“It is very hard for evil to take hold of the unconsenting soul.”
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin
Ged, the greatest sorcerer in all Earthsea, was called Sparrowhawk in his reckless youth. Hungry for power and knowledge, Sparrowhawk tampered with long-held secrets and loosed a terrible shadow upon the world. This is the tale of his testing, how he mastered the mighty words of power, tamed an ancient dragon, and crossed death’s threshold to restore the balance.
This was a really phenomenal coming-of-age story, and written in the most unique way, as if Le Guin wasn’t simply relating events, but offering a legend to the reader, as if narrated by a storyteller well-traveled in her world of Earthsea, who had listened to all the tales told of the fabled wizard Sparrowhawk. She sets this fascinating tone immediately, right in the first paragraph:
The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards. From the towns in its high valleys and the ports on its dark narrow bays many a Gontishman has gone forth to serve the Lords of the Archipelago in their cities as wizard or mage, or, looking for adventure, to wander working magic from isle to isle of Earthsea. Of these some say the greatest, and surely the greatest voyager, was the man called Sparrowhawk, who in his day became both dragonlord and Archmage. His life is told of in the Deed of Ged and in many songs, but this is a tale of the time before his fame, before the songs were made.
If you are a fan of mythology, I think you will appreciate the style. I read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, the background legends and mythology surrounding the Elves and the ancient history of Man, simultaneously, and was struck by just how many parallels I found in the writing styles. I think Le Guin was certainly inspired by hero-centric myths like Beowulf. She refers to the “tradition of fantastic tales and hero stories,
which comes down to us like a great river from sources high in the mountains of Myth — a confluence of folk and fairy tale, classical epic, medieval and Renaissance and Eastern romance, romantic ballad, Victorian imaginative tale, and twentieth-century book of fantastic adventure such as T.H. White’s Arthurian cycle and Tolkien’s great book.
It was a very human story, too, dappled as it was with the shadow of evil and illuminated by enchantment, and with a really exquisite ending that I think anyone about 12 and older could relate to. I wish I had read this book as a teenager, because I think it would strike a much deeper chord with people just learning who they are and perhaps struggling with or afraid of that understanding, as teenagers often are, but it was well worth the read as an adult.
A noteworthy aspect of A Wizard is that the main character, Ged or “Sparrowhawk,” is dark-skinned. He hails from an island where dark skin is the norm, and, flipping traditional stereotypes on their head, where the light-skinned folk are considered a violent people, reminiscent of the Vikings. I don’t feel that we encounter people of color in a flattering light nearly enough in the world of fantasy, especially young adult fantasy, and it seems that Ursula K. Le Guin felt the same way.
The part of the [fantasy] tradition that I knew best was mostly written (or rewritten for children) in England and northern Europe. The principal characters were men. If the story was heroic, the hero was a white man; most dark-skinned people were inferior or evil. If there was a woman in the story, she was a passive object of desire and rescue (a beautiful blond princess); active women (dark, witches) usually caused destruction or tragedy. Anyway, the stories weren’t about the women. They were about men, what men did, and what was important to men.
It’s in this sense that A Wizard was perfectly conventional. … In other ways my story didn’t follow the tradition. … A great many white readers in 1967 were not ready to accept a brown-skinned hero. But they weren’t expecting one. I didn’t make an issue of it, and you have to be well into the book before you realize that Ged, like most of the characters, isn’t white.
His people, the Archipelagans, are various shades of copper and brown, shading into black in the South and East Reaches. The light-skinned people among them have far-northern or Kargish ancestors. … Ged is copper-brown and his friend Vetch is black.
I won’t name names but tell me you haven’t read a fantasy novel in which the dark-skinned characters were rare and the few who existed bent more towards evil than good. I know that I’ve read many.
Ged quickly became one of my all-time favorite characters, and his unique journey of self-discovery, self-mastery, and raising his confront of evil earns 5 out of 5 wizard’s spells. I am very excited to read the rest of the Earthsea Cycle!
Cleanliness & Content Advisory: I’d call this a “clean read” and would give it a G-rating. There is no sexual content, swearing, or violence (it’s a very unique fantasy read!). I think it would be appropriate for middle grade and above, but would probably recommend 12+, as the coming-of-age story would be most appreciated by someone who is coming of age.
Read my reviews of the other books I’ve read in the Earthsea Cycle:
The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin (Earthsea Cycle #2)
The Farthest Shore by Ursula K. Le Guin (Earthsea Cycle #3)