Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A Wizard of Earthsea: A review

The finest fantasy fiction isn't necessarily that with the most detailed worlds, the biggest and bloodiest battles, the flashiest magic, or the most terrifying beasts. Instead, the best fantasy (like all great literature) has something profound to say. And A Wizard of Earthsea and its sequels certainly fit that description.

At the time I read it, A Wizard of Earthsea was unlike any other fantasy I'd encountered up until that time. Short, especially for a fantasy novel (182 pages in paperback), it centers around a young wizard named Ged as he matures from a boy into a man and learns the secrets of true knowledge. It and its sequels are quiet, thoughtful, and deep, and whatever they lack in action they make up for it with much to say about growing up, finding meaning, and confronting and living with death. Author Ursula LeGuin is an acknowledged great in the fantasy/science fiction genres and deserves that praise for the wisdom she confers through the Earthsea stories.

At the outset of A Wizard of Earthsea we're introduced to Ged, the son of a metalworker living a poor farmer's life on the isle of Gont. But Gont is known for its wizards, and Ged is destined to become the greatest of them all. He shows early promise when he helps save his village from a band of viking-like marauders by weaving a sorcerous mist, and in so doing attracts the attention of Ogion, the isle of Gont's resident sorcerer. Ged leaves home to train under Ogion but chafes under the taciturn wizard, who teaches the values of silence, patience, and humility instead of flashy displays of magic. With the impatience of youth, Ged leaves Ogion's tutelage to train in a wizard school on the isle of Roke (and yes, author J.K. Rowling acknowledges the debt her Harry Potter books owe to Earthsea, which was written in 1968).

It's a decision that will ultimately come to haunt Ged and provide the impetus for the remainder of the story. In the wizard's school Ged learns quickly, growing in leaps and bounds beyond the ability of his older classmates. But he is ultimately undone by his greatest weakness: Pride. Jasper, an elder classmate and rival, dares Ged to enter into a forbidden contest of magic in which Ged summons a spirit of the dead. The spirit, a shadow from the netherworld, attacks and nearly kills the young wizard, tearing into his face with his claws and leaving even deeper wounds upon his soul.

Ged eventually recovers but is left scarred and broken from the experience, and the rest of the tale is about his long road back to redemption/wholeness and his passage into maturity.

The shadow, a creature called a gebbeth, hunts Ged ceaselessly thereafter and he flees before it in mortal fear. But after a series of adventures Ged returns to Ogion and learns that his only chance is to confront the gebbeth and best it, or die trying. Says Ogion:

You must turn around... if you keep running, wherever you run you will meet danger and evil, for it drives you, it chooses the way you go. You must choose. You must seek what seeks you. you must hunt the hunter.

In other words, Ged must learn to conquer his fears (of mortality, of past failures, of assuming the heavy mantle of power/leaving behind his boyhood and its freedoms) by doing what most of us fear and never truly accomplish: Take an honest look at ourselves in the cold, harsh light of truth, confront our past, accept responsibility for our mistakes, and grow.

Ged pursues the shadow to the literal edge of the world, beyond the easternmost islands to the open sea. Far more than a wizard vs. monster confrontation, Ged's showdown with the gebbeth is the culmination of a spiritual quest, and the shadow he confronts is the blackness of his own soul. It's a bitter battle and one he expects to lose, but he grimly presses on.

When Ged "wins" the conflict and his friend, the wizard Vetch, sees his his friend freed from his inner darkness, "weeping like a boy," its a truly great moment in fantasy literature. Ged has achieved inner peace, struck a balance between darkness and light, and realizes that he can live with the ultimate knowledge of his own death:

And he began to see the truth, that Ged had neither lost nor won but, naming the shadow of his death with his own name, had made himself whole: a man: who, knowing his whole true self, cannot be used or possessed by any power other than himself, and whose life therefore is lived for life's sake and never in the service of ruin, or pain, or hatred, or the dark. In the creation of Ea, which is the oldest song, it is said, "Only in silence the word, only in dark the light, only in dying life: bright the hawk's flight on the empty sky."

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