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“You have great power inborn in you, and you used that power wrongly, to work a spell over which you had no control, not knowing how that spell affects the balance of light and dark, life and death, good and evil. And you were moved to do this by pride and by hate. Is it any wonder the result was ruin? You summoned a spirit from the dead, but with it came one of the Powers of unlife. Uncalled it came from a place where there are no names. Evil, it wills to work evil through you. The power you had to call it gives it power over you: you are connected. It is the shadow of your arrogance, the shadow of your ignorance, the shadow you cast. Has a shadow a name?”

I recently mentioned a group of books that defied my determination to finish every text I started as a youngster. Wizard of Earthsea was among that number and on finally finishing it, 50 years later, I both see why I was balked and wish I'd continued. What brought me to other fantasy was, of course, the impact of reading The Lord of the Rings. But Tolkien is unique in the fact that by the time he set down The Hobbit and his trilogy, he had been building the world of Middle Earth, peopling it, giving those peoples languages and histories, etc., etc., etc. that the novel were essentially organic. Unlike most fantasy and science fiction, you always knew that every place, every character, every location had a fully fleshed out backstory and that, if asked, the author could offer you another 300 pages on that topic. This depth set an impossibly high bar for those who followed, but you can really differentiate the imitators by how hard they tried to get there.

Wizard of Earthsea give one no sense that the author has given her world much thought beyond what her story requires. There are no varying cultures, no languages, no religion, no governance. Earthsea is an archipelago, but one doubts you could point to one and have Ms Le Guin tell you what it's like there. And names seem to be a the product of a random word generator.

Such other forms of life as are introduced are quite boring. Ged, the wizard of the title adopts an animal called an otak that seems to be a fox that acts like a squirrel and holds all the interest of the latter. There's a dragon that theoretically poses a threat to one island, but it only even wakes up because Ged makes it. He fights off its rather inept young and then strikes a bargain for it to stay bound to the island where it was asleep in the first place. And, perhaps the most unfortunate aspects of the tale is that there is nothing at stake. Tolkien and skilled followers, like George R.R. Martin and J.K. Rowling, set their heroes against genuinely existential menaces. It may not be necessary to go quite that far to produce a tension-filled story, but the menace here is so ill-defined and does so little damage that it's not even clear that it is a threat. As it turns out, it's only a threat to Ged. After getting in a magic duel with the bully at wizarding school, he attempts a spell that is far beyond his ability and releases a shadow creature, apparently from the realm of the dead. Finding and defeating this beast is at the core of the novel. But, eventually the beast starts stalking him, then he goes after it, and in the climactic scene he realizes the shadow is a part of himself, re-absorbs it, and is whole. Which raises the obvious question: how would things be any different if that bit had absorbed the rest of him to reconstitute a whole? It's apparently a bit of Taoism and exactly as mundane as that philosophy.

Why then do I wish I'd read it long ago? Whatever the myriad weaknesses of the book, Ms Le Guin has a gift for set pieces and pens a series of affecting scenes. The initial casting of the spell that frees Ged's shadow is thrilling. After he has committed this terrible mistake his friend, Vetch, shares his true name--knowing true names is what gives wizards power--to show that he still trusts him and it is undeniably moving. Even the disappointment of realizing what the shadow is in their final battle does not totally undermine the power of the confrontation. Give her this, the lady could write.


Grade: (C)


Ursula Le Guin Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Ursula K. Le Guin
    -PAPERS: Ursula K. Le Guin papers, circa 1930s-2018 (Archives West)
    -WIKIPEDIA: Wizard of Earthsea
    -DATA BASE: Wizard of Earthsea (Internet Speculative Fiction Database)
    -BOOK SITE: A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin (Penguin Random House)
    -STUDY GUIDE: A Wixard of Earthsea (GradeSaver)
    -STUDY GUIDE: A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin (LitCharts)
    -STUDY GUIDE: A Wizard of Earthsea (Course Hero)
    -ESSAY: A Whitewashed Earthsea: How the Sci Fi Channel wrecked my books. (URSULA K. LE GUIN, DEC 16, 2004, Slate)
    -EXCERPT: The Literary Prize for the Refusal of Literary Prizes: from No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matter (Ursula K. Le Guin December 6, 2017, Paris Review)
    -EXCERPT: The Lathe of Heaven: An excerpt from the first e-book edition of Ursula K. Le Guin’s science fiction classic. (Slate)
    -EXCERPT: Warriors in the Mist: from A Wizard of Earthsea
    -VIDEO: Ursula K. Le Guin reads from "The Wizard of Earthsea" : Legendary author Ursula K. Le Guin reads from her book, "A Wizard of Earthsea," and answers audience questions. (Washington Center for the Performing Arts, Friday, October 10, 2008. Presented by Timberland Regional Library)
    -VIDEO: Ursula Le Guin at Portland Community College (Portland Community College, Jul 14, 2014)
    -INTERVIEW: Ursula K. Le Guin, The Art of Fiction No. 221 (Interviewed by John Wray, ISSUE 206, FALL 2013, Paris Review)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Ursula K. Le Guin Steers Her Craft Into A New Century (Scott Simon, August 29, 2015, NPR: Weekend Edition Saturday)
    -VIDEO: Ursula K. Le Guin on Creating the World of Earthsea: “Obviously, to me, words do make magic.” (Arwen Curry, September 27, 2023, LitHub)
    -SHORT STORY: “The Day Before the Revolution,” by Ursula K. Le Guin (LitHub)
    -INTERVIEW: Ursula Le Guin: ‘Wizardry is artistry’ (Hari Kunzru, 11/20/14, The Guardian)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Ursula LeGuin (Hosted by Michael Silverblatt Mar. 08, 2001, KCRW: Bookworm)
    -INTERVIEW: Chronicles of Earthsea : Ursula Le Guin's books include A Wizard of Earthsea, The Dispossessed, The Left Hand of Darkness and many others. This is an edited transcript of her online Q&A, in which she answered readers' questions about anarchism, utopias, Harry Potter, her favourite planets and the best Dr Who (The Guardian, 2/09/04)
    -VIDEO: Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin (American Masters, S33 Ep9 | Premiere date: Aug 2, 2019, PBS)
    -PODCAST: ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’ Is a Sci-Fi Classic (Geek's Guide to the Galaxy, 4/30/21, Wired)
    -OBIT: Ursula K. Le Guin, Whose Novels Plucked Truth From High Fantasy, Dies At 88 (Colin Dwyer, 1/23/2018, NPR)
    -OBIT: Celebrated Oregon Author Ursula K. Le Guin Dies At 88 (April Baer, Jan. 23, 2018, Oregon Public Broadcasting)
    -OBIT: Ursula K Le Guin obituary: Science fiction and fantasy writer whose great books include The Left Hand of Darkness and A Wizard of Earthsea Ursula Le Guin in 1985. She increasingly became a representative of the genres of the fantastic, which she argued were of central literary importance in the 20th century. (John Clute, 24 Jan 2018, The Guardian)
    -OBIT: Ursula K. Le Guin, author of ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’ and ‘A Wizard of Earthsea’, has died (Anthony Ha, January 23, 2018, Tech Crunch)
    -TRIBUTE: For Ursula K. Le Guin, the Future Was Always About Today: The acclaimed writer taught us how to think about tomorrow by contemplating the wonders of the present. (JACOB BROGAN, JAN 24, 2018, Slate)
    -TRIBUTE: Ursula K Le Guin, by Margaret Atwood: ‘One of the literary greats of the 20th century’: The author of The Handmaid’s Tale bids hail, farewell and thank you to the revered sci-fi and fantasy author, who has died aged 88 (Margaret Atwood, 24 Jan 2018, The Guardian)
    -TRIBUTE: Ursula K. Le Guin Tribute (Locus, April 20, 2018)
    -TRIBUTE: Remembering Ursula K. Le Guin (April Baer, June 8, 2018, OPB)
    -TRIBUTE: Never Tell Them Your True Name: Remembering Ursula K. Le Guin (Monica Uszerowicz, Jan 26, 2018, Bomb)
    -TRIBUTE: An Education Through Earthsea: Ursula Le Guin’s fiction explored the ultimate fantasy—of self-discovery and the power that comes with it. (Ryu Spaeth, February 6, 2018, New Republic)
    -TRIBUTE: Remembering Ursula Le Guin, the true wizard of Earthsea (Prospero, 1/25/18, The Economist)
    -TRIBUTE: Ursula Le Guin: What the atheist writer taught this Christian (Mark Woods, 24 January 2018, Christianity Today)
    -TRIBUTE: Kelly Link in Praise of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Genuine Magic: “It is striking how resonant Le Guin’s work remains even as the future she describes recedes into our past.” (Kelly Link, January 31, 2023, LitHub)
    ESSAY: The Left Hand of Darkness showed us that the greatest romances in life can be friendships: Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1969 sci-fi tour de force can still teach us something about human connection. (Muizz Akhtar, Feb 13, 2022, Vox)
    -ESSAY: My Year of Reading Every Ursula K. Le Guin Novel: Susan DeFreitas on the Lessons of Le Guin During a Pandemic (Susan DeFreitas, January 19, 2022, LitHub)
    -ESSAY: On Coming to Ursula K. Le Guin in My Own Time: How Amal El-Mohtar Fell Completely in Love (Amal El-Mohtar, March 7, 2022, LitHub)
    -ESSAY:Zahia Rahmani on Discovering Ursula K. Le Guin in 2021: “We see her act of resistance.” (Zahia Rahmani, December 20, 2021, Lit Hub)
    -ESSAY: Building Earthsea: How Le Guin Laid a Shaky Foundation for Her World (Oren Ashkenazi, 9/19/20, Mythcreants)
    -ESSAY: David Mitchell on Earthsea – a rival to Tolkien and George RR Martin: In A Wizard of Earthsea, published in 1968, Ursula K Le Guin created one of literature’s most fully formed fantasy worlds. The author of Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks recalls how he fell under its spell (David Mitchell, 23 Oct 2015, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY: Ursula K. Le Guin and the Shadow of Earthsea: Why her classic series ranks with Tolkien and Lewis (Mark Judge, 1/24/18, Splice Today)
    -ESSAY: How Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea Subverts Racism (But Not Sexism) (Gabrielle Bellot, Oct 30, 2018, Tor)
    -ESSAY: Ursula LeGuin's Magical World of Earthsea (Jan M. Griffin, spring 1996, Virginia Tech)
    -ESSAY: Changing The Container: How Le Guin Shaped Representation In Sci Fi (April Baer, June 9, 2018, Oregon Public Broadcasting)
    -BOOK LIST: Don't know where to start? The essential novels of Ursula K Le Guin: From the fantasy of Earthsea to ambisexual planets, these masterpieces offer brilliant introductions to a dazzling writer who broke entirely new ground (Alison Flood, 24 Jan 2018, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: 'Deeply weird and enjoyable': Ursula K Le Guin's electronica album: In the 1980s, the sci-fi author teamed up with musician Todd Barton, inventing new instruments and a language to create Music and Poetry of the Kesh. Is the album any good? (Geeta Dayal, 27 Mar 2018, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY: From Master to Brother: Shifting the Balance of Authority in Ursula K. Le Guin's Farthest Shore and Tehanu (Len Hatfield, Children's Literature)
    -PROFILE: The magician: Thirty years before Harry Potter, Ursula Le Guin was writing novels about a school for wizards. As well as good and evil, her fantasy worlds also address issues of race and gender (Maya Jaggi, 17 Dec 2005, The Guradian)
    -PROFILE: The fantasy that inspired David Mitchell: A Wizard of Earthsea inspired David Mitchell to become a writer (Jake Kerridge, 11/17/15, Telegraph)
    -ESSAY: Ursula K. Le Guin and the Three Obstacles: What the science-fiction writer still has to overcome to be recognized as the titan she was. (LAURA MILLER, JAN 24, 2018, Slate)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: What Good Can Dreaming Do?: Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven reminds us of the radical power of collective imagination. (Annie Howard, January 2022, Boston Review)
    -ESSAY: Ursula K. Le Guin Burns Down the National Book Awards: The local literary supernova brought the book world to its feet with an acceptance speech that censured Amazon and sparked an international frenzy. (Ramona DeNies, 11/20/2014, Portland Monthly)
    -ESSAY: Reinventing the Past: Gender in Ursula K. Le Guin's Tehanu and the Earthsea" Trilogy": A consideration of how the addition of a fourth book some years later does and does not change the implications of the whole series. (Perry Nodelman, 1/01/95, Zenodo)
    -ESSAY: Harry Potter and the boy wizard tradition: The parallels between Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea and JK Rowling’s creation are striking, part of a tradition of boy wizards in fantasy fiction dating back to CS Lewis (Ed Power, 7/31/16, Irish Times)
    -BOOK CLUB: Margaret Atwood Chooses ‘A Wizard of Earthsea’: Speculative-fiction wizard Margaret Atwood proposes Ursula K. Le Guin’s ‘A Wizard of Earthsea’ for the WSJ Book Club (Anna Russell, Oct. 16, 2014, WSJ)
    -PODCAST: Dreams and Shadows: On Ursula Le Guin's 'A Wizard of Earthsea' (Phil Ford & J.F. Martel, Episode 64 · January 22nd, 2020, Weird Studies)
    -DISSERTATION: quest for selfhood in Ursula Le Guin's "The Wizard of Earthsea" and "The Farthest Shore" (Jerry K. Durbeej, FAU))
    -ESSAY: Mind Over Magic: Repetition-Compulsion, PowerInstinct, and Apprehension in Ursula K. Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea (Phillip Snyder, The Catalyst)
    -BOOK CLUB SERIES: The Ursula K. Le Guin Reread (Sean Guynes, Tor)
    -ESSAY: Mapping the pop culture influence of Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea books: From 'Harry Potter' to 'Moana,' here's how the late author's fantasy series influenced your favorite art (Christian Holub, January 25, 2018, Entertainment Weekly)
    -ESSAY: Wizards as Hermits in Le Guin's Earthsea Cycle (Hermitary)
    -THESIS: The Subversion of the Classic: Ursula K. Le Guin’s Re-Vision of Gender in A Wizard of Earthsea (Martins, Opeoluwa, 2015, Haverford College)
    -ESSAY: 10 Reasons Why Le Guin's Earthsea Books Can Still Change Your Life (Charlie Jane Anders, 11/06/13, Gizmodo)
    -ESSAY: The Land of the Dead in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea (Laura Gibbs, Jul 1st, 2009, Journey to the Sea)
-Ursula K. Le Guin’s Tao Te Ching: How the Sci-Fi Legend Created a Landmark Rendition of the Taoist Classic (1997) (Open Culture, March 3rd, 2021)
-VIDEO ARECHIVES: Ursula K. Le Guin (You Tube)
    -ARCHIVES: Earthsea (Tor)
    -ARCHIVES: Ursula K Le Guin (Slate)
    -ARCHIVES: Ursula K Le Guin (The Guardian)
    -ARCHIVES: Ursula Guin (The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of The Books of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin (Karen Haber, Locus)
    -REVIEW: of The Books of Earthsea (Andrew Liptak, The Verge)
    -REVIEW: of A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin (Amanda Craig, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of A Wizard of Earthsea (Matt Berman, Common Sense Media)
    -REVIEW: of A Wizard of Earthsea (Sean Guynes, Tor)
    -REVIEW: of A Wizard of Earthsea (Jim Wilbourne, Medium)
    -REVIEW: of A Wizard of Earthsea (Mythgard)
    -REVIEW: of A Wizard of Earthsea (Examined Worlds)
    -REVIEW: of A Wizard of Earthsea (Juan Michael Porter, Electric Lit
    -REVIEW: of A Wizard of Earthsea (MuggleNet)
    -REVIEW: of A Wizard of Earthsea (For the Novel Lovers)
    -REVIEW: of A Wizard of Earthsea (The Illustrated Page)
    -REVIEW: of A Wizard of Earthsea (Jackie Tang, Readings)
    -REVIEW: of A Wizard of Earthsea (SFF Book Reviews)
    -REVIEW: of A Wizard of Earthsea (Jennifer Hanson, Rambles)
    -REVIEW: of A Wizard of Earthsea (Learning to Read Better Through Asking the Right Questions)
    -REVIEW: of A Wizard of Earthsea (Skylis Reviews)
    -REVIEW: of A Wizard of Earthsea (Floresiensis, Fantasy Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of A Wizard of Earthsea (Adam Whitehead, Wertzone)
    -REVIEW: of A Wizard of Earthsea (Hedwig's World)
    -REVIEW: of The Tombs of Atuanby Ursula K. Le Guin (Sean Guynes, Tor)
    -REVIEW: of The Farthest Shore by Ursula K. Le Guin (Sean Guynes, Tor)
    -REVIEW: of Ursula K. Le Guin: The Last Interview and Other Conversations edited by David Streitfeld and The Carrier Bag Theory Of Fiction by Ursula K. Le Guin (Colin Burrow, London Review of Books)

Book-related and General Links:

-ESSAY: Betina González on The Little Prince, Walden, and A Wizard of Earthsea: Book Recs From the Author of American Delirium (Book Marks, March 2, 2022)