A Wizard of Earthsea
Where It All Goes Down
Earthsea, a collection of islands and towns
Earthsea. A magical land full of seas and… earth. Ged gets a nice little tour of Earthsea – such a nice tour that you really need a map to follow. Hopefully your copy of A Wizard of Earthsea has a map at the front of the book. Ever notice how fantasy novels often have maps at the beginning? It's because, if you didn't get a map in the book, you obviously couldn't get it anywhere else – you certainly won't find Earthsea on Google Earth or in your trusty world atlas.
But Earthsea is more than just earth and sea – it's also the towns and people and even some plants. That last part may sound ridiculous, but we're serious: Earthsea has some regular plants, like oaks and yews, but it also has imaginary plants, like sparkweed and pendick-trees. It's a nice mix since we get plants we're familiar with and also plants that remind us that we're off in a fantasy world.
The fantastic plants that we see on Earthsea aren't super magical plants or anything. Take fourfoil, for instance: Ged asks what it's good for, as in, does it kill dragons or something? And the answer is, nothing: it has no special use; it's just a plant (2.13). (Although it probably makes a good salad.) These plants remind us that we're in a different world than ours, but also that Earthsea isn't crazy magical everywhere.
The plants might be interesting, but they're probably not as important as the people and the towns. Ged's tour takes him from the tiny village where he was born to the great port city of Gont to the School of Roke to Low Torning village to … Sorry, it would be hard to list all of the little towns and castles Ged goes to, and we're not crazy enough to try. Many of the towns that Ged goes to just aren't that different from each other, so there's not too much to say about each of them. (Or we could be wrong – maybe if you take the first letter of all the towns he visits, it spells out a secret message or something.)
In general, though, the towns are pre-Industrial Revolution (no electricity or complex machines in Earthsea) and not really like our world. At all. Check out the Sea-House of Serd: "travellers and merchants ate together of good fare provided by the township" (5.19). Is there anything like that today, where a town feeds strangers? The people of Earthsea follow different customs than we do, and it might take some time to figure out rituals like the Long Dance, which is pretty different from our own New Year's custom.
Even though Earthsea is a pretty different place, there are a lot of things that we might be familiar with, either from our own lives or from other books. For example, Ged spends time at a magical boarding school, and he has a rival that he competes with, and a best friend who wants to help him, even when Ged thinks that he's beyond help. So, OK, this book was written long before Harry Potter, but this picture of a boarding school (rival, best friend, some supportive students) existed before Le Guin wrote this story too. So what? Well, even though Earthsea is magical and different, there are lots of things that aren't that different – things that we're familiar with, things to make us more comfortable, things that help us dive right into Ged's quest.