A FEW OTHER EVENTS FOR
MARCH 16:

  • Happy birthday Helen Caswell (Saint Francis Celebrates Christmas).
  • It’s the birth date of Eric P. Kelly (1884–1960) The Trumpeter of Krakow, Joseph Gaer (1897–1969), Fables of India, Sid Fleischman (1920–2010), The Whipping Boy, and William Mayne (1928–2010), Hob and the Goblins.
  • In 1995, Mississippi formally ratifies the 13th Amendment. It was the last state to approve of the abolition of slavery, though slavery was federally abolished in 1865. Read Mississippi Bridge by Mildred D. Taylor, illustrated by Max Ginsburg.
  • It’s National Freedom of Information Day. Celebrate the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Read First Freedoms: a Documentary History of First Amendment Rights in America by Charles C. Haynes, Sam Chaltain, and Susan M. Glisson.

March has been set aside to recognize the contribution of small presses to our literary heritage. After I had finished selecting books for 100 Best Books for Children, I went back to calculate the percentage that had originally been published by small or independent publishing houses. 10 percent! An amazing figure when you realize that most books published appear on the lists of large houses, often owned by media corporations. Small presses, both in the U.S. and internationally, have always taken risks on new authors or unusual books. Dr. Seuss first appeared on such a list, as did J. K. Rowling in England. And so did Ursula K. Le Guin with her classic A Wizard of Earthsea.

Le Guin was best known, probably as she still is today, as a writer of adult science fiction and fantasy novels like The Left Hand of Darkness. In 1967 the publisher of the small California publishing house Parnassus Press, Herbert Schein, wrote to Le Guin, asking her to consider writing a book for children/young adults. Schein had published Ishi: Last of His Tribe by anthropologist Theodora Kroeber, Le Guin’s mother. Although Le Guin had not considered writing for this audience, she crafted a coming-of-age story, A Wizard of Earthsea, set in a fantasy world.

Taking place on an island community, presented in detailed maps, A Wizard of Earthsea shows the struggles of a young goatherd named Sparrowhawk (but called Ged) as he trains to become a wizard. Magic and wizardry are completely embraced by this community, and after some trials Ged earns his place in a school for wizards. Created long before Hogwarts, Le Guin’s wizard school tests and tries its members in very exacting ways. Although Ged initially does very well in his classes, his jealousy of another student causes him to engage in magic beyond his reach. Hence a dark shadow emerges, who haunts Ged to the far reaches of the kingdom. In the end, Ged must summon all his courage to face this shadow, name it, and merge with it.

Unlike much fantasy for children that is grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition, A Wizard of Earthsea was inspired by the writings of Carl Jung. The heroes are brown or black skinned, not white. Although there are fabulous battles with dragons and evil sorcerers, much of Ged’s struggle comes from mastering the evil inside him—not the forces outside of him.

I knew none of this forty years ago when I picked up A Wizard of Earthsea, the first children’s fantasy I ever read. The only recognition the book initially received was The Boston Globe–Horn Book Award. Paul Heins, editor of Horn Book, thought it one of the great books of his time, so he put it into my hands. I was a realistic fiction and nonfiction reader; A Wizard of Earthsea was a type of book I had not encountered. For Paul, I read the first two chapters. Then, the writing swept me into the world of Earthsea. When I reread the book for this essay, I was amazed by how much detail has stayed with me over these years. It’s a mesmerizing book, an important book, a book that does not merely re-create Tolkien but adds something new to the fantasy cannon. All this and more can be said about A Wizard of Earthsea.

In this age when speculative fiction—fantasy, science fiction, and horror—is often the preferred choice of ten- to fourteen-year-olds, make sure they get a chance to travel to Earthsea. It can be read first in adulthood, but it is so much better if found as a young reader.

Here’s a passage from A Wizard of Earthsea:

At that Ged lifted up the staff high, and the radiance of it brightened intolerably, burning with so white and great a light that it compelled and harrowed even that ancient darkness. In that light all form of man sloughed off the thing that came towards Ged. It drew together and shrank and blackened, crawling on four short taloned legs upon the sand. But still it came forward, lifting up to him a blind unformed snout without lips or ears or eyes. As they come right together it became utterly black in the white mage-radiance that burned about it, and it heaved itself upright. In silence, man and shadow met face to face, and stopped.

 

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Originally posted March 16, 2011. Updated for .

Tags: Adventure, Award Winning, Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, Quest
Instructional materials from TeachingBooks.net for A Wizard of Earthsea
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COMMENTS

  1. Michael Sims says:

    Thanks for posting this. I loved this book when I read it perhaps 15 years ago. And we can’t do too much celebrating of small presses, because they may become ever more important as the dinosaurs kill themselves off in the field.

  2. One of my favorite books in all the world, and one of my son’s. He cites it as one of the reasons he became a writer.

  3. G.Perry says:

    As I recall, J. K. Rowling said Le Guin was a major inspiration for her own work.

  4. Ursula Le Guin is one of my favourite authors too! But let me disagree, A Wizard Of Earthsea is not a book for children, the presence of fantasy creatures like wizards, dragons, ghosts, etc is not a certain prove that a story is for kids/children. There’s so much wisdom in this book which most of children couldn’t understand? Wisdom that could be useful not only in the past but in every moment of human history! If you still think I’m wrong then you’ll agree that this book is a certain prove that the best books for children are of the kind that adults could read too? Best wishes to all fans!

  5. Anita says:

    It has been enjoyed by children ages 11-14. It has even been the most influential book read in childhood. Children can understand sophisticated ideas and writing. But we do agree that the best books written for children/ya can be loved and appreciated by adults.

  6. Mark says:

    “What good is having power if you’re too wise to use it?” — Ged

  7. Sam L. says:

    I’m currently in the middle of reading this story, along with 5-6 other books . I had seen the made-for-tv movie, and I knew that I had to read the book. I think what I love most about what I have read so far is that I can compare Le Guin’s fantastical world to others that I have encountered.

    One of my favorite short stories is “The Ones Who Walk Away from the Omelas” by Ursual Le Guin. I read it for a children’s literature class a few years ago, and I loved that I could enjoy it as an adult. I also knew that I would have loved this story as a child, but maybe I would not have appreciated the depth of the story as I did as an adult.

    Such a great and inspiring author!

  8. Jim Heath says:

    I discovered the Wizard of Earthsea cycle as an adult. I have enjoyed it thoroughly. You are so right – it is a great series for pre-teens. I see that an animated version of the Wizard of Earthsea is now coming out. I hope to see someone make a version of it as a live-actor(?) version.

  9. Peter says:

    I first heard this in the form of an audio book as a young boy and loved it. I read the book soon after and loved it so much I have reread it and its sequels every few years afterwards for the past 25 years. Every time I do I get something new from it, some piece of insight I missed at a younger age. This first in particular is a stand out, moving at a fast pace with no time wasted languishing on unimportant distractions from the main story but also giving enough time to create a rich and believable world. It’s exciting, sometimes creepy and, at times, touching in a simple, very human way, because the warmth of spirit and maturing personality of the lead character Ged. As other posters have remarked, it’s a very wise and thoughtful story, beautifully written. I will no doubt continue to reread it for the rest of my life.

  10. Ashley says:

    I’ve never read or heard of this book before, but it sounds fantastic. I’ve always loved science fiction and fantasy, so it seems right up my alley. I’m truly happy that this book does not recreate Tolkien, like you said. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve opened a fantasy book and realized that it’s a retelling of a tale I’ve heard before. So glad that this book seems to stand on its own two feet. I’ll definitely check this one out.

  11. Allison D. says:

    I’ve never heard of this book before, but this sounds like something I would have loved in middle school, especially because of the detailed maps. Any time a mythology provides a map, I always find myself much more invested in it. I will have to add this to my ever-growing list of books I missed when I was younger and correct that oversight.

  12. cathy says:

    I have always been struck by the internal integrity of the world of Earthsea. It’s full, rich, complicated, and woven together with incredible attention to detail. I have attributed Le Guin’s skill in creating such worlds to her having grown up the daughter of an anthropologist. Early on, she came to know how meaning works — maybe even during conversations at the dinner table. The other thing that struck me in reading these books was the power of language and of naming things. What an important thing for a young adult to learn! By discovering the real name of something, we can understand it, integrate it, move around it, figure out what to do next. To discover the real name of something, we have to see beyond the surface and look deeper for what is essential or most true in something. There is real power in learning to do this. These books are such a gift.

  13. Melody says:

    One of my desert island books!. Full of wisdom about knowing oneself, being a true friend, and leading through restraint and example. Much, much more.

  14. Momo says:

    Oh my goodness Anita this is the book I am reading or re-reading right now. I started last night! I also remember this as one of the first and most powerful fantasies I read as a young person. Many years ago I also listened to the audio book on a set of cassettes tapes while I was on a long car journey – fabulous! I plan to direct our Australian children who are fans of Ranger’s Apprentice back to Wizard of Earthsea…

  15. This is a beautifully written book. “Mesmerizing” really is the word for it! While there are high-action scenes, this is a book (and series) that takes its time; the imagery and descriptions are so lush and vivid. I often wonder if it would be published as is in the current market, where so much emphasis is placed on plotting and fast-paced adventure. Earthsea provides a pause: a slow and steady immersion into a world that is not our own. It is well-deserving of its place in the canon of great fantasy literature.

  16. http://www.neabigread.org/books/awizardofearthsea/readers-guide/about-the-author/

    In this interview with LeGuin it says she had not read Carl Jung before writing this novel. She is asked:

    DS: Is it true that when you wrote the novel, you had not yet read Carl Jung?

    UKL: Yes. That was an amazing coincidence, if you want to see it as such, how two incredibly different minds arrived at the same point by incredibly different routes. Jung came to his idea of the Shadow through psychology; I came to it through pure fictional imagination. Ged has a darkness in him that he couldn’t handle. Ged and I learned how to face his enemy as I wrote the book. I was not certain what the end would be until I got to it.

    DS: Some of those same ideas are found in Taoist philosophies, the ideas of balance, equilibrium, light and dark.

    UKL: Yes, you could say that A Wizard of Earthsea is full of Taoist imagery. The whole idea of a vital balance which is never still, which is not at rest. The wise wizards are working for a kind of balance. Young Ged gets out of balance. He’s got to fix it or else it’ll kill him.

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