A Wizard of Earthsea

Ursula K. Le Guin
A Wizard of Earthsea Cover

A Wizard of Earthsea


I can't remember how many years it's been since I read anything by Ursula K. Le Guin, nor do I recall what it was that I read. So when Le Guin appeared in an article recently, it was a good excuse to reacquaint myself with one of her classics, A Wizard of Earthsea.

Sparrowhawk is young when a wizard sees his talent and takes him as an apprentice, but a hunger for power leads him to unloose on the world a dark and evil magic. As he grows and increases in ability, he finds himself facing the temptation to use the power he has unleashed. However, power does not come without a cost, and Sparrowhawk soon understands that he must face the evil he has unleashed, or it will undo him and the world.

Though A Wizard of Earthsea is the first of theEarthsea novels, Le Guin wrote two short stories in the Earthsea world several years before. Several of the novels have won awards, including the Newberry and a Nebula. I've not read them, but I enjoyed A Wizard of Earthsea enough that I plan to collect and read the series.

That said, reading A Wizard of Earthsea was a flash back to an age of fantasy writing that is long gone, where the explanation for magic is less important than thematic development and handwavium hocus pocus. Where Brandon Sanderson might use a magic system that is highly scientific, with rules for operations, Le Guin's style of magic owes more to Tolkien and is more reminiscent of something that might be familiar to readers of folk tales and stories centered on Medieval Europe. Power is in knowing the name of something, its true name, and a few select individuals are able to draw on that power to manipulate the world around them in ways beyond the understanding of the average person. These are wizards.

Le Guin weaves into Sparrowhawk's story a theme centering on the allure and danger of power, not only in the wrong hands, but also in the right ones. Even the good and decent can be corrupted by power, and short of discipline, agency, and self-sacrifice power will destroy those who wield it. One could imagine that Le Guin's story, published in 1968 at the height of the Cold War and the space race, was not without reflection in the real world.