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Kiln People
Beth Meacham, David Brin

A Wizard of Earthsea

A Wizard of Earthsea - Ursula K. Le Guin I remember reading this book as a child and loving it, and that is all I can remember, the reading and the loving. Anything about the contents have slipped through the old grey cells somehow. As it turned out my brain knew what it was doing when it jettisoned all the details of the book so yesterday I was able to read it as if for the first time. Like A Virgin.

Nowadays any fantasy book that feature a school of wizardry can not help but bring up Harry Potter comparisons (I can't help it any way). A Wizard of Earthsea was published several decades before Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's / Philosopher's Stone, and I wonder how much of it inspired the Rowling books. No disrespect to the deservedly popular Potter series but certainly Earthsea's Roke Island's school of magic seems like a precursor to Hogwarts, and Le Guin's protagonist Duny / Sparrowhawk / Ged starts off as a boy with an unusual degree of natural talent for magic. In all fairness the similarities dwindle to nothing by about half way point through A Wizard of Earthsea though. OK, got that out of the way, no more pointless HP comparisons henceforth.

A Wizard of Earthsea is - to some extent - a bildungsroman about a boy name Duny who has an unusually high aptitude for learning and using magic. After saving his village from invaders he was discovered by a wizard who gave him his true name Ged. After travelling with the wizard for a while and not learning very much magic thanks to the wizard's "Mr. Miyagi" style of teaching he was sent to the Roke Island to enroll in a wizardry school. He learned magic very quickly of course but soon make a huge mistake and accidentally invoked Something Better Left Alone. Much gnashing of teeth and a search for redemption ensues. (I am appallingly bad at synopsizing as you can see).

When Ms. Le Guin wrote this book in the 60s there was not much of a fantasy genre, some Tolkiens here some Lewises there, very little else. This makes A Wizard of Earthsea something of a landmark for the now thriving fantasy genre. Also in those days the term "magic system" did not exist but Le Guin knew even then how thoughtless, frivolous use of magic in a book can render the story unbelievable. So she cleverly imposed some logic and limitation to the use of magic and thereby created one of the earliest magic systems.
"Listen, I don't understand: you and my brother both are mighty wizards, you wave your hand and mutter and the thing is done. Why do you get hungry, then? When it comes suppertime at sea, why not say, Meat-pie! and the meat-pie appears, and you eat it?"
"Well, we could do so. But we don't much wish to eat our words, as they say. Meat-pie! is only a word, after all... We can make it odorous, and savorous, and even filling, but it remains a word. It fools the stomach and gives no strength to the hungry man."
See what I mean? Genius! The magic in the Earthsea universe is based on the "words of power" and "true name" idea. "One who knows the true name of an object has power over it." is fairly self explanatory, this applies to people's names also; giving someone your true name is a little like giving them your Paypal password, not something to be done lightly.

The book is necessarily fast paced and eventful due to minimal length, though the climax is not as spectacular as I thought it would be, it is quite satisfying and leads to an elegant wrap up of the story. The prose is beautifully written as you'd expect from Le Guin, the book was written for children so it is more easily accessible than her adult science fiction books. Don't let the "for children" label put you off though, there was no YA category at the time, or this book would have been hailed as the best of them. Characterization is very nicely done, Ged starts off as a fairly typical arrogant young whippersnapper and grows into a kindhearted, responsible (and melancholy) adult. If you have kids this would be a great book to read to them. The principle of "with great power comes great responsibility" is much better learned here from Ged's experiences than from Peter Parker's.

Another thing I remember from my first reading of this book in my teens is that I could not get into the second book The Tombs of Atuan due to the switch to a new protagonist, I wanted so much to know what Ged is going to do next. I was a stupid kid. At least now I have more Earthsea books to look forward to.