A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin | Review
Publication: 1968 (Parnassus Press)
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult Fiction
Formats: Paperback, Hardcover
So, what the hell’s in a name, anyways? (Sorry, Ursula, if you’re still listening from some celestial plane, I know curse words seem tired exclamation points for you. May the irony not be lost.) But what are we trying to say when we talk about the importance of language if we are not speaking of a devotion to relate the true essence of our surroundings and our co-inhabitants in some fashion or another?
“To summon a thing that is not there at all, to call it by speaking its true name, that is a great mastery, not lightly used,” for “then you may learn its true name, knowing its being.”
Those of you who know this book inside and out are no doubt all too keenly aware those quotes are taken a bit out of context. But, honestly, what is this book if not a searching for identity? Before there was the epic of Star Wars or the thrill of Hogwarts, there was the Wizard of Earthsea. And may he live forever in our culture as the trend-setter of “he who shall not be named.” Ged’s journey (breaking all the true names rules there) is one we’ll forever recognize. For while this is an expertly illustrated coming of age tale, Le Guin seems to want her however young or older readers to stop and consider the true nature of what it means to find oneself. Being true to yourself is never easy, especially in the face of our many cultural expectations.
I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect with this book, after having surged headlong through The Lathe of Heaven, The Dispossessed, and The Left Hand of Darkness. Early into the book, however, I noted the Harry Potter similarities poking through with eery starkness. One of my dearest hopes in this life is to learn the art of calling others to account without anger or complete degradation. In her blog post “Art, Information, Theft, and Confusion,” Le Guin quite diplomatically calls out the creator of the Harry Potter series as she discusses her preference for “writers who…have enough sense of their own worth to appreciate their predecessors and fellow-writers in the salt mines of literature.” But this is not a diatribe against an author who let her critics praise her supposed invention of an already well-established genre so much so that she promised to bring copyright lawsuits down on the heads of her fan-fiction writers.
My hometown recently showed the wonderful filmmaker Arwen Curry’s documentary “Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin,” and I caught my breath at Le Guin’s laughing admittance that she wrote A Wizard of Earthsea as a nod to the power of words themselves. For fantasy readers, magic has always been assumed to be buried in the depths of the most carefully chosen words, as well as in the true names for things, for “he who would be Seamaster must know the true name of every drop of water in the sea.”
This maxim brings to mind William Stafford’s poem “A Ritual to Read Each Other” in its “appeal to a voice, to something shadowy, a remote important region in all who talk: though we could fool each other, we should consider–lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark. For it is important that awake people be awake, or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep; the signals we give–yes or no, or maybe–should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.”
And therein lies the true magic of Le Guin’s novel. For while it is advertised as a classic YA book of high fantasy, the deeper lessons it offers regarding the might of our words, the identities they give us, and our understanding of the world within our often-times all too rigid cultures are such crucial reminders of cautious stewardship not just for the youths of our society.