No Happy Nonsense

A Wizard of Earthsea / Ursula K. Le Guin

January 3rd, 2023 | Review

(I wrote this review for a newsletter/site I created called "Books in a Dumpster" that I ultimately decided not to continue after writing a few reviews. The format of this review reflects roughly how it appeared on the BiaD site.)

Official Copy:

Ged was the greatest sorcerer in Earthsea, but in his youth he was the reckless Sparrowhawk. In his hunger for power and knowledge, he tampered with long-held secrets and loosed a terrible shadow upon the world. This is the tumultuous tale of his testing, how he mastered the mighty words of power, tamed an ancient dragon, and crossed death's threshold to restore the balance.

I give this book one powerful name out of three:

So Let’s Get Into It

We follow young Duny, a little dude living on Gont, which is some little shitty place on Earthsea, which is a just a big archipelago of a fantasy world. Oceans and Islands, Oceans and Islands. Duny learns some cool magic tricks from the village witch and then she’s like “whoa dude, you are fucking good at this shit, you should try to learn more from a wizard or something.”

Wizards are like these badass, super quiet and thoughtful monks who have all this magic ability but speak in little riddles and vague half-sentences. Weird how a major science fiction movie would come out a decade later about a super powerful, monk-like mystic arts master who speaks in vagaries and teaches the young hero to fulfill his destiny and yadda yadda.

Okay Earthsea, Duny creates magic fog to save his village from invading dudes or whatever. Ogion, the local wizard takes Duny under his tutelage and on his name day names him Ged. This is now Ged’s true name, the name that holds all his power.

Uhh what happens next, Ged feels like he isn’t learning from Ogion, because Ogion just like walks around nature and shit all the time and is like “hey, check out these silverleaf flowers” or whatever fantasy plants, and Ged’s like “nah I wanna create diamonds from rocks that stay diamonds forever.”

Ged summons a shadow accidentally, Ogion banishes it, Ogion says “okay kid, let’s send you to wizard school” and off Ged goes to Roke to learn how to be a wizard, harry.

Insert the usual “I’m new to the school and I find friends but also enemies and then a near-cataclysmic event with that old shadow monster I previously summoned takes place but the strongest mage in the world saves me, but he dies, and I’m punished a very disproportionately small amount considering the head of the school fucking died” chapter or two.

“Wizard School” according to some AI Art-stealing bot.

Hurrah, Ged is now a full-blown wizard. He goes to a small fishing village (aren’t they all fishing villages? It’s like all islands) and they say they have a problem with this dragon on this other island. Ged says no biggie, I got this.

And he got that.

And then Ged is all like “I must find the shadow and drown it in the ocean” or something like that and he goes off to find it again and you get the idea. You’ve read this before without having read it before.

What’s Really Cool About Earthsea

Is how fucking lean and mean the book is, like this thing is thin as hell. My copy is less than 200 pages, pretty large font, and even has a few pages of illustrated maps of Earthsea in it. Le Guin is able to just chock so much world building into her prose that it feels like you’re getting everything you need as the ride whisks you away from one adventure to another.

I mean this thing sets up an entire world, school of magic, system for magic, deep back lore, and at least four magical showdowns with evildoers while telling the tale of Sparrowhawk (oh yeah Ged’s wizard name is Sparrowhawk). And this thing would fit underneath my bathroom door, I’m pretty sure.

"It's umm, not so much as a book as a, as a pamphlet, no? Kind of on the thin side isn't it?"

I don’t like to read barfingly detailed descriptions of like the place settings of a table or whatever, as so many fantasy authors are wont to do. This book is more like “there’s a table in the hall called the Long Table, they say anyone who wants a seat at it can always find one. Ged sits with blah blah blah.” Just quick shots of description and background and then move right on.

I wish all the books I read could be as swift as AWoE, but then again there’s only one Le Guin. They don’t call her the Le Guinster for nothing.

I also should mention how a large part of the underlying theme of the book is about keeping all things in balance. Le Guin was a big time Taoist and she even translated a version of the Tao Te Ching which is full of awesome little riddle sentences like “the bowl is full when it is empty” and shit like that. I had to read the TTC in Religions of the Eastern World course I took in college, and I actually loved it a lot. I read the Stephen Mitchell translated version though, so maybe one day I’ll buy Le Guin’s version and become a Le Guin Taoist?

Back to Earthsea - there’s this really finely-crafted sort of Practical Taoism But Also Magic Is Real vibe of the world that UKLG created in the first book of Earthsea. I’m excited to read the other books, I hope Sparrowhawk does lots of meditative walking and wins battles by conversing with enemies. Fuck yeah inject that straight in, baby.

They Made It Into A Movie

Or a miniseries, I guess? On the cover of my copy, which I think is the last singular edition of Wizard they printed, there’s an ad line “EARTHSEA, now an original miniseries event from SCI FI Channel”

So I looked up the trailer and…it looks bad.

Let’s keep in mind, this miniseries came out in 2004, so the entire Lord of the Rings films were already out by now. Try to recall Return of the King in your mind while you watch this trailer, it’s like a fun way to shit on the trailer without doing anything else.

To Le Guin’s credit, she basically ripped this thing apart as absolute shit. It’s a shame she never got to see a worthwhile adaptation of her work get put to screen, but hey she jammed out all these rad books, so fuck it.

Weirdly - I think The Green Knight from 2021 captures a lot of the spirit of what I’d want from an Earthsea flick, and I can kinda morph a mental movie in my brain noodles that creates an Earthsea film as this beautiful, haunting meditative slow artsy movie rather than the schlock it became.

Final Thoughts, Links, Other Stuff, Next Book, etc.

I found my copy of A Wizard of Earthsea at a used book sale that I went to with a good friend of mine three or four years ago. I scored this thing for 25 cents, and if you can find it at that price, I’d say go for it.

If not though, the entirety of Earthsea was released as one gargantuan, 1000+ page complete illustrated edition a few years ago. It’s expensive, but you do get six books. I recently bought this, because it looks visually amazing and I want to be a cool dude and be like “oh yeah I know all the Earthsea shit” someday, because I’ll never read all the Wheel of Time books, nor the Discworld books. This is all I have.

The next book to be reviewed will be Stella Maris by Cormac McCarthy, so we can finish off the two-parter thing I started when I read + reviewed The Passenger a few weeks ago.

Until then, friendos.

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