My first exposure to Ursula K. Le Guin’s work, I’m a little sorry to say. I’m not sure what’s taken me so long… but I CAN now see some of her influences in more recent fantasy authors.
The book is a fairly quick read—no more than 6 hours investment—and provides both the base worldbuilding blocks to the Islands-only realm of Earthsea along with the origins of one of its most famous wizards. One gets the impression that much information has been lost, but it doesn’t dwell in lament over that too long. Instead, it simply gets on with the story it can tell. The story centers on a motherless boy named Ged, who is being somewhat negligently reared on an unremarkable island by a vaguely abusive blacksmith father and morally nebulous witch aunt. When the island is invaded, the boy stretches his magical capacities in an effort to save his village—and in doing so earns the attentions of a famed wizard.
The 3rd-person semi-limited telling follows Ged through apprentice training and a sort of wizarding school, where he continually makes impatient or prideful errors, causes problems, and grows through his mistakes. It ends right around his 19th year after he goes out into the wider world to right a tremendous wrong of his own making.
The story posits a relatively soft magic system. People either have inherent magical propensity, or they don’t. And everything has a “true name” that can potentially allow a magic user to master that creature (or person.) As such, nicknames are popular and one does not give out their true name to just anyone. Dragons and wizards dominate the more obvious fantastical elements.
Le Guin’s prose is a vivid blending of the simple and the elegant. There is visceral emotion that is well expressed, but not a tremendous amount of depth. Many things are expediently skipped over rather than explored—relational development seeming to suffer the most.
There were times this felt very much like a Middle Grade read, but given the era it was written in and the eventual age of the protagonist, it would be wrong to label it as such. Is it Middle Grade appropriate? Absolutely.
But part of its appeal is in the wide range of audience who could potentially enjoy this story without it requiring too much of their focus.
*“Go to bed; tired is stupid.”
*“War as a moral metaphor is limited, limiting, and dangerous. By reducing the choices of action to “a war against” whatever-it-is, you divide the world into Me or Us (good) and Them or It (bad) and reduce the ethical complexity and moral richness of our life to Yes/No, On/Off.”