A Wizard of Earthsea

Posted by Piers Cawley on May 5, 2019

This was the first.

Before I read Tolkien at the suggestion of the wonderful Miss Reese, my teacher for my last year of primary school; before I pulled Diana Wynne Jones, Alan Garner, Susan Cooper and others from the shelves of Bawtry’s small, but enchanting branch library; before Anne McCaffrey’s DragonSong found me in my school library and set a fire in my imagination. Before all that, I read A Wizard of Earthsea and it stuck with me.

I remember one Saturday with 50p in my pocket from singing for a couple of weddings at St George’s church in Doncaster (25p for each wedding, paid cash in hand on the day. It always felt like a bonus after singing Bach’s Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring in the side chapel as the register was signed in the vestry and Magnus Black, the choir and organmaster, brought that beautiful tune dancing with such delicacy from in instrument that would shake the walls later as the happy couple left the church to Vidor’s toccata and fugue1). I was never one for saving, I’m still not, so I was straight round to Donny’s nearest thing to a bookshop, the WH Smith in the Arndale in search of something to read. A voracious reader, I’d gone through all the Swallows and Amazons and Narnia books and I needed more. The cover of the second Puffin edition, with its white youths and bizzare half man half hawk fascinated me, so I handed over my 50p2 and headed home with my prize.

I read A Wizard of Earthsea once or twice and loved it, but I’ve not reread it since. As a kid, I borrowed rest of the then trilogy from the library and found them rather hard going at (my memory says that I found The Tombs of Atuan a real slog. I got through it, but it took a couple of goes and at least one renewal to get to the end). A few weeks ago though, I went to the Sound Post ‘Modern Fairies’ singing weekend and fell into conversation with Terri Windling about the books that had shaped me and I told her about my experience with the Earthsea trilogy and I thought maybe I’d been a little too young for them (I think I was eight or nine when I read AWoE, and maybe twelve when I read The Tombs of Atuan and The Furthest Shore). I hadn’t revisted them since. Terri made me promise to reread them and to let her know what I thought. So that’s what I’m doing. Terri, this book report’s for you. I owe you a few more and I promise I’ll get to them.

By the way, if you’ve never read A Wizard of Earthsea, there will be spoilers in this article. Read the book before continuing. It shouldn’t take you long, and it’s well worth the time.

It’s not so much what happens in this story as the way it’s told that left its impression on me. Earthsea is made of words – all stories are, of course – sung into being by Segoy. Words are power. A wizard spends a large part of his3 education learning the “the Deeds of heroes and the Lays of wisdom” and year under the Master Namer just learning the true names of things in the Old Speech: the language of dragons; the language in which the world was made. In the period when the book is set, there is written language, but I get the feeling that it’s very much the preserve of the wise. Songs, orally transmitted, are how the people of the archipelago hold their history and Le Guin’s language reflects that. Every sentence seems to have been shaped to be spoken, and beautifully so. I kept stopping and reading passages out because the words were just so… right.

I sometimes wonder who the tale’s narrator is telling the story to. It’s a question that can break a lot of first person SF and exposes lazy storytelling. If a book that’s supposedly the product of a completely different culture or time feels like it’s written for an early 21st century reader, it breaks the book for me.4 The language and idiom of A Wizard of Earthsea seem entirely right and consistent. We learn so much about the world as Ged’s story is told from things mentioned in passing. We know that this happened a long time ago and it’s assumed we already know about The Deed of Ged, The Creation of Ea and all the other songs, deeds and festivals that are referred to in passing through the book. At the end we are told that no songs have survived that tell how Ged came to terms with his shadow – the entire book is a footnote in a much larger story that’s just out of reach. I’m reminded of the fact that we only have the Norse myths we know because an ancient Icelander worried that readers wouldn’t recognize the allusions in the sagas and eddas, so they wrote down the bones of the older stories to help future readers understand. If Le Guin had left Earthsea at this point, all we would know of Earthsea would be the glimpses of it in this story. And what glimpses they are.

You can find echoes A Wizard of Earthsea in so much subsequent fantasy literature. The possibility of a wizard being trapped in another, for instance. Pratchett plays with and develops this in the Witches sequence of Discworld books, for instance. I loved this sentence though: “And no one knows how many of the dolphins that leap in the waters of the Inmost Sea were men once, wise men, who forgot their wisdom and their name in the joy of the restless sea.” If I had the power to become a dolphin I wouldn’t be keen to return to the body of a fat 51 year old with diabetes and a bunch of aches and pains that I try not to think about. You can keep your wisdom sometimes.

As a kid, I didn’t really understand what was going on with Ged and his Shadow. It was easy to see myself in the ever noticed that he didn’t have the same colour skin as me). I loved learning and especially knowing. It wasn’t hard to take my undoubtedly superior intelligence5 as analogous to a wizard’s power. Then, though, the shape of the story confused me, especially the ending. Ged and his friend sail off the page. The sea becomes land. Ged steps off the boat and confronts the Shadow, addressing it with his own name. And the shadow disappears/merges with Ged. And they all live on to do the Deeds which are sung of them. What? Nine year old me had no idea what was going on there, but the imagery stuck.

Now, of course, it all seems a clearer. Thesis. Antithesis. Synthesis. Ged does a terrible thing in his ignorance and pride. In shame he runs from it, almost losing his humanity in the process. He is tempted by a dark power, but rejects it. A friend and teacher restores him to himself and tells him that running is the sure road to doom. He turns and chases his Shadow instead. Finally he comes to an acceptance that the Shadow is a part of himself and by giving it his name he reintegrates that part into himself and finally becomes a whole man. There you go – no need to read the book now.

Of course you need to read this book. It’s language sings and the places and people it evokes are beautifully drawn. Rereading this after more than 30 years, so much was familiar. I would have said I’d forgotten almost all of it but the bare outline of the story and a few character names, but that stuff clearly went in deep and helped make me myself because as I read, the whole shape of the thing unfolded in my head. It was almost like recognising roads and pathways in a place you holidayed repeatedly as a kid, then didn’t return for 20 years. Familiar and surprising at the same time. “Oh yeah, that’s where Daniel used to live! And do you remember walking up there to buy ice creams at the village shop? Oh! I’d forgotten this view!”

Right… onwards to The Tombs of Atuan.


  1. That was if we were lucky. It was usually Mendelssohn – not bad, Magnus was far too good an organist for it to sound dull, but not a patch on Vidor. [return]
  2. The bibliography I found tells me that it probably cost 35p, so I no doubt bought a load of sweets as well – books and sugar have always been my vices. [return]
  3. The wizards are all men. There are female witches in the story, but at this stage of the tale they’re definitely underpowered and untrustworthy compared to the men. Le Guin fixes this later. [return]
  4. Sometimes I don’t care though. God alone knows why Bertie Wooster is telling the Jeeves stories, or who he’s telling them too – I’m just very glad he’s chosen to tell them at all. [return]
  5. Yeah. I know. I must have been insufferable as a kid (and an adult, if I’m honest). First to stick their hand up in every class. Happy to “Well, actually…” at every opportunity. [return]