A Wizard of Earthsea (Earthsea Cycle #1) by Ursula K. LeGuin.
My copy Bantam books New York, 1977; originally published 1968.
Fantasy, 184 pages.
Lexile: 1150L .
AR Level: 6.7 (worth 9.0 points) .
NOTE: First book in a trilogy, later expanded to become a series.
The early life and first adventures of the wizard Ged, a future archmage of Earthsea.
So much to unpack in this novel. First, I’d like to point out the original publication date. As I’ve mentioned before, my reviews of older books are based on somewhat different expectations than a newly released publication.
This book was written for young adults at a time when that wasn’t even a category in most libraries, but it’s been variously marketed to MG or adult readers. I had so much to say about how the majority of Earthsea covers utterly fail in their depiction of any main character that it’s a separate post. Here I’ll simply say that if you happen to pick up a copy that avoids depicting the main character’s race by putting a dragon on the cover instead, don’t expect a dragon story. As the title indicates, this story follows a wizard as his magical gifts and personal life develop, and the dragon plays only a small role.
A Wizard of Earthsea is the story of a young boy with a strong magical gift who leaves his rather pastoral homeland of Gont in stages to move ever onward, convinced by his natural talent and strong will that he will never meet a problem he can’t solve. Of course, he eventually meets his match and ends up literally and emotionally scarred and driven to correct his mistake – but having waited longer than others to find his boundaries, the corresponding payment is also higher.
LeGuin is occasionally credited with originating the idea of a “magic school” where young wizards go to learn (not sure how accurate that is, although it is the earliest book about the concept that I’ve personally read). Her school is on the Island of Roke, a magical place that can be difficult to find or live in, although there is an entire town of non-magical people supplying some practical needs of the school. In many ways it’s different than the magic school tropes popular today.
However, her world is one of strict gender stratification, and Ged lives in a mostly male world. Later writings try to explain this and provide more variation in Earthsea, but it’s important to know that this particular book has few female characters and they are not generally positive representations.
I was also disappointed in the one character specifically presented as biracial, who seemed to fall into tropes that might subconsciously reflect LeGuin’s own immersion in an America where racial mixing was popularly regarded as immoral. LeGuin was in many ways consistently ahead of her time, but she was also of her time in other ways. Adults should be aware of these biased representations and unpack them with young people who might read this book.
In 1968 MG wasn’t a genre, and many specialized classifications such as YA didn’t exist yet. So this novel does not conform to typical MG or other standards based on the reader’s age. It starts in Ged’s childhood (although alluding to his illustrious future as the dragonlord and Archmage Sparrowhawk), and continues up until he is in his late teens and functionally an adult in the world of Earthsea.
Certainly there are a few references that might bother parents – especially the young woman who marries an old man for power and casually murders those who get in her way. But honestly even difficult passages are not lightly bandied about – it’s clear that she has chosen to align herself with an evil power which is now influencing her actions.
On the whole, this book has enough to give on the universal themes of growing up, taking responsibility, and moral choice, that I find it still valuable despite the missteps and dated moments. LeGuin has my respect for recognizing that fantasy novels don’t have to be white 50 years before it was popular. Recommended with caveats – please be aware that the gender and mixed race representation isn’t all that it could be, preread for sensitive children, and don’t expect too many dragons!