A review of A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. Le Guin

Given my recent readings, it is easy to see why I was attracted to A Wizard Of Earthsea. Earthsea itself is a world in which the small islands on which humans live are forever at risk of being engulfed back into the sea, like in Arendt and Jappe. Individuals are navigating on it with ethics they don’t really understand, ignore, and fall into pride and hate, like in Lagant. The potentially dark and unfathomably dangerous magic based on the true name of things evoked semiotics, Victor Klemperer and the study of totalitarian language. But it is also a fantasy world, as easy to walk through as it is to play Skyrim, and a coming-of-age novel about a young boy destined to be the greatest wizard ever, as simple (but not as simplistic) as Harry Potter.

The universe of Earthsea wizardry is clearly sexist: wizards are men, obviously, women can be village witches with limited powers, no grasp of what really matters, even if they can become quite powerful like when they marry a lord. Well at least it is also a world in which most people are Black, the ones that are savage looters in dire need of civilization are not though. So it is not all annoying. Still, especially since it is something written for teenagers, it loses a couple of stars for this.

But in the end, the main fight in this book is not between human civilization and the original sea, or good and evil, but has a lot more to do with classic representations of mental health. For example:

Now began a bad time. When he dreamed of the shadow or so much as thought of it, he felt always the same cold dread: sense and power drained out of him, leaving him stypid and astray. He raged at his cowardice, but that did no good. He sought for some protection, but there was none: the thing was not flesh, not alive, not spirit, unnamed, having no being but what he himself had given it — a terrible power outside the laws of the sunlit world.

This fantasy representation of mental distress is also what makes a monster such as the gebbeth, a human emptied of its substance, entirely taken over by these undefined forces, and the fight against it so terrifying, and what gives this book its real value. It makes for a gripping tale for anyone who ever thought they were losing their minds or could not run from nor face their own demons (that is, anyone at all, probably).

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5 thoughts on “A review of A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. Le Guin

  1. She realized that the world she created was sexist (She did not realize it at the time) and returned decades later to address it, exploring why only men are wizards in the second trilogy of Earthsea (Tehanu, Tales of Earthsea, the Other Wind).

    Very interesting review. Had not think of approaching it from the mental health perspective.

    • Thank you! I must say that if I pointed the sexist elements out, it is mainly because I was expecting much better, having read interesting things about genders in her writing. It certainly has not put me off reading the sequels! Any recommendation on what order to read them/ which ones can be skipped?

      I don’t know if the mental health thing is just projection or not, there are a lot of significative quotes to support such a reading, I didn’t want to put them all not to spoil the story. I might try to dig a bit more though: characters like the traumatized brother and sister not wanting to go back to civilization etc I would say would be important in that interpretation. And obviously I never meant that this interpretation was the only one possible either, I am sure that there are many different ways to read and enjoy this book!

      • She wrote the first trilogy (A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore) in the late 60’s and 70’s where she herself was just realizing that the fantasy world is a primarily world of men. Still none one them are traditionally hero quests; Tombs actually has a a female protagonist.

        I think reading the series chronologically (second trilogy is Tehanu, Tales of Earthsea, and The Other Wind) is the way to go. I don’t think any of them should be skipped, although Tehanu is the most contentious one of all because it is fundamentally anti-fantasy, and uncomfortably questions the world established in the first three books (I think in a thought-provoking and necessary way).They’re all good, so happy readings.

        I provide my take on my blog on the first three books on my blog if you’d care to look:

        http://ekostories.com/2012/03/05/a-wizard-of-earthsea/

    • Thanks! that’s a much more through review lol, mind if I link to it in my article?

      I see the banner on your blog is taken from Nausicaa, so I wondered what you thought about the Studio Ghibli rendition of Earthsea? I quite liked the idea that people choosing freedom became dragons and all that, although it also seemed not to use much of the possibilities of a fantasy universe. Is that something found in the novels or is that just from Ghibli?

      Also, about Nausicaa, what do you think of my theory that Omu come from the early 20th century Trachsel painting “The island of blossoming trees”? https://gs1.wac.edgecastcdn.net/8019B6/data.tumblr.com/tumblr_m5noef0itp1qgazpwo1_500.jpg

      • Not at all, go ahead 🙂

        As for Ghibli’s film, it is a supreme disappointment for me. Hayao Miyazaki had wanted to adapt Earthsea earlier, but Le Guin said no, being unfamiliar with his work. She finally saw Totoro, loved it and gave permission to Hayao for a film. Unfortunately, the project was handed over to Miyazaki’s son, who had no experience at the time. The film turned into a mishmash of non-sensical ideas, combining ideas from a few different books into a confusing mash. And they managed to whitewash the characters.

        The connection between humans and dragons along the nature of magic is explored in detail in the second trilogy. The choice between freedom and attachment is one of the core ideas in the last book.

        Neat painting. I had never seen it before 🙂 I’m not sure what the inspiration for the Ohmu is, I know Nausicaa was derived partially from the Princess Who Loved Insects, but not sure about the insects themselves. They are quite distinctive, aren’t they?

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