I cannot remember how I came across this tale of wizards and dragons. It must have been soon after it was published, and it made a great impression on me. I was already an adult, but I found the metaphor of naming to be very powerful. In the ancient lore, Ursula Le Guin tells us, being able to speak someone’s true name means having power over them. Giving your true name is an indication of trust.
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin was published in 1968. It is the seventh post in the Bookword 2019 Decades Project.
This story concerns a young lad growing up, confronting his own weaknesses and learning how to deal with them. It is also full of adventure, friendship, ingeniousness, acts of courage and mystery. It was very popular and two more novels featuring Sparrowhawk, the great wizard, were published and collected as a trilogy by 1979. There were yet more Earthsea stories later.
A Wizard of Earthsea
Note the title, which, like the story itself, makes it possible for the reader to see themselves here.
Sparrowhawk, true name Ged, is born on the island of Gont in the north east of the Archipelago.
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 on 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 wizard or mage, or, looking for adventure, to wander working magic from isle to isle of all Earthsea. (13)
Sparrowhawk’s mother died soon after his birth and his father had little interest in him. The boy had no special features until he stumbled upon a form of words that summoned goats to him, a spell. A local witch showed him a number of other spells and he was able to confuse and confound an invading horde of Kargad warriors and so save the village. Now his powers were noticed by the local wizard who provided him with an apprenticeship until the boy decided to go to the wizard training centre far away on the island of Roke.
[There is a great deal of sailing about the seas in this novel, and I made frequent use of the map of Earthsea. It was drawn by Ruth Robbins who also designed the first cover reproduced above.]
Sparrowhawk is ambitious and proud and during his training comes to resent another high achiever called Jasper. In an effort to outdo his rival Sparrowhawk unwisely initiates a forbidden spell, calling from the depths of the earth one who has long been dead. A dreadful evil is released into the world by this act and the rest of this first story is an account of how the shadowy evil tries to hunt Sparrowhawk down, and how the young lad learns to turn and become the hunter himself and how he eventually defeats his nemesis.
No wonder that adults also enjoy this story. It celebrates what we know to be good: determination, hard work, patience, friendship and doing right by others. It identifies what we know will unbalance us, that is ourselves. For Sparrowhawk it is his pride.
There are few female characters in this first story, but in other respects Ursula Le Guin promotes the importance of diversity among peoples: their languages, appearances, beliefs and rituals. Her parents were anthropologists and she had absorbed their interest in how different societies work, where their fault lines are, how communities explain human actions. Difference is not a matter for aggression. In this novel aggression and violence arise from individual human failings.
The love of the natural world also shines through this novel. There are invented animals, vast seascapes, and islands of great beauty. Everywhere people make the best of what they find to enhance their lives.
Wizards, witches and mages are largely beneficent people. Those who help Sparrowhawk are modest, generous, and loving. Their wisdom has a great deal in common with the philosophy of Lao Tzu: playful, apparently contradictory, and thought-provoking. The importance of balance or equilibrium features too in this story.
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 Ea (12)
See Ursula Le Guin’s version of Lao Tzu’s philosophy.
Ursula Le Guin and the imagination
Fantasy novels did not attract me much as a child, nor yet as an adult. The same can be said of science fiction. But in her novels I have learned to enjoy the best of both, mostly because she uses imagination to explore different worlds, different, places, different ways of being and shows us a way to proceed. I recommend this book and The Left-Hand of Darkness to any adult reader.
The conceit of naming seems to me to be very important. We need to be able to speak our fears, our hopes, our failures to deal with them. The power to name, to write, is therefore essential for a civilised world.
And it comes to me that spells are magic words, so spelling is the act of magicking words, or simply put writing is magic.
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K Le Guin, first published in 1968. I read it in my copy of the Earthsea Trilogy published by Penguin in 1979.
Other Bookword posts on Ursula Le Guin
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin
A Tribute to Ursula le Guin, on her death in January 2018
Imagination and the Writer, on the necessity of training the imagination
The Decade Project in 2019
In 2019, the third year of my Decades Project, I am exploring children’s fiction from the start of the 20thcentury through my monthly choices of a book from successive decades. Next month it will be a book from 1970-79.
Here are the links to the books in this year’s Decades Project so far:
The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff (1954)
The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge (1946)
Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild (1936)
Joan’s Best Chum by Angela Brazil (1926)
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911)
Five Children and It by E Nesbit (1902)
To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookwordplease email me with your email address: firstname.lastname@example.org