By KATIE STOCKDALE
Halloween is the best time to get into fantasy. For a bit of a throwback, pick up A Wizard of Earthsea, the start of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle. Le Guin introduces new elements to the fantasy genre in her series, most strikingly her protagonist who fails as a hero. If you want a tale of the good guys defeating the evil wizard, this book isn’t for you. But if you’re looking for something more complex, Le Guin’s novel is a page turner.
Following the famous wizard, Ged, more commonly known as Sparrowhawk, the book covers events not told in the songs about him or the Deed of Ged, but instead is from a time before his fame. The book opens when Ged is quite young, and speaks a word of power he overheard from his aunt the village witch. Instead of controlling the goats the way Ged intends, he starts a stampede that his aunt stops. She takes him as an apprentice, and we quickly learn how powerful Ged is.
An invasion on his home island of Gont allows Ged to show the depth of his magic. He calls down a wall of fog that confuses the invaders and allows his village to be victorious. It also calls the wizard Ogion to Ged. Ogion claims Ged as an apprentice and takes him from his home village to begin his formal teaching.
Ged’s character is revealed through the early part of the novel to be less than perfect. He is arrogant, thrilled with his own power, determined that he can do whatever he wishes, and terribly impatient. Ged is almost narcissistic — obsessed with making himself seem more important and powerful than he is. Ged dives into magic he is not ready for, believing himself to be invincible. In doing this, Ged endangers other people.
So why is he the main character in a genre defined by perfect heroes? The answer is simple: Ged is interesting. As annoying as he can be, and even if the reader feels the urge to slap him, he is a fun character to read about. The reader is drawn into the story, picturing themselves within it and interacting with the character, if only they could.
Le Guin was one of the first writers to make fantasy real by making the characters real. Ged is a character but he is not an obvious archetype and has very little stereotypes. He’s a person with many flaws, and his problems are all of his own making.
Le Guin uses Ged to exemplify her magic system, which is all about balance. In her world, words and names have power. Those with the knowledge of an object’s true name have complete power over it, but this power must be used in a balancing act. The equilibrium of the world must be maintained. There are no sword fights or battle scenes in Earthsea, but magic is everywhere. Good and evil, light and dark, are on a balance. Neither can exist without the other, but even more so, both comes from the other.
This theme is repeated over and over as Ged learns magic, faces dragons, and sails to the end of Earthsea. Good and evil exist in everything and everyone. As the novel follows Ged, he beings to transform, growing up with the knowledge he gains and the experiences he has. Le Guin’s fantasy is not of sword-and-sorcery, but her immaculate world building and refreshingly human characters make for a heart stopping story.
Katie Stockdale can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org