A Wizard of Earthsea
Robbins cover of first edition
|Author||Ursula K. Le Guin|
|Cover artist||Ruth Robbins (depicted)|
|Genre||Fantasy novel, Bildungsroman|
|Published||1968 (Parnassus Press)|
|Media type||Print (hardcover & paperback)|
|Pages||205 pp (first edition)|
|Preceded by||The Rule of Names (short story)|
|Followed by||The Tombs of Atuan|
A Wizard of Earthsea is a young-adult fantasy novel written by the American author Ursula K. Le Guin, first published by the small press Parnassus in 1968. Set in the fictional archipelago of Earthsea, the story follows the education of a young mage named Ged who joins the school of wizardry. A Wizard of Earthsea is widely regarded as a classic of fantasy and young-adult literature and was one of the final recipients of the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, an award that recognized outstanding children's literature. Le Guin would later write five subsequent books that, together with A Wizard of Earthsea, are referred to as the Earthsea Cycle: The Tombs of Atuan (1971), The Farthest Shore (1972), Tehanu (1990), The Other Wind (2001), and Tales from Earthsea (2001).
Margaret Atwood has called A Wizard of Earthsea one of the "wellsprings" of fantasy literature, illustrating Le Guin's influence within the genre. A Wizard of Earthsea has been compared to major fantasy works such as J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Modern writers have credited A Wizard of Earthsea for introducing the idea of a "wizard school," which would later be made famous by the Harry Potter series of books.
Early concepts for the Earthsea setting were developed in two short stories, "The Rule of Names" (1964) and "The Word of Unbinding" (1964), both published in Fantastic. These stories introduced important concepts, such as Le Guin's treatment of magic, but do not include any characters that would appear in A Wizard of Earthsea. In 1967, Herman Schein (the publisher of Parnassus Press and the husband of Ruth Robbins, the illustrator of the book) asked Le Guin to try writing a book "for older kids," giving her complete freedom for the subject and the approach. Drawing from her short stories, Le Guin began work on A Wizard of Earthsea. Le Guin has said that the book was in part a response to the image of wizards as ancient and wise, and to her wondering where they come from.
Ged, originally known as Duny ( the name his mother gave him before she died ) and nicknamed Sparrowhawk, lives in a mountain village on the island of Gont. His aunt, the village witch, begins training him in magic. Sparrowhawk uses his magic to save his village from Kargish invaders by summoning fog to conceal his village and distract the attackers. Sparrowhawk is discovered by Ogion the Silent, a powerful mage who takes Sparrowhawk as his apprentice. On Sparrowhawk's thirteenth birthday, as a rite of passage, he is given his "true name"—Ged. Ogion attempts to teach Ged about the "Balance," the concept that magic can upset the natural order of the world if used improperly. In an attempt to impress a girl who doubts his abilities, Ged searches Ogion's spell-books and inadvertently summons a strange shadow, which is banished by Ogion. Ogion eventually invites Ged to attend a school for wizards on the island of Roke.
At the school, Ged’s skill inspires admiration and envy from other students, and he befriends another student named Vetch. Ged also shows his affinity with nature when, as he is returning alone from an isolated tower, a small wild animal called an otak becomes his companion. However, Ged studies magic beyond his level and ignores warnings about respecting the Balance. Moreover, he begins a rivalry with an older student named Jasper. This rivalry culminates in a duel where Ged casts a powerful spell which goes awry. A rip in the fabric of the world opens to the realm of the dead, and a shadow creature passes through, attacking Ged and scarring his face. The Archmage Nemmerle drives off the shadow and restores Balance, though it costs him all of his power and he dies soon after.
Ged spends months healing before resuming his studies. The new Archmage, Gensher, refuses Ged’s oath of fealty because he suspects he may be evil. Warning Ged that only Roke’s magical barriers protect him from the shadow, Gensher describes the creature as an ancient and nameless evil that wishes to possess Ged’s body. Years later, Ged graduates from the Roke school at age 18 and takes a job protecting poor villagers of the Ninety Isles from a feared attack by dragons. While traveling, Ged learns that he is being pursued by the shadow creature he summoned on Roke. Sailing to Pendor, Ged kills five young dragons and exacts a binding promise from an adult dragon that he and his brood will never threaten the archipelago.
Chased by the shadow, Ged tries to return to Roke but is blocked by the island’s protective magic. Taking the advice to seek help at the Court of the Terrenon in Osskil, Ged flees north. On Osskil, he realises that his guide has been possessed by the shadow. Fleeing in terror, Ged stumbles through a castle gate as the creature destroys his staff and kills his pet otak. Ged passes out and wakes to find himself in the castle of Benderesk, who is the lord of the Terranon, a stone locked in the castle’s depths. Benderesk’s wife, Lady Serret, shows Ged the stone and tempts him to speak to it, claiming it can give him limitless knowledge and power. Believing the stone harbors an ancient and evil spirit, Ged refuses. When Serret tries to tempt Ged again, he sees Benderesk eavesdropping and realizes they wish to enslave him to use his power. Ged ultimately escapes Osskil by transforming into a falcon and flying away.
Ged returns to Gont and meets Ogion. After hearing of Ged’s experiences, Ogion advises him to confront the shadow creature. Ged pursues it across the sea until it lures him into a fog where his boat is wrecked on a reef. While marooned on an islet, Ged recovers with the help of an elderly couple who were apparently abandoned on the island as child heirs of a defeated Kargish royal family. As a gift the woman gives Ged part of a broken bracelet, which he later learns is half of the lost Ring of Erreth-Akbe.
Ged escapes the island and continues his pursuit, eventually meeting and traveling with his friend Vetch. They ultimately reach a dark shore and Ged confronts the shadow. They embrace and merge, with Ged and Vetch realizing that the shadow was part of Ged's spirit, and that Ged could only reunite with it by understanding and accepting it as part of himself.
- A wizard on Gont, student of Heleth and master of Ged; called Ogion.
- A mage of Iffish, friend of Ged. Called Vetch.
- Protagonist of the story; a wizard called Sparrowhawk.
- A sorcerer of O. Son of Enwit, born in the domain of Eolg, Havnor. Childhood rival of Ged.
- Archmage of Roke when Ged is young. Formerly the Master Patterner.
- A boatmaker of the Ninety Isles. He befriends Ged when Ged first arrives. Ged fails to save his sick son Ioeth.
- Daughter of the Lord of Re Albi, wife of Benderesk. The name means "silver" in Osskilian.
- An Osskilian who becomes possessed by the shadow that is unwittingly released into Earthsea by Ged.
- The Dragon of Pendor.
Awards and Recognitions
An original mini-series titled Legend of Earthsea was broadcast in 2005 on the Sci Fi Channel. It is based very loosely on A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan. Le Guin has stated that she was not pleased with the result, which included "whitewashing Earthsea."
Studio Ghibli released an adaptation of the series in 2006 titled Tales from Earthsea. The film very loosely combines elements of the first, third, and fourth books into a new story. Le Guin has commented with displeasure on the results.
- A Wizard of Earthsea title listing at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database (ISFDB).
- The first edition cover image (depicted) a little unclearly credits "Drawings by Ruth Robbins". ISFDB does not mention the interior illustrations, if any.
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