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).