Light a Candle/Cast a Shadow
A Wizard of Earthsea (1975) by Ursula K. Le Guin
In 1968, a small press publisher asked already famous fantasy and science fiction author Ursula K. LeGuin to write something for “older kids,” promising her free range. She wrote an archetypal story of a boy who leaves his miserable origins and achieves fame at a school for wizards. Yes, Virginia, this sounds like a story you know, but it is not. It is much more than an earlier version of Harry Potter, though like Rowlings’ novel, A Wizard of Earthsea does begin a series of books, this one set in the fantasy archipelago of Earthsea.
I pulled this book off the library shelf in 1979. It was tantalizingly close to the many books by Madeleine L’Engle, which I took to be a good sign. I have re-read Wizard every year since, though I did not find out that there were other Earthsea books until the late 1980s.
The powerful wizard boy here is named Sparrowhawk. The boy is rudely raised, but the power of his gift for magic is evident to the wandering wizard Ogion. Ogion gives the boy his true name (Ged) which must be protected and only revealed to the most intimate of friends because of its power. Ogion promises to train him as well, but Sparrowhawk is too proud and too impatient for Ogion’s brand of teaching. He goes off to Roke Island, home of the school for wizards. There, too, he excels, but his pride and his rage overpower his gifts. To show off his brilliance to all, Sparrowhawk calls forth the spirit of the dead queen, causing a rip in the world. From this rip, he is attacked and almost killed by a terrible shadow creature.
What is this creature? Can Ged master it, as he fears he must in order to live? How can he use what he has learned, humbly, this time, to battle this hideous evil?
The world of Earthsea is a world of magic and dragons, high adventure and very quiet moments that have mysterious power. There are adventures, including triumphs, but all is colored by the inevitable battle with the creature. Throughout the story, Ged struggles to understand the balance his teachers vainly tried to urge him to seek. “To light a candle is to cast a shadow,” one of the Masters tells him. All our actions have consequences, a lesson we need to learn sooner rather than later.
I worry sometimes that A Wizard of Earthsea is too quiet a book for today’s readers. There are no antics, no quartet of friends, no talking objects or creatures. But there is the faithful otak, the mysterious dragon Ged finds the courage to look in the eye, and the Immanent Grove, where Ged longs to walk. The book rewards the patient reader and is a beautiful read-aloud. In 1987, the fantasy magazine Locus polled its readers, and they placed A Wizard of Earthsea as the number three fantasy book of all time, behind two of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books. Long may readers find their joy in Earthsea.
Kim McCollum-Clark has been a nerdy bookworm since about 1969. She almost literally grew up in the public library in Reidsville, NC. She reads and writes for a living as a professor of English Education at Millersville University near Lancaster, Pennsylvania.