Book Review: A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. Le Guin

This was one of the first fantasy books I’ve ever read, given to me by the same dear person who introduced me to The Hobbit. It was one of my childhood’s favourite books, and is probably one of my all-time favourites. I’ve re-read it recently, to see how it stacks up against the changing times.

What to expect

The novel was originally published in 1968. A young man grows to be a wizard, facing the consequences of his hubris and folly. Set in an archipelago with a bronze-age culture, Le Guin creates an absolutely enchanting tale in a style that’s reminiscent of ancient epics.

What I liked

I like the story in itself (a conquering of self, a coming-of-age classic theme). I think it spoke to me as a child and teen, and the theme of dealing with consequences of rash actions is probably relevant throughout life in general.

I loved the world-building, from geography to mythology to magic. I blame this book with my love of islands archipelagos (some of which seeps into my own writing, decades past). The mythology is tremendously rich without being in-your-face. It is simply the way things are. It is an excellent rendition of a bronze-aged society (take that, you medievalist fantasy fanatics), with their attitudes towards lore-songs, myths, heroes, etc.

The magic system is wonderful too, and shows something that is often lacking in recent works. While a lot is being talked about coherent systems for magic in world-building, Le Guin’s writing has that quintessential essence of something else – pure enchantment.

What to be aware of

This is a short read, but not necessarily an easy one (at least for modern readers). The story is told in a classic fashion, a bit like the Illiad or Beowulf but sans the rhyming or epic scale; hardly any dialogue and definitely none of that “show, don’t tell” malarkey that readers who grew up on reality TV demand of books these days. (No, I’m not an old curmudgeon; I’m barely middle-aged). As a matter of personal taste, I find tales told in the abstract can be just as engaging in the concrete – but YMMV.

The result is a concise story, that still hits all the important highs and lows of classic odysseys over a vast tapestry of events. The emotional stuff and inner workings of the protagonist are just inferred, rather than being more openly demonstrated. This might make the protagonist seem more distant, but then not everyone wants to keep talking about their emotions. (Besides, as a teen, I always maintained that books that reach their point in under 300 pages make a better read; I haven’t changed that opinion much).

Summary

I’m guessing the question on every review-reader’s mind is, ‘should I read this book?‘ (otherwise why are you bothering to read reviews?) If you are looking for what is classified under modern “young adult fantasy”, with angsty (anti-)heroes and their involved relationships, then this book is not for you.

If, on the other hand, you enjoy the old tales, enjoy reading beautiful language, would like to get that ephemeral feeling of magical times gone by, this books should certainly be at the top of your list.

If you do get a copy, make sure you read the afterword too. Le Guin’s notes about the writing might cast a different light on the story you just read, and make you think and appreciate it on new levels.

I’d love to hear what you think of it, and if you recently read anything from your youth!

2 Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on one of my most beloved novels of all time. A Wizard of Earthsea is a foundational work for me. I reread the entire series perhaps 3-4 years ago and it was just as gripping as it was when I was a teen. I love the themes of hubris and self-discipline and how you overcome your deepest fears. The rest of the series is awesome too. The Tombs of Atuan was and still is one of my favorite books of all time. I didn’t really like The Farthest Shore when I was a teen, but as an adult, the story about a middle aged person grappling with his mortality really spoke to me. Tehanu is beautiful as an adult love story and a tale of motherhood. The sixth book in the series isn’t as strong as the others, but the fifth, which is a collection of short stories and a novella, is wonderful.

    Liked by 1 person

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