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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.
Ursula K. Le Guin's Website
First, notice that the splash page is actually the map of Earthsea. Now, feel free to browse through Le Guin's webpage, particularly the mini essays she writes on her reactions to the Earthsea movies.
The World of Earthsea
This website provides a brief summary of Earthsea, which is not that interesting. But this webpage groups together a number of interesting images, such as the various covers for A Wizard of Earthsea.
Earthsea Miniseries (2004)
You might not be able to tell from the trailer, but this is a truly horrendous miniseries. That is, it's awful as an adaptation – it keeps the names but basically throws out most of the story and replaces it with a fairly generic fantasy story. And even then, that fantasy story is snooze-worthy and badly done. No one likes this miniseries, and Ursula K. Le Guin has been very honest about how she felt that they ruined their chance to make a good adaptation.
Tales from Earthsea (2006)
This anime version mostly covers the third book in the series, so it might not make much sense if you've only read this first book. Actually, even if you have read the third book, this movie might not make much sense, given that it seems to have its own idea about Earthsea. It's an OK movie, but not a good adaptation in our minds.
Some Analysis of the Earthsea Books
This illuminating essay presents some summary and a little general analysis of the Earthsea books. The most important part is that the author notes Le Guin's interest in Taoism, which comes out in the book in two ways: 1) the Taoist principle of not-acting (that is, sometimes, not doing anything is the best form of action); 2) that opposites rely on each other for existence (for instance, light needs dark).
"Doings in Earthsea" (2/18/1973)
This New York Times article is behind a paywall (ask a librarian – your library might have access to it), but if you can get it, this capable review runs through the first three books in the series before there were any others. A little heavy on plot and light on analysis – and we don't agree with his conclusions. Still, it's neat to see what some people said about Le Guin years ago.
"Which Wizard Beats 'Em All" (1/11/02)
A father and son debate which wizard is the best – Merlin, Gandalf, Dumbledore, Ged?
"Curing Harry Potter Withdrawal"
Time magazine writer Lev Grossman (who also writes fantasy novels) advises those suffering from Potter withdrawal to read A Wizard of Earthsea. Thanks for the shout-out, Lev.
Q&A with Le Guin
A Q&A session with the author, courtesy of The Guardian.
New York Times Article about Earthsea Miniseries
It's a terrible miniseries, but before it came out, here's what some people were saying about it.
"A World Loses Balance, and an Allegory Appears"
Better than the miniseries, the animated movie of Earthsea's third novel isn't really worth the time (if you're looking for a faithful adaptation, that is) – just go ahead and read this New York Times review instead.
New York Times Review of Tales from Earthsea
To compare the above review of the animated movie, here's a review of Le Guin's collection of Earthsea stories. (Keep in mind that this is not the book that the animated film was based on.)
Ursula K. Le Guin Discusses Lavinia and Science Fiction
Le Guin is probably most famous for her science fiction, so it's worthwhile to hear her discuss it as a genre.
Videos of the Author
On her webpage, Le Guin compiles a few videos of her talking and reading. If you're interested in the otak, especially check out her video discussion of animals in children's literature.
Le Guin as Anarchist Writer
Le Guin is very interested in politics, so tune into this video to see her discuss some thoughts.
The Big Read on A Wizard of Earthsea
The Big Read sponsored a short discussion of A Wizard of Earthsea with a number of famous writers and Le Guin herself. It's a half-hour program and a lot of fun.
Interviews with Le Guin
Le Guin's website has a collection of interviews she's done with various people. We're especially fond of the All Things Considered interview and the China Mieville interview for BBC. (China Mieville is a very interesting fantasy author, so he really knows his stuff.)
Le Guin Reading Her Material
Le Guin has collected a bunch of audio files of her reading excerpts from her works.
A Cover for A Wizard of Earthsea
Notice that the dude in the boat – is that Ged? – looks kind of white.
A Later Cover
This one's advertising the connection with the miniseries. Unfortunately, though, the miniseries was so bad, we wonder if people skipped this book because of that link.
One More Cover
This is the one that Le Guin herself uses on her website.
Of Earthsea, of course.