Study Guide

A Wizard of Earthsea Coming of Age

By Ursula K. Le Guin

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Coming of Age

He grew wild, a thriving weed, a tall, quick boy, loud and proud and full of temper. (1.3)

Le Guin nicely gives us this snapshot of what Ged is like at the beginning of the book. Notice her list of descriptive adjectives – he's wild, tall, quick, loud, proud, and full of temper. But also notice that she sneaks in a metaphor here: Ged is "a thriving weed." We'll see if he stays that way over the course of the book. (Spoiler alert: he won't.)

It might seem strange that on an island fifty miles wide, in a village under cliffs that stare out forever on the sea, a child may grow to manhood never having stepped in a boat or dipped his finger in salt water, but so it is. (2.62)

Ged has a very limited view of the world at the beginning of the book – and we mean that both metaphorically (Ged doesn't really understand a lot of things) and literally (Ged hasn't seen much of the world yet).

But then he too began to look at the Lady of O, wondering if indeed this was such mortal beauty as the old tales told of. (3.84)

If you read the <em>Harry Potter</em> books, then a lot of <em>A Wizard of Earthsea</em> will seem familiar. Here's one major difference, though: Harry Potter has a love interest (or several), whereas there's no such thing in <em>Earthsea</em>. Ged grows up in several ways, but he only deals very little with something that is part of growing up – sexuality.  Why do you think Le Guin leaves that out?

All the years and places of his brief broken life came within mind's reach and made a whole again. He knew once more, at last, after this long, bitter, wasted time, who he was and where he was. (4.102)

In <em>A Wizard of Earthsea</em>, coming of age is often an issue of knowing who you are, which is exactly what's going on in this scene. After Ged has been scared (and scarred) by his experience with the shadow monster, Vetch reminds him of who he is, and Ged becomes less fearful.

Since the night on Roke Knoll his desire had turned as much against fame and display as once it had been set on them. Always now he doubted his strength and dreaded the trial of his power. Yet also the talk of dragons drew him with a great curiosity. (5.5)

Le Guin comes right out and tells us that the experience with the shadow monster is what caused Ged to change so much. And yet, notice that turn in the last sentence: Ged now doubts his own power, which is why he accepts this particular post. Oh, and also, he wants to know about dragons. Le Guin tells us that Ged has really changed – except part of him remains just as curious as ever.

Yet to Ged wandering through the streets those ponderous mansions seemed like veils, behind which lay an empty dark; and people who passed him, intent on their business, seemed not real men but voiceless shadows of men. (6.27)

It seems like Ged has changed from naïve country boy to a super cynical guy who can see into the real way things are. (He's like the guy who, when you show him something nice, starts talking about how there are all these hidden flaws that only <em>he</em> knows about because he's seen it all before.) We might be tempted to say that, in coming of age, Ged has swung a little too far the other way.

As a boy, Ogion like all boys had thought it would be a very pleasant game to take by art-magic whatever shape one liked, man or beast, tree or cloud, and so to play at a thousand beings. But as a wizard he had learned the price of the game, which is the peril of losing one's self, playing away the truth. (7.84)

Check out that little move Le Guin makes – "like all boys." Now, we totally agree: what little kid doesn't want to change into an animal shape? (We wanted to be a Tyrannosaurus Rex at least once a day.) But Ogion grows up and he realizes that what he thought would be cool as a child (changing shape) actually comes with a pretty steep price. So, in one tiny section, Le Guin gives a small version of the lesson that Ged goes through over the course of the book.

For the third time they had met and touched: he had of his own will turned to the shadow, seeking to hold it with living hands. (8.58)

Ged has faced his shadow several times, but in all those cases, it was the <em>shadow</em> that was doing the hunting – only now does Ged take the active (rather than reactive) role. In this scene it seems as if part of Ged's coming-of-age is that he's willing to take action himself.

Ged watched him with wonder and some envy, and exactly so he watched Ged: to each it seemed very queer that the other, so different, yet was his own age, nineteen years. (9.55)

Here Ged and Murre, Vetch's brother, both think that the other has found the right way to live – Ged wants to live a normal life, while Murre wants to live a super exciting life. We might say that it's silly of them to envy the other since they each have their own particular worries within those lives. (Sure, Ged might think Murre's life is normal, but normal lives have troubles too.) But there's another reason why we're including this here: maybe there are different ways that people can come of age.

And he began to see the truth, that Ged had neither lost nor won but, naming the shadow of his death with his own name, had made himself whole: a man: who, knowing his whole true self, cannot be used or possessed by any power other than himself, (10.73)

This may be one of the best descriptions of coming of age we've ever read. It's not about growing older (because older doesn't necessarily mean smarter), and it's not about going through terrible experiences. Instead, in this book, it seems like Ged has come of age when he accepts his shadow.

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