth in a narrative that moves as smoothly as a ship borne by magewinds across a calm sea. Le Guin is one of the greatest masters of science fiction and fantasy alive today and is noted for her thoughtful treatment of race and gender in many of her works. (I still remember the enormous signing line she had at WisCon, a feminist science fiction convention, and the rapt attention her keynote speech received there.)

But because of Le Guin’s reputation as a progressive author, I was really not expecting the misogyny I found in this novel. The book is about Sparrowhawk’s coming of age as a wizard and as a man as he has to deal with the dangerous shadow he unwittingly summons from the land of the dead. On a broad level, it’s the story of an exceptional boy succeeding in a patriarchy – which is not in and of itself a problem. Loads of fantasy novels follow the hero's journey, and plenty of fantasy narratives present male-dominated societies because those are the ones we’re familiar with from Western history, fairy tales, myths and legends etc.

The novel’s story is told via an unnamed narrator; mostly the narrator is closely inside Sparrowhawk’s thoughts, but the narrator sometimes steps back to offer the readers glimpses Sparrowhawk’s future adventures or to step inside the heads of other characters. With this narratorial style, Le Guin can offer perspectives on the world of Earthsea that Sparrowhawk hasn’t thought of. The boy and other male characters could subscribe to misogynistic ideas concerning women and their capabilities and motivations, but the narrator is free to present alternative notions about why women behave as they do.

Early on, we find this passage concerning Sparrowhawk’s nameless aunt, who is portrayed as selfish, conniving, and limited in both magical power and humanity:

There is a saying on Gont, Weak as woman’s magic, and there is another saying, Wicked as woman’s magic. Now the witch of Ten Alders was no black sorceress, nor did she ever meddle with the high arts or traffic with Old Powers; but being an ignorant woman among ignorant folk, she often used her crafts to foolish and dubious ends.  (Le Guin 5-6) 


This is a clear statement of the sexist philosophy of the male wizards who rule Sparrowhawk’s society. I expected Le Guin to use the freely digressive narrator to show that other women with magical powers were not like Sparrowhawk’s aunt. Unfortunately, that never happens, and throughout the book, the female characters come in two basic flavors: weak, or wicked.

In the second chapter, Sparrowhawk first encounters a girl identified only as the daughter of the old Lord of Re Albi. Ged thinks she's ugly, but he’s still attracted to her, and she goads him into exploring the dangerous magic that ultimately unleashes the shadow that maims him. Later, his master Ogion scolds him for falling prey to her wicked feminine wiles: “The girl herself is half a witch already. ... The powers she serves are not the powers I serve: I do not know her will, but I know she does not will me well.”  (Le Guin 25)

The next female character in the book is The Lady of O, who is a beautiful trophy queen. All the apprentice wizards sigh at her loveliness, but Sparrowhawk dismisses her as “only a woman.” (Le Guin 55) When the Lady speaks to her husband, the narrator describes her speech as “childlike”.

In Chapter 7, Sparrowhawk once again encounters the daughter of the old Lord of Re Albi; she’s now is married to the old, stern Lord of Terrenon. He finally learns that her name is Serrett, and initially he pities her, mentally comparing her to harmless animals and pretty possessions: “She was like a white deer caged, like a white bird wing-clipped, like a silver ring on an old man’s finger.” (Le Guin 123). But soon he realizes that Serrett is trying to enslave him and that she’s grown up to be every bit the conniving enchantress his old master warned him about.

The next female character that Sparrowhawk meets is an old woman who was marooned on an isolated island when she was a child. She’s completely harmless, extremely timid, and as with the Lady of O, depicted as childlike: “The old woman, wrinkled, dirty, clothed in an ill-sewn sack of sealskin, pointed at the little silken dress and at herself, and smiled: a sweet, unmeaning smile, like a baby’s.” (153)

In Chapter 9, Sparrowhawk meets the most fully fleshed female character in the novel: Yarrow, the 14-year-old sister of his best friend Vetch, who describes her as “prettier than I am as you see, but much less clever.” (169) Yarrow is described as quite shy, demure, and unfailingly helpful; her entire role in the book is to provide for the needs of Sparrowhawk and her brother. She is never portrayed as having any ambitions of her own, and later, when Sparrowhawk thinks of her, he remembers her “childish sweetness” (183).

So, to sum up, we have two women who have magical power, which is described as inherently inferior to male magical power ... and they're both wicked and conniving. And then we have a queen who is naive and childlike and only of interest because of her beauty, and an old, timid, babyish woman, and a childishly sweet and endlessly helpful kid sister. All the women with their own agendas and ambitions are portrayed as evil, and all the good women are passive decorations and helpers.

The novel was written in 1968, a time in which wildly sexist fantasies such as John Norman’s Gor series were commercially successful. In comparison to most fantasies of the era, A Wizard of Earthsea certainly doesn’t come off as misogynistic. But in her 1993 essay Earthsea Revisioned, Le Guin acknowledges the gender bias she’d unwittingly built into her series by portraying maleness as potent, dominant, and normal and femaleness as passive and inferior.

The big take-home message for me as a writer is that if Ursula Le Guin, whom I’ve long considered the feminist grandmother of speculative fiction, can accidentally bake misogyny into an otherwise delicious novel that thoughtfully presents people of color and pacifism? I will inevitably make similar errors if I don’t think very carefully about my worlds and characters. We writers must all keep our eyes open to what we’re creating in our work.

 

 

Works Cited

Le Guin, Ursula K. A Wizard of Earthsea. Berkeley: Parnassus, 1968. Print.

Le Guin, Ursula K. Earthsea Revisioned. Cambridge, MA: Children's Literature New England, 1993. Print.

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