To understand A Wizard of Earthsea, we have to start by imagining what the world was like before the Harry Potter books (we know, tough to imagine). Before the first Harry Potter books came out, if someone said "wizard," your mind probably didn't pull up the image of a teen at a boarding school. Back then, when someone said "wizard," instead you likely pictured an old man with a long white beard and immense wisdom – you know, someone like Gandalf from Lord of the Rings.
Now imagine this: it's 1968, practically eons before Harry Potter, and Ursula K. Le Guin wants to know where all these old men with long white beards and immense wisdom come from. Are they born like that? Or do they start out as regular kids who have to learn how to be wise and grow beards? This curiosity on her part turned into the inspiration for A Wizard of Earthsea.
In Earthsea, Le Guin takes a wizard who will one day be immensely powerful, and she shows us what he's like as a teen and a young man. In her story, this wizard childhood isn't terribly pretty: Ged will one day be wise and kind (and bearded), but when he's young, he's reckless and proud and gets into some terrible trouble that follows him and nearly kills him.
That's a pretty serious change to the fantasy story, but Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea makes several other interesting changes to the old fantasy standards too. Take this example: you know how in many fantasy stories, we have good and evil fighting, and (hopefully) good wins in the end? Gandalf (and team) fights Sauron, Aslan defeats the White Witch, and Harry Potter takes care of Voldemort – all great. But in A Wizard of Earthsea, it's not so easy to defeat evil. In fact, it's sometimes hard to even know what's good and what's evil in the first place. In that way, it's a lot like Le Guin's other works, which tend to avoid simple moral victories. At the end, it turns out that what we thought was evil was really a part of the hero himself.
That's not the only aspect of this book that sets it apart from other fantasy novels – another distinctive piece of this novel is that it sounds a little bit more like folklore than many other fantasy novels do. We'll talk more about that in "Writing Style," but here's something to keep in mind about Ursula K. Le Guin: her parents were famous anthropologists Alfred L. Kroeber and Theodora Kroeber, so Le Guin is especially knowledgeable about folklore traditions of various cultures. (BTW, the "K." in her name is for "Kroeber," which is a helpful reminder.) To show you how all of this applies to her writing, consider the following example from this book: in some cultures, people believed that your true name was something that could be used to control you, which then becomes one of the foundations of Earthsea's system of magic. Pretty cool.
Finally, here's one other important aspect that sets the Earthsea books apart from other American and British fantasy novels: most of the major characters are not white. Now, she doesn't make a big deal of that, but it's a pretty big change from many other American and British fantasy books. And it's something that you would have no idea about if you only watched the movies based on her books. That is, the Sci Fi Channel (whoops, we mean Syfy…we still aren't used to that new name) made a miniseries called Earthsea in 2004 based on the first two books of her series, and the main characters are mostly white. Similarly, when Studio Ghibli made an anime named Tales from Earthsea in 2006, most of the characters seem light-skinned. We'll talk more about these movies later, but we might as well say that they don't exactly capture the books.
Now, we keep saying "books" and "series," which might confuse you since we're only focusing here on A Wizard of Earthsea from 1968. But there are actually (now) six books in the Earthsea series: five novels plus a book of short stories. The first three were published pretty close together (1968, 1971, 1972), and the last three were written after a long time (the fourth came out in 1990, after eighteen years; the fifth, the collection of stories, and the sixth both came out in 2001). Interestingly, even though the books are pretty different in what they focus on, every novel in the series has won an award; A Wizard of Earthsea actually won a Lewis Carroll Shelf Award in 1979. And who knows, maybe we'll get another award-winning book in the series in another decade or two.
Who's your favorite fictional hero or heroine? Maybe you're partial to Spiderman, Sarah Connor, Sherlock Holmes, or Nathan Drake. (We still love Indiana Jones, even if the last movie wasn't so good.) Well, whoever your favorite heroes or heroines are, what do you think they were like as a teenager? They might be super-powered mutants or genius detectives we meet them, but were they always like that? When they were young, did people pick on them or boss them around? Did they sometimes throw temper tantrums? Did they sometimes make bad decisions?
Well, this is why we care about A Wizard of Earthsea: because Le Guin takes an older heroic type that we all know from other books – the wise and powerful wizard – and she makes us ask the question, "What was he like when he was our age?" And the answer isn't always pretty. For example, when we were young, we could be really annoying. We could sometimes be wild and proud and violent. (Ask us some time how we got this scar.) But maybe we could still become the heroes that we want to be. This is both the topic and the hope of A Wizard of Earthsea: that we can make bad choices sometimes and that we can then fix those mistakes.
Or, to put it another way, A Wizard of Earthsea is all about the dangers and opportunities of growing up. And that's why we care about it.