From the start of A Wizard of Earthsea, we know that Ged, also called Druny and Sparrowhawk, will become one of the greatest wizards of all time, dragonlord and Archmage, a figure of song and legend. So when he carelessly unleashes a shadow on the world and has to go on the run, we know that he is going to defeat it in the end. It is a testament to Ursula K. Le Guin’s writing ability that tension and anxiety still runs through Ged’s travels, scrapes, and near-misses.
Ged was born on Gont in the Earthsea Archipelago and learns some magic from his aunt, a witch, although female magic is held in low esteem on Gont. When he uses magic to save his village from Viking-like invaders, he attracts the attention of Ogion, a powerful wizard on the island. But Ged is ambitious and cocky and hungry for knowledge and power. He grows impatient with his master’s slow teaching, wreaks some havoc when he sneaks into Ogion’s spell book, and chooses to leave for the school on the island of Roke, where the greatest wizards teach. He excels there, but causes more chaos when he rises to his rival’s challenge to raise a spirit from the dead and is nearly killed by a shadow that breaks into the world as well. Chastened by the physical and psychological scars left by the encounter, Ged finishes his schooling and enters the world, where he runs from the shadow until he can discover its true name and banish it from the land.
Le Guin has said that when her publisher asked her to write a fantasy book for teens, she was not interested. She wanted to explore the form of sci-fi and fantasy, not tailor her books to a certain audience. But the publisher told her to think about it, and she did. And she realized that she had grown up reading about great wizards, but had never read a story about what Merlin and Gandalf were like when they were young. Surely they must have been young and foolish before they were wise. That was the idea for the book.
Her other idea for the book was to write fantasy that wasn’t just about Northern Europeans living in the Middle Ages. Ged’s skin tone is described as red-brown, and his best friend and loyal companion, Vetch, is explicitly black. The only explicitly white characters are the island invaders and Serret, a Gontish girl who betrays Ged every chance she gets. Given that A Wizard of Earthsea was first published in 1968, this idea shouldn’t still seem fresh, but it does. Just look at the outcry over the racial makeup of the Hunger Games cast, or the whitewashing of Tiger Lily in Joe Wright’s upcoming movie Pan.
Setting aside the racial identity of the characters, Le Guin’s take on the timeless Hero’s Journey is refreshing for allowing a hero to prove himself without fighting anyone. Ged’s journey from cocky youth to quiet, seasoned wisdom is remarkably peaceful, but never boring. After his initial mistakes, Ged seeks balance, and while he encounters antagonists, he tends to withdraw rather than fight. When you are hunted by a shadow that wants to consume you and turn you into a gebbeth, a puppet of the shadow, you learn the value of a good escape. It is only when Ged has realized the nature of the shadow that he begins to seek it. And though the reader may suspect the outcome, Le Guin piles on the tension, showing us Ged's anxiety and resolve.
I wish I had read it when I was young. There is a reason this classic has never been out of print, and I think that if read at the right age, A Wizard of Earthsea is one of those books that is life-changing, that shapes you and becomes a part of your consciousness in a way that adult reading can’t. The book teaches a lesson that a 30-year-old should have learned well. When Ged finally named the shadow, its true name was no surprise to me. I think if I had read it when I was 12 it would have been. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a worthwhile read for an adult. Le Guin’s world-building and storytelling are rich and multifaceted, and it never hurts to be reminded of the deep truths you already know.