Welcome to Test of Time! This new bi-monthly series examines classic science-fiction and fantasy with a modern reader’s eye. Which books have aged gracefully, and which ones maybe need to keep gathering dust on your shelf? Let’s find out.
In 1968, author Ursula Le Guin published A Wizard of Earthsea. This early Young Adult novel follows a young wizard named Ged as his magical powers — and his arrogance — grow, leading him from his humble village to the great school of magic on Roke Island. There, one foolish spell nearly kills him, but if he can’t defeat the evil that his mistake unleashed, it will cost him far more than his life.
Le Guin went on to publish three more books and several short stories set in the world of Earthsea, but for the purposes of this review, I will focus on the first book.
Embarrassingly, I had not read any of Le Guin’s fiction before 2021. This summer I decided to read both The Left Hand of Darkness and A Wizard of Earthsea and loved them both right away. They were rougher around the edges than I was expecting, but there is no denying that Le Guin was one of the great writers of the genre, and the enduring popularity of her work is a testament to that.
A Wizard of Earthsea has an (understandably) old-fashioned style that evokes Tolkien — Le Guin herself says in the afterword that her idea for Ged came from wondering what Gandalf had been like as a teenager — but it also calls back even farther to Homer and The Odyssey. Sailing and seafaring are front and center in this book, as is folklore and myth: songs, stories, and tales of heroes are vital to the culture of Earthsea, and spells are cast with literal magic words. The fact that this is a world without war or even much interpersonal violence gives it a unique atmosphere that I recognized from The Left Hand of Darkness, too. Conflict comes from within — literally, in Ged’s case.
This focus on facing and overcoming your inner demons makes A Wizard of Earthsea a quiet yet powerful story. It never feels preachy, although you don’t have to look hard for the moral. It’s a big departure from the modern, war-and-revolution-focused YA market, and readers who need more action and adventure might find it too slow-paced. However, I think it is underestimated as a book to hand to younger teens: if you’re looking for something like The Hobbit for older readers who aren’t interested in the extreme emotions and stakes of YA, this is it.
The book is much more progressive in its depiction of race than most classic fantasy of its era, which Le Guin discusses in her afterword, and she famously fought and lost the battle to have covers for the series reflect the fact that the cast is almost entirely non-white. (The first edition, not pictured, and the 2005 hardcover edition, featured here, are an exception; the 2005 hardcover was illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon, who also illustrated the covers for The Abhorsen Trilogy by Garth Nix.) A Wizard of Earthsea is actually less progressive around gender than I was expecting, but later books address the sexism of the setting, so I would not count it as a point against the series. Overall, I didn’t find much in this novel that felt out-of-line with my own modern viewpoint — Le Guin’s fierce devotion to social justice carries through to today.
So did A Wizard of Earthsea withstand the test of time? Resoundingly yes.
I’m so glad I decided to take the time to read this book, and I feel much more equipped to recommend to readers. Although it’s classified as “Young Adult,” I would hand it children as young as nine or ten without a problem, and it’s obviously enjoyable for an adult audience, too. If you or a reader in your life really loves The Lord of the Rings or other classic high fantasy in that style and you haven’t read Earthsea already, I wholeheartedly recommend it.
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