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An image of the bookcover of A Wizard of Earthsea

A Wizard of Earthsea (1968)

Ursula Le Guin

Daughter of a famous anthropologist and wife of an historian, Ursula Le Guin was raised in a stimulating intellectual environment and exposed to a wide variety of peoples and cultures. A graduate of Radcliffe College and Columbia University with a Masters degree in French, Le Guin is a distinguished literary critic as well as an accomplished writer for both children and adults.

Le Guin is a follower of the ancient Chinese school of thought, Taoism, which stresses the interdependence (versus dualism) of opposites. Its influence can be seen in all her writing, and especially in the Earthsea books.

Le Guin's writing

Although she has written poetry, short stories, picturebooks, collections of essays, and realistic novels, she is most famous for works of fantasy and science fiction. Le Guin has won the National Book Award, the PEN/Malamud Award, the Newbery Honor Medal, the Boston Globe-Horn Book award, multiple Hugo and Nebula awards, and has been short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize.

The Earthsea series

One of the greatest children’s series of the twentieth century, the Earthsea books rival the Harry Potter series in their far-reaching impact on readers. Originally published as a trilogy in the late 60s/early 70s, it became a quartet when Tehanu was published in 1990, then a sextet once Tales from Earthsea and The Other Wind were added in 2001.

The name “Earthsea” suggests the Taoist influence of a union and balance of contraries, a principle that governs the individual novels as well as the series as a whole.

Unlike the Harry Potter series which begin in the real world, the Earthsea books are set entirely within a fantasy realm.

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Introduction to the novel

Described as “the greatest voyager” of his time, Ged is a wanderer in search of something unnamed and unknown.1 As a young apprentice wizard, Ged tries to invoke the dead, and mistakenly releases “the shadow” into the world. He journeys throughout the Earthsea world first as the hunted, then as the hunter of this shadow.

When A Wizard of Earthsea was first published, it received the Boston Globe-Horn Book medal, and has remained popular ever since.

The education of a wizard

Like the Harry Potter books, A Wizard of Earthsea is about the education of a wizard, a variation on the “kustlerroman” – or education of an artist – genre. Le Guin once said, “Wizardry is artistry. The trilogy is then, in this sense, about art, the creative experience, the creative process.”2

Coming-of-age novel

In this coming-of-age novel, Ged’s development occurs in incremental stages. His initial ideas about wizardry are naïve and immature. The Master Summoner tells him:

You thought, as a boy, that a mage is one who can do anything. So I thought once. So did we all. And the truth is that as a man’s real power grows and his knowledge widens, ever the way he can follow grows narrower: until at last he chooses nothing, but does only and wholly what he must do.3

Ged learns that, as a wizard, he has great responsibility for maintaining the equilibrium of the world. “You must not, warns the Master Hand, “change one thing, one pebble, one grain of sand, until you know what good and evil will follow on that act. The world is in balance, in Equilibrium. . . To light a candle is to cast a shadow.”4

The shadow

The shadow is the governing symbol of the book. Ged is never sure just what the shadow is, but fears that he has unleashed something highly destructive into the universe.

He is hunted by the shadow night and day: “Now the turning of each street seemed a threat to him, and he had to steel himself not to keep looking back over his shoulder at what might be coming behind him.”5 The shadow also becomes the doom he sees “lying ahead on every road.”6 Ged travels north, south, and east to escape this shadow, all to no avail.

It is the wise master wizard, Ogion, who tells Ged, “You must seek what seeks you. You must hunt the hunter.”7 Hunting the shadow in order to destroy it becomes Ged’s quest. As in The Lord of the Rings, there is a sense of doom about this quest, a feeling that in achieving it, Ged may be going to his death but must do it anyway.

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Meeting the shadow

Ged’s final journey is eastward as he sails beyond Lastland to the world’s end. Like the eastward journey in C. S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the destination of this voyage, “beyond the sources of the sea,” is the end and the beginning of life.8

It is here – in one of the most surprising and powerful endings to a novel – that he meets the shadow: “Ged spoke the shadow’s name and in the same moment the shadow spoke without lips or tongue, saying the same word: ‘Ged.’ And the two voices were one voice. Ged reached out his hands, dropping his staff, and took hold of his shadow, of the black self that reached out to him. Light and darkness met, and joined, and were one.”9

Ged’s journey across Earthsea is in fact a journey inwards; the shadow he discovers is the dark side of himself and an integral part of his being. After circling back and confronting his shadow, Ged is able to say, “I am whole, I am free.”10

Le Guin has stated that fantasy “is a journey into the subconscious mind, just as psychoanalysis is. Like psychoanalysis, it can be dangerous; and it will change you.”11


1. Ursula K. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea (1968; New York: Bantam Books, 1984), 1.

2. Ursula K. Le Guin, “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie,” In The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction, ed. Susan Wood, 93 (New York: Putnam, 1979).

3. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea, 71.

4. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea, 44; Peter Hollindale argues that as the series progresses, Le Guin is more concerned with change than with the equilibrium. “The Last Dragon of Earthsea,” Children’s Literature in Education 34, no. 3 (September 2003): 183-93).

4. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea, 98.

5. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea, 99.

6. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea, 71

7. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea, 128.

8. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea, 176.

9. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea, 179.