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A Wizard of Earthsea – Andy’s thinking “Harry? Sorry? Harry who?”

November 29, 2010

For my 11th birthday a (now long-forgotten) friend of my mother’s gave me three books – The Brothers Lionheart, by Astrid Lindgren (better known for creating Pippy Longstocking); The Nargun and the Stars, by Patricia Wrightson (an acclaimed Australian children’s author); and A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula Le Guin. Lionheart was a childhood favourite, re-read many times, though it’s long gone from my bookshelves; I don’t think I ever finished Nargun, which is a pity because as a teenager living in Gippsland I visited the Den of Nargun many times (although the book, if I remember, was based in rural NSW) and even wrote a terrible short story about it for school. A Wizard of Earthsea was in another class. Within a year or so I’d bought the other two in what was then a trilogy; when, as an adult, I realised Le Guin had written a fourth installment I bought all four in an omnibus; and later still, when she produced a fifth novel and a collection of short stories, I hunted those down too (although the short stories are yet to be read). My childhood copies of the first three books are still on my bookshelves, though the spines are too fragile for them to actually be read. At least one of them’s falling apart.

SPOILER ALERT – not that it matters because the only people reading this will be people who’ve read the book.

In A Wizard of Earthsea a village boy – he has three names in the book, but we’ll call him Sparrowhawk because that’s my favourite – is recognised early a a talented wizard in the making and shipped off to a School for Wizards (ooh – does that sound familiar? Just a bit, just a bit, don’t you think, maybe?) He’s an arrogant little bugger with a chip on his shoulder and when challenged attempts a spell far beyond his strengths, summoning into the world a “shadow” beast that nearly kills him before being banished from the school by a senior wizard. He spends a short time trying to flee the Shadow before realising that to defeat it he must pursue it. On the far outskirts of the Earthsea archipelago he finally comes face to face with the Shadow – himself. His Shadow. And in embracing it, defeats it.

Sorry. That makes it sound really naff. And my summary is. But trust me, the book’s not.

The Earthsea stories are supposedly for children, and children can read them and enjoy them. I did. And the first book is “about” growing up, although it’s “about” other things too. But I don’t think you can truly appreciate just how impressive they are until adulthood. Re-reading A Wizard of Earthsea last week for the umpteenth time was genuinely, immensely rewarding. Le Guin is a far superior writer to JK Rowling or CS Lewis or, yes, even old JRR Tolkien, although all three of those writers are far more widely read. Tolkien and Lewis were over-educated, humanity-hating God botherers raging at us poor fallen mortals over our inability to redeem ourselves; Rowling has more in common with Le Guin philosophically and thematically – although Le Guin squeezes into a single book (Wizard) what Rowling needs seven overblown tomes to achieve (A Wizard of Earthsea is shorter than Philosopher’s Stone). And of course, both Rowling and Le Guin write about a School for Wizards – Le Guin decades before Rowling, and far more convincingly. Interestingly Le Guin (unlike others) does not feel Rowling ripped her off – but she does feel that Rowling “could have been more gracious about her predecessors. My incredulity was at the critics who found the first book wonderfully original. She has many virtues, but originality isn’t one of them. That hurt.” Le Guin’s the one being gracious, methinks. I like the Harry Potter movies, and the books kept me interested though they’re not worth re-reading. Rowling has a virtue or two. But many? Nup. Even if she is the heinously rich one.

There are other aspects of the two books that are similar. Sparrowhawk’s “shadow” has at least a little in common with Voldemort. Obviously in Rowling’s stories Harry and He Who Must Not Be Named (or whatever the fuck) are two separate people – but they are connected, very strongly, and in more than one way. In Earthsea Sparrowhawk embraces the negative aspects of himself that the Shadow represents. Harry doesn’t “embrace” Voldemort, but ultimately they must come face to face, and one must destroy the other (although I seem to remember everyone and her black cat wanting Harry dead in the earlier books).

I believe some of the Earthsea books have been turned into a TV series, or possibly a movie – badly, I guess, because apparently Ursula wasn’t well pleased. It’s a pity, because they are screaming out for a bit of cinematic action. And if that meant more people reading the books – and it would – all the better.

A Wizard of Earthsea offers many things. Wizards? Witches? Myth? Magic? Dragons? Derring-do (OK, that was a stretch)? Yep. It’s a yarn, for sure, it has spells and challenges and quests and most if not all of the other stuff you’d expect from a fantasy novel. But if you’re looking for a story about arrogance, humility, friendship, rivalry, paranoia, morality, identity – A Wizard of Earthsea covers that, too.

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One comment

  1. Loved, read and re-read this as a child and the rest of the trilogy. Later discovered le Guin’s sci-fi.

    As you say, it knocks spots off Harry. Ged/Sparrowhawk is a more complex character and his story much more psychological. He has to fight himself as much as the Shadow and I remember reading a review several years ago which recommended The Wizard of Earthsea as cathartic reading for people with depression.

    Thanks for reminding me.



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