You might well think this is a children's book. It's often marketed as such, a few of the covers I've seen over the years suggest it’s a book pitched at those who are yet to graduate to adult fiction. Well, bollocks to that. A great story is a great story, whether it's written with a twelve-year-old or a sixty-year-old in mind. In fact, a great story with a young protagonist might have the widest possible audience, because we were all twelve once. Or fourteen, or seventeen.
Earthsea is that rarest, and most beautiful, of creations: a world close enough to our own to feel real, but filled with magic and adventure. In all the Earthsea books, but—for me, this one in particular—magic is portrayed in such a realistic way that we sense, if we were to find the right path up a mountainside, and listen to the silence we find there, we might find we could cast spells of our own.
Sparrowhawk is the hero and the titular wizard of the story. His given name is Ged, but names have power in this world, and they are not shared lightly. Ged starts the book as a headstrong boy with a gift for magic. We see him use his early power to confound a party of bandits who would otherwise have destroyed his home, conjuring a fog to conceal his village. Soon, a taciturn and wise old teacher seeks him out and offers him an apprenticeship. The goat-tending boy from a mountain village dreams of a great life.
Sparrowhawk’s flaw, and it's a flaw that might destroy more than his just his own future, is his arrogance. Le Guin artfully leads us to identify with his growing confidence and self-belief. We want our young hero to push himself, to show us powerful magic. We know from the opening page, that this boy will become the most famous wizard in the world, and we want to see what he can do.
In other hands, this is where the story might have become predictable. Not here. I won't give away any spoilers, because many people haven't read what I would consider to be as essential a book for lovers of the fantastic as the Narnia Chronicles, Tolkein, or Harry Potter. I'll just say that the wizard school of Roke where Ged learns his art is a very different place to Hogwarts. The danger he encounters there, which shapes the rest of his life, arises from his own character, rather than any outside agency. The story is all the stronger for this, and it's the reason it's lived with me for all of my life. I read it first when I was eleven or twelve. I’ve read it at least once every decade since.
Le Guin was a lifelong student of the Tao, and the timeless themes of balance, and mystery, find a natural home in this story.
A Wizard of Earthsea is one of my favourite books. What more can I say? If you’re still on the fence…dragons. There are dragons. Wise, terrifying, unknowable, truly alien, and bloody brilliant, dragons.
If you have read it, or if you read it soon, tell us about it in the comments below. I hope it weaves its magic on you, as it has on me. In the meantime, I'll give away a Kindle edition to someone at random on my email list (subscribe above), so watch your inbox.
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