I’ve read A Wizard of Earthsea before. I knew I had at least attempted to, but not until I finished the short book did I recognize that I’ve definitely read this before. Certain scenes came out of the mist of memory as I read them, placing them in contexts I had long forgotten. I think it’s a testament to something like maturing that I probably devoured this when I was younger and was left unimpressed by it and found myself absolutely mesmerized this time around.
Le Guin’s style is beautiful. She strikes this perfect balance of mythological rhythm with modern interior reflection and it sings. Her sentences are wonderfully wrought, packed with mysterious meaning in simple unadorned language, sounding like those of a bardic priest retelling the legends of old. The narrator never becomes lost in Ged’s head while keeping the story tight to his point of view. The world is explored in short asides which never pull from the action but paint a picture of world large enough to contain the mystery that gives the scent of verisimilitude. It’s a pleasure just to read.
The story of Ged is a simple one – a prideful boy, humbled by his own mistakes, and reclaiming his confidence by confronting them. There’s images of balance throughout, and one may be tempted to reading relativism. However, I think it’d be too on the nose to reduce it to that.
I’m far more tempted to read it as a man coming to grips with his own virile might (ha! I can hear many an SJW upset at this turn). Ged is powerful and this is clear from the get go. And with that power comes pride and a desire for fame. He’s not evil. Just a man wrapped up in himself. When this finally comes home to roost, it manifests in a literal fashion as he summons some sort of shadow being. Le Guin never delves into the nature of this thing, which makes it all the more terrifying and all the more meaningful. It clearly wants to possess Ged and he’s terrified of it doing just that.
This terror defines him for much of the book. He becomes a nicer person, yes. Far more humble and desirous of helping others. But still, there’s something pathetic about him. Any great feats he performs are all in the service of running from his shadow. And the shadow is hunting him and is more powerful than him.
Things change once Ged is directed to hunt the shadow. This is not a “do away with fear” thing, but a matter of confronting the fear. His fear becomes the very way he seeks it out – as he grows in fear, he knows he is approaching the shadow.
In the end, he doesn’t defeat the shadow. Rather, he names it. No one had been able to name the thing and some even said it had no name. Ged, though, names it. And it’s his own name. The shadow becomes a part of him and he has succeeded.
The shadow was born from his own prideful use of power and one’s tempted to read it as an avatar of his power. However, the power itself is not wicked. What Ged must learn in the course of this adventure is to confront his own power, his own capacity to do so much, both good and evil, and recognize it as himself. In this way, he is able to become one with his power, live in peace with his virile might.
I’m reminded of the Christian and Aristotelian tradition of the Cardinal virtues, especially fortitude. True fortitude is about the proper application of thumos – of spiritedness or anger. Ged begins the tale full, over abundantly full, of this thumos, but it’s all directed at serving himself. In seeing it misfire, he grows scared of it, scared it will possess and destroy him. Only once he confronts it, seeks it out to name it, does it no longer have power over him. He has perfected his fortitude, his command of thumos, in overcoming his fear for the good of peace.
It’s not an allegory the story demands – Le Guin’s not writing an explicit allegory – but the mythological quality calls one to not only enjoy the story but recognize eternal truths within.
Read this book. Incredibly short, beautifully written, and wonderfully insightful. Highly recommended.