One of my more imaginative childhood reading experiences was enjoying The Wizard of Earthsea in 4E (or whatever unimaginative name labelled that class). Stylistically denser than the Game of Thrones world, it contains a gentler message: know thyself. Despite its categorisation as novella-length young adult fiction, this is not a lightweight read. It poses challenging ideas about identity and ambition that resound true both now and in the past.
Although I am far from experienced in the fantasy field, I enjoy the genre best when it positions contemporary concerns in a low-magic world. This enchanting bildungsroman tracks the developing awareness of Ged (known by his use(r) name Sparrowhawk) as he grows from provincial goatherder to powerful wizard.
With an almost fablelike narration whereby many characters operate secondary to the plot, the early rivalry Ged experiences in the all-boys wizarding school provide some recognisable class bias for us (me!) to work with. These scenes work well to frame the hubris of Ged as he reacts to a world that frames him as lower in status, worth and power. Lacking social grace or capital, it is only his thirst and aptitude for knowledge and reading that gives him power: Le Guin clearly knows her audience! Such threads of dangerous knowledge and vaulting ambition are more typical of gothic and enlightenment fiction and serve to make this text meatier than its 50,000 or so words.
The main narration is ultimately driven by Ged’s journey to rectify a fatal folly enacted in rage. This is a voyage that becomes dream-like yet purposeful, raising interesting questions about wilfulness and possession. While it is apparent that Ged grows intellectually and emotionally, he not entirely good: his slaughter of ancient beasts is interestingly magnified – he is not an entirely pious hero.
It is this lack of moralising that I remembered most as a ten-year-old. I remember finding the ego conflict at the heart of the novel both bizarre and enticing. As a thirty-something-year-old now, I appreciate the quiet psychological ambition of this story. It challenges us to embrace that which pursues us.
This will never be an entirely mainstream classic; the style requires too much commitment to be an easy read for very young adults. But it will satisfy anyone’s yearning for an imaginative fireside fable.