A Wizard of Earthsea [Reading Challenge 2019]

A Wizard of Earthsea

by Ursula K. LeGuin
Bantam, 1975 (originally published 1968)

[Challenge # 49: A book you loved as a child.]

Oh Earthsea, Earthsea, how little I knew thee!

For my childhood revisit read for this years’ challenge, I chose Ursula K. LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. I had read it way back in my early teens and been very impressed. I can’t remember my exact age, but it was around 13 or 14. I remember seeing it in my local card/book store for years before then, though. I would save my allowance to buy SFF paperbacks from there, which at that time were only a dollar or two. The cover illustrated here was the classic one from first Bantam paperback edition and the one I remember.

There you have it. Surrealistic, muted, obscure. It looks like what you’d see on The Worm Ouroboros, not a YA (or teen as it was called when published) fantasy novel. The cover promised baroque language, weighty ideas, and adult subject matter. The latter two were correct, but the baroque language, no. A Wizard of Earthsea is still as classic, restrained, straightforward, and easy to read as it was back then. It’s held up very well and still deserves five stars from me. From the viewpoint of an adult writer, I am in fact more in awe of it now, for what it achieves in a sparsity of words.

As an adult, too, I found the descriptions of sailing and the sea delightful, whereas as a child I had mostly skipped over them. LeGuin has said she based the Kargad Lands on the dry country of Eastern Oregon, and I think it’s not too much of a stretch to say Earthsea’s islands were likely based on Washington State’s San Juan Islands. To sail or kayak through them, or even view them from the ferry, is to see Earthsea in miniature: some rocks barely stick above the water, while others are steep and rocky, crowned with evergreens. The larger ones have farms and hills. All have a brooding, Pleistocene majesty. They are what I see when I read Earthsea. The brooding grayness of Earthsea’s ocean recalls for me, too, the ancient expanse of the Pacific, not the lively Atlantic, and so does the complicated relationship the denizens of Earthsea have with it. As an example of worldbuilding, Earthsea is still one of the best.

Plot in a nutshell: Ged, a loveless boy from a backward island, is discovered to have a talent for wizardry and sent to a wizard’s school on another island. In an attempt to impress a classmate, he summons a dark spirit that attaches itself to him and seeks to kill him. Much humbled by this experience, he spends the rest of the book trying to defeat it while having some adventures on the way. It’s an epic tale much like that of Gilgamesh and I was very impressed with LeGuin’s handling of Ged as an anti-hero, creating a character who is one the reader probably wouldn’t want to be friends with, yet making his problems relatable and himself sympathetic.

Okay, now off come the thin cotton gloves.

In retrospect, this was NOT a feminist book, and if it hadn’t been so carefully crafted to recall Western myth, which are myths and have nothing to do with the way people act in real life (caveat: mostly), I wouldn’t give it to a preteen girl to read.

For the first half of the book, women and girls are consistently bashed and presented as the hindrances to Ged and the instigators of his problems. First, there is his mother, who abandons him by dying, causing his problems of human relation. (I’ll say here that his father, who is gruff and unemotional, is not blamed in the same way as hapless mom is.) There are also the famous sayings “weak as woman’s magic” and “wicked as woman’s magic” in the book which the author was rightly criticized for, those criticisms leading her to retcon the series and world in later books, with mixed results. The sayings drive home the point early on that females are vile, petty, and should be subservient… and if not should be punished, a view that is actually held up throughout the book.

Not only Mom gets a bum deal. The aunt who sees power in Ged and trains him in some spell basics is portrayed as selfish, using him for her own ends, and manipulative. (To the author’s credit, Ged later in the book recalls his time with her with nostalgia.)

When Ged spends time with Ogion the wizard, he is approached by a girl his own age who asks him about magic and tries to tempt him into giving up some secrets. Ged, wanting to impress her (would he have been so keen to impress a male child?) sneaks a peak into one of Ogion’s books and summons A Thing, which Ogion dispels, and then scolds Ged for doing so, saying the child was a tool of her sorcerer mother. Evil sorceror mom also scores bad points here.

Speaking of Ogion, it’s clear the book wants to portray him as this wise mentor and admirable in his self-containment, but what the hell is he thinking, keeping a young teen in isolation? The guy has no idea how to raise a child. Adult me thinks that he is just lonely and needs someone around, and figured a child — whom he can groom to the task — would put up with him better than another adult would. Ogion, you suck.

Then, while at the wizard school, Ged is tempted again to misuse his power by a woman, in this case the young wife of the Lord of O, who is portrayed as silly and childish, though attractive to all the boys there because she is closer to their age than the other women around. She is pleased by an illusion created by Jasper, a fellow student and Ged’s nemesis, clapping her hands like a total ninny; and Ged, jealous, vows to do better. As a young teen, when I read this I hated Jasper for egging Ged on; yet as an adult, it’s clear Ged and Jasper started off on the wrong foot from the beginning. It’s clear at their first meeting that Jasper is willing to be friends, but class consciousness comes between him and Ged – Ged is a Gontish goat herder, and Jasper the son of a Lord who uses magic as well. Class struggles are also a thing in the book, which I’ll analyze later in a longer post.

Then, not only is Ged steamed up about the Lord of O’s teen wife, the spirit he summons in one-upmanship is also a woman, the fey, beautiful Elfarron of ancient legend, who unwittingly also permits a dark spirit to pass through her gate, which attacks Ged, scratches his face, and leaves him convalescing for months!

If woman = sex here, that’s some pretty heavy stuff. Sexual temptation = loss of power, spirituality and focus. No wonder this book, when I first read it, reminded me of the Bible. I even confused it with the Bible in parts, like Ged healing the islanders of the East Reach like Christ among the lepers.

Then there’s the whole mini-adventure with Serret, who is a temptress, betrayer, and liar, as well as being weak and womanly, which I’ll also leave for a more analytical later post.

Thankfully the woman-bashing stops after this, but it was pretty… I won’t say disturbing, but eye-opening to me as an adult and to think that when I was a child I was all “Stupid Serret! You deserve to be eaten by monsters. You go, Ged!”

In the second half of the book, Ged actually becomes friends with a young woman – Kesset, his wizard friend Vetch’s sister – and it’s implied he’s getting a crush on her in a mild way, and the way the book is set up, that he might return later and court her. But in later books he does not.

As I said, I’d forgotten a lot of the book from when I read it as a teen, and on re-reading it I was surprised by what I’d forgotten or made up in my mind over the years. So great was the woman-bashing of the first half that I remembered Kesset’s character as being quiet and subservient to the men, and Vetch ordering her  to serve them like Simon’s mother-in-law in the New Testament. But in my re-read, she’s actually a seeking, curious character, who also has a pet dragon (!) a symbol of female power, and a loom, another symbol of female power. So I guess the author was unconsciously trying to make amends with her character, who knows?

At the end of the book when Ged confronts the shadow he summoned and embraces it, I had long thought he was embracing his dark side, accepting it, and bringing it under his control. But no, in the book he was embracing his actual death! The death-to-come that is.

This puts a whole different spin in the book from what I’d long thought and brings its woman = sex = death theme into a problematic light. Again, it’s a common one of Western myth, but as a YA one, it’s a pretty heavy one.

There’s a lot more I could say about this small novel, and I will; so I’ll let this review stand. But in summation, the book’s still strong, it’s a classic, and should be read.

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