If I had a wish regarding literature, it would be the ability to experience children’s books as children do. It’s no coincidence that infant and irritating start with the same letter, but there is something undeniably precious about the bottomless well of wonder that gurgles inside a forming personlity. Once you miss the window with most children’s books, there is no going back, and that is, I think, one of the saddest things about growing up.
A Wizard of Earthsea is a book I wish I had discovered when I was ten years old, when I didn’t know the tropes, and didn’t pick sentences apart like I’m performing some sort of autopsy. At 281 pages, in large print, this is the sort of book that slips down like a spoonful of honey. Before you’ve really had time to savour the taste, it’s gone.
To be honest I should have done my research, and gone in with the right expectation. Le Guin is a writer who does many things well, and her masterpiece The Dispossessed is one of my all-time favourite sci-fi novels. A Wizard of Earthsea has exactly zero things in common with it, because it is an entirely different type of book.
“‘You want to work spells,’ Ogion said presently, striding along. ‘You’ve drawn too much water from that well. Wait. Manhood is patience. Mastery is nine times patience.'”
A Wizard of Earthsea is essentially a coming of age allegory/fantasy which I’m fairly confident serves as something of a prequel to events in later Earthsea books. Our protagonist, Ged, is the standard neglected farm boy with a hidden power, who goes to wizard school and, with the assistance of his unjustifiably large ego, messes up, big time.
I mean, I know I’ve made a few mistakes, but I’ve never summoned up a shadow monster that wants to destroy me and maybe the world thereafter.
There are some bog standard secondary characters who by turns support and hinder our hero on his redemptive quest, including the old, wandering wizard, the beautiful enchantress, and the ancient, cynical dragon. Really, this book doesn’t go anywhere a thousand other traditional fantasy novels haven’t gone since, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad read.
“He knew now why the Archmage had feared to send him forth, and what had darkened and clouded even the mage’s foreseeing of his future. For it was darkness itself that awaited him, the unnamed thing, the being that did not belong in the world, the shadow he had loosed or made.”
A Wizard of Earthsea is no profound pool of philosophy, but its simple messages about the value of humility, friendship, and evil never being vanquished by greater evil are resonant. In a similar vein to The Hobbit, this is a good clean adventure that dips its foot into the darkness of the human soul, but never allows the horror up past the ankle.
As far as children’s books go, I think this is a good ‘un. It’s just a shame that its minimal length leaves the secondary cast sparsely represented, and in some cases, as what feels like loose ends. Also, whilst the ending does what an ending should do, the close feels like it was cut off with a pair of scissors.
All in all, one definitely worth giving to a child, but if you’re over thirteen, you’ve probably missed the boat.