You don’t need me to tell you that A Wizard of Earthsea by Urusula K Le Guin is a classic work of fantasy.
First published in 1968, it tells the story of Ged, a young apprentice wizard, and his journey of self-discovery, haunted by a disturbing magical shadow being.
Ged had shown his innate capabilities as a wizard from a young age, eventually attending a school of wizardry where he learns faster and more deeply than everyone else. His teachers and fellow students see his potential from the first, yet Ged suffers from arrogance, pride and a destructive sense of entitlement. In trying to prove his superiority, he lets the shadow loose upon the world.
There’s a lot to love and admre about A Wizard of Earthsea. It’s a world far removed from our own, with that alluring topography of island and ocean, so much of the story taking place at sea as Ged moves from one island to another, chasing his fate. Le Guin’s ideas around magic and how it works have weight to them, help build a sense of the world and how it operates, and there are wonderful descriptions of landscape as well as some truly luminous writing. The chapter where Ged faces the dragon - ‘The Dragon of Pendor’ - is one of the best bits of writing I’ve ever read in a fantasy novel. It’s crafty yet humane, emotional yet epic.
Written at a time when the tropes of fantasy were not yet fully established, you can see how A Wizard of Earthsea sets up a lot of the ideas that the genre would go on to mine to death - there is a chapter called ‘The School for Wizards’, for instance - but it’s the way in which it avoids what would become the cliches of fantasy that makes it really engaging. This is not a novel where a Big Bad returns from banishment in some outer realm to cover all the land in darkness nor is there any maguffin that must be taken to the Dangerous Place to destroy the Big Bad. In fact, no one is really at risk in this novel apart from Ged. The story is Ged’s journey to free himself of the terrible shadow that haunts him. While there are some fleeting references to how the shadow might become uncontrollable and awful if Ged fails, the peril in this novel is mainly aimed at our hero, a threat to him and him only.
And here’s the thing: it’s all Ged’s fault for being childish, arrogant and conceited.
‘“You have great power inborn in you, and you have used that power wrongly, to work a spell over which you have no control, not knowing how that spell affects the balance of light and dark, life and death, good and evil. And you were moved to do this by pride and hate. Is it any wonder the result was ruin? [… ] It is the shadow of your arrogance, the shadow of your ignorance, the shadow you have cast.”’
Ged first gives the shadow form when trying to impress a girl who mocked him but then truly lets the shadow loose at the School of Wizardry in an attempt to get petulant revenge over a perceived enemy. Ged then flees, tries to hide from the terror he has created, but he can’t. After much trial, he is made to realise he must pursue this darkness, his darkness
‘“If you go ahead, if you keep running, wherever you run you will meet danger and evil, for it drives you, it chooses the way you go. You must choose. You must seek what seeks you. You must hunt the hunter.”’
So Ged goes in search of the shadow; he’s made this problem now he has to solve it. The end comes when Ged and his friend, Vetch, sail beyond the known sea into a nowhere place, the ocean becoming sand beneath their boat. Ged steps from the boat and crosses the sand-sea to face the shadow. Confronting it, Ged realises the shadow is a part of him, yang to his yin, not summoned from some other world because of his arrogance but generated from that arrogance, the broken embodiment of Ged’s own inner conflict. He doesn’t destroy the shadow but instead becomes one with it, names it with his own name and so grows into a whole human and a complete wizard, in possession of the good and the bad, the light and the dark.
This is such an intriguing idea for a fantasy novel: that the evil at the heart of Ged’s quest is the product of his pride, envy and arrogance, not of some vague, mythic battle between abstract ideas. His conceit didn’t open a door and let evil in, the Big Bad didn’t arise from the pit, it emerged from the negative qualities of the hero. The shadow in A Wizard of Earthsea may be the embodiment of badness, but it’s a distortion within all of us, not one that somehow blamelessly and objectively exists. It reminds us that when we fail to recognise the responsibility of our own power, we run the risk of unleashing its destructive spirit upon the world. That done, we can either flee from it all our days, or grow up and face our fears.
There’s a lesson in there for writers of fantasy. It’s too easy to say, ‘Yeah, there’s a terrible evil in the tower of terrible evilness and we have to go and defeat it because it’s terrible and evil.’ We need to ask where the evil comes from and what its purpose is, who it threatens and why. A Wizard of Earthsea is an almost intimate story about facing evil and understanding it, not just sticking a magic sword in its guts then romping home for wine and thrones. It asks us to consider that the forces of darkness don’t lurk beyond the mountains or in the dark forest, but inside us, ready to escape if we let them.
At the same time, it asks these questions without resorting to violence and horror. Even though this was a story intended for children, it’s more grown up than many dark tales that take the easy route to questions of good and evil through gore, scheming and rapaciousness. This novel has a mythic quality, grounded in Le Guin’s artful yet humane style, reflecting on questions of frailty and egotism without falling back on underlying misanthropy. At the end, it’s the humanity that remains. Ged may have set the shadow free out of his own pride, may have suffered much as a result, but at the end his suffering and pain were necessary, to make him whole. After the final confrontation with the shadow, Vetch realises the truth:
‘Now when he saw this friend and heard him speak, his doubt vanished. And he began to see the truth, that Ged 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, and whose life therefore is lived for life’s sake and never in the service of ruin, or pain, or hatred, or the dark.’
Our own world seems a dark place these days, full of relentless shadows, created by our own selfishness and lack of vision. In such times, A Wizard of Earthsea shines a reassuring werelight.