A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursule Le Guin

Reviewed by Eve Glasergreen

Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea explores the inward struggles of the adolescent sorcerer Sparrowhawk within a vast, fantastical world rooted in a carefully constructed geography. The first pages of the book itself open with a map of the world of Earthsea; its islands and seas immediately invite the reader into a realm as physical, extensive, and diverse as our own. While the context of a land with distinguished borders and people generates expectations for a story that lives on a scale as large as its physical territory—one that would incorporate kingly feuds—the narrative follows, instead, Sparrowhawk as an individual, and his limited perspective. He traverses Earthsea and experiences different cultures, languages, and fantastical beasts, but maintains the focus on his own inward struggles instead of interactions between peoples and communities on an epic scale. Le Guin leaves much to wonder about the relations between the established peoples of Earthsea. Yet, what lacks in conflict on a large scale transforms into an opportunity to delve into Sparrowhawk’s character and his self-discovery.

Sparrowhawk learns from an early age that he possesses magical powers, the potential to learn the arts of sorcery, and eventually earn his wizard’s staff. Once his village and his family recognize his abilities, they send him away for an apprenticeship and to develop his magical skills at the wizard’s island, Roke. Yet, while receiving his education, Sparrowhawk’s innate magical powers sour into a hunger for strengths and skills he is not mature enough to handle. Due to his pride and ambition, he gives in to his rival classmate’s taunting demands to call a spirit from the dead. As a result of calling the spirit, he tears a hole in the fabric of the world and unleashes a shadow in his own image. The shadow will seek and destroy him unless he conquers the shadow instead. The narrative follows the release of the evil shadow into the world, and the three encounters that Sparrowhawk has with the shadow. With each encounter, the distinction between Sparrowhawk and his shadow grows fainter to the point that they are each a facet of one another. Since the shadow grafts itself to Sparrowhawk and imitates him in its attempts to destroy Sparrowhawk, the conflict has neo external source or outside implications. The rest of Earthsea feels no effects of the evil shadow; it is only Sparrowhawk who must deal with the consequences and the danger of his actions. Thus, the conflict bears a philosophical weight and demands a slower reading pace. The stakes in A Wizard of Earthsea run as high as Sparrowhawk’s own life, which only he can save by foiling his ultimate foil—the shadow. Le Guin gives so much attention to the shadow that it takes on an intriguing mix of character and intelligence and develops into, almost, another person. She describes the shadow in abstract and conceptual terms but it performs human actions and has its own will. The characterization of the shadow sets it and Sparrowhawk on equal ground, so that they develop a relationship.

Le Guin’s dedication to the relationship between Sparrowhawk and his shadow lends an organic approach to the story. The plot builds in a sequential manner; Sparrowhawk travels to an isle that leads to an encounter, which leads to the next event. While the structure looks overly simplistic, the effortlessness fluidity of the story creates the impression of simplicity. Each encounter belongs to the story line with a dream-like or free-associating quality. Sometimes it feels like Sparrowhawk moves spontaneously over the lands of Earthsea, and indeed he makes each choice quickly in response to the signs that the shadow leaves him. Yet, Le Guin employs concise and streamlined prose to tether what would be an otherwise freeform structure. She manages to elongate small moments without making them extraneous, and leaves readers marveling at the length of the story for what feels like so much empty space. Perhaps, like a poet, she plays with blank space. Since Sparrowhawk must spend time in silence, introspecting, in order to unlock the secrets that will save him, Le Guin’s form mimics the struggle between Sparrowhawk and his shadow. Her writing evokes introspection, demanding time to think about the unknowability and possibly destructive nature of the self.

Le Guin not only tests the conventions of large-scale conflict and drama typical of fantasy, but also surprises with subtle challenges to race and gender that feel slightly out of place. While the story’s set-up within a man’s world with most main characters assisting the protagonist, Sparrowhawk encounters subversion in the young girl Yarrow, a character who rejects a woman’s traditional desirable qualities. When Sparrowhawk meets Yarrow, he notes her youth and beauty, but she also engages in deep conversation with him and questions his magic. She subverts the validity of Sparrowhawk’s powers and his use of them. Thus, the young woman, much like the book itself, provokes introspection, and shines with intelligence and develops into, almost, another person. She describes the shadow in abstract and conceptual terms but it performs human actions and has its own will. The characterization of the shadow sets it and Sparrowhawk on equal ground, so that they develop a relationship.

Le Guin’s dedication to the relationship between Sparrowhawk and his shadow lends an organic approach to the story. The plot builds in a sequential manner; Sparrowhawk travels to an isle that leads to an encounter, which leads to the next event. While the structure looks overly simplistic, the effortlessness fluidity of the story creates the impression of simplicity. Each encounter belongs to the story line with a dream-like or free-associating quality. Sometimes it feels like Sparrowhawk moves spontaneously over the lands of Earthsea, and indeed he makes each choice quickly in response to the signs that the shadow leaves him. Yet, Le Guin employs concise and streamlined prose to tether what would be an otherwise freeform structure. She manages to elongate small moments without making them extraneous, and leaves readers marveling at the length of the story for what feels like so much empty space. Perhaps, like a poet, she plays with blank space. Since Sparrowhawk must spend time in silence, introspecting, in order to unlock the secrets that will save him, Le Guin’s form mimics the struggle between Sparrowhawk and his shadow. Her writing evokes introspection, demanding time to think about the unknowability and possibly destructive nature of the self.

Le Guin not only tests the conventions of large-scale conflict and drama typical of fantasy, but also surprises with subtle challenges to race and gender that feel slightly out of place. While the story’s set-up within a man’s world with most main characters assisting the protagonist, Sparrowhawk encounters subversion in the young girl Yarrow, a character who rejects a woman’s traditional desirable qualities. When Sparrowhawk meets Yarrow, he notes her youth and beauty, but she also engages in deep conversation with him and questions his magic. She subverts the validity of Sparrowhawk’s powers and his use of them. Thus, the young woman, much like the book itself, provokes introspection, and shines with intelligence instead of with her appearance or hospitality. As for the aspect of race within A Wizard of Earthsea, Le Guin explicitly describes the skin colors of each character. Sparrowhawk is “copper-brown,” while his friend, Vetch, is black, and people described as “white” or “pale” are a minority and often antagonists. The direct skin color descriptions alter a typical anglophile fantasy world. In fantasy, white skin is the default, or skin color is not otherwise noted except in special cases, as in The Lord of the Rings, to depict a group of people as exotic. Le Guin’s descriptions of skin color tempt a comparison to perceived racial groups in the present day, and a reading into those designations as allegories. However, besides the mention of skin color as a visual descriptor, Le Guin does not bring into light any specific racial tensions or political commentary. One wonders why she continuously mentions the skin color of each character. Perhaps, the descriptions stand on their own as a statement of inclusion; that despite working within a genre with ties to an Anglo-Saxon mythology, Le Guin’s metaphors and story live for an extensive, modern audience. Furthermore, a “copper-brown” protagonist challenges the lack of diversity of heroes and heroines within fantasy, fiction as a whole, and popular culture. Le Guin uses subtle interactions and descriptions to make larger statements and provoke questions about the genre of her story. This leap is one of the most admirable traits of her book as it allows the narrative to extend from young adolescents to adults, capturing a larger audience.

Indeed, since Le Guin deals with classic symbols of light and darkness in a strikingly literal manner, the metaphors within the book hold up no matter the reader. Wizards produce and manipulate light to acquire power and overcome adversity. Physical shadows portend evil to manipulate their surroundings. Such polarizing imagery might come across as an exhausted trope; but, Le Guin qualifies the symbols of light and dark by defining them as dependent from one another to maintain the world’s equilibrium. Wizards remind one another that every time one “lights a candle, one also creates a shadow,” implying that even using power for good or light still has dark implications. In the same way, calling on light for the wrong reasons, such as pride in Shadowhawk’s case, will have effects on other people and the overall balance of the world. Again, the struggle between light and dark takes place within the individual and occurs due to an individual’s emotions and choices. Sparrowhawk generates the very shadow that haunts him, and thus places himself in a position of neither good nor evil, but in a constant struggle to maintain balance and reconcile with his weakest attributes. The distinction between winning and overcoming grows more apparent throughout the novel as Sparrowhawk learns to master the darkness that follows him. The character sends an overall message that winning is not the ultimate purpose. With Sparrowhawk’s growth, Le Guin takes on a didactic tone and gives moral instruction while still compiling an entertaining fantasy. Sparrowhawk’s adventure brims with lessons that gradually take shape out of elements that seem abstract at the very beginning, like the shadows and light that gradually define one another as co-dependent.

Le Guin intrigues readers with her mixture of conventional and surprising. She weaves traditional elements of fantasy with hints of social commentary and overarching metaphors of the struggle for light in darkness within an individual. However, she leaves some issues untied that she might resolve in the following books of the Earthsea series. A Wizard of Earthsea leaves readers questioning if Sparrowhawk’s actions will incite a conflict of a larger scale between different peoples of Earthsea. The lands of Earthsea have so much potential for greater interaction between its richly imagined cultures and creatures that could take place without hindering Sparrowhawk’s narrative. Furthermore, with Le Guin’s choice to bring social commentary into her fantasy, perhaps she may make bolder statements through the inclusion of more powerful female characters in later books. Sparrowhawk has yet met his match in a woman, leaving the story wanting for a counterpart in such regard. Regardless, Le Guin writes so deftly that any elements that feel understated still move fluidly. The experience of reading her novel immerses, soothes, and leaves enough empty space to ponder the lessons that she weaves into the fantasy. Sparrowhawk’s character welcomes a reader’s empathy and emotional investment.

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