The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-wracked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards.
One measure of a book’s greatness is in how much of it stays with you after you’ve read it. Some sparkle but fade rapidly, others steal deep into your subconscious and linger there, revealing themselves occasionally throughout the following months, years – fleeting reminders of rare brilliance. A Wizard of Earthsea, for me, is one of the latter.
I first read the novel as a child of probably no more than ten, yet so evocative is this story that twenty years on I can still summon images that my younger self formed while reading the book two decades ago. I can remember the twisting cobbled streets of Roke, the magic of the wizards’ school and the ominous Isolate Tower. Of course I’d forgotten far more than I remembered, but these glimmers of the tale that stayed with me all these years are testament to Ursula Le Guin’s masterful storytelling.
Eventually I decided to revisit A Wizard of Earthsea with two questions in mind: why was it that twenty years on I could still visualise places from the story, and could the novel still inspire the same sense of wonder in my adult self as it had in me as a child?
I discovered the answer to my first question very quickly; the reason that this story had stayed with me for so long is simply because Le Guin is such a wonderful writer. Her prose is effortless, as the best prose is, but also vibrant and possessing of a poetic depth that resounds through every word.
As their eyes met, a bird sang aloud in the branches of the tree. In that moment Ged understood the singing of the bird, and the language of the water falling in the basin of the fountain, and the shape of the clouds, and the beginning and end of the wind that stirred the leaves: it seemed to him that he himself was a word spoken by the sunlight.
There’s a certain economy to Le Guin’s writing – she never overloads her prose with exposition, yet it is vibrant and evocative enough for the world of Earthsea to truly come alive and enter the mind of the reader. It’s a fine balancing act that is masterful in its execution. Looking back, I’m not in the least surprised that this wonderfully-revealed world seeped deep into my memory.
As for the second question – would I rediscover the sense of wonder I must have found the first time around – well, after just a couple of chapters I realised that was never in any doubt. Le Guin’s world possesses a wistful beauty, underscored by magic both literal and figurative.
The story itself – of how the apprentice wizard Ged unleashes a darkness on the world that only he can banish – is a powerful metaphor for how we must all confront our fears, and rather than fighting them must accept them as part of ourselves.
This is a lesson that can be learned by readers of all ages and, perhaps, is where the magic of A Wizard of Earthsea truly lies.