30 Novels, day 23: A Wizard of Earthsea
A boy who discovers he has the power to become a great wizard. His journey to a remote school for wizards, and his difficult life there. A deadly foe who rises as a result of the boy’s power, scars him, and later causes the death of the boy’s mentor, the head wizard. The boy’s quest to set things right, leading to a final battle, and beyond.
Ursula Le Guin’s novel had a seriousness and grandeur I had not encountered before in the fantasy novels I’d been reading as a kid. To me it still stands as one of the few examples of a fantasy novel for children that transcends the trappings of its genre. It doesn’t pander to its audience. It doesn’t lurch awkwardly from comedy to horror and back. It isn’t mawkish or crammed with a cavalcade of contrived and unlikely plot developments. It doesn't retell the same old story that evil is something "out there" and that all problems can be solved with violence.
I think that of all of Le Guin’s Earthsea inventions, I was and remain the most intrigued by the Immanent Grove, the wood near the centre of Roke Island: “It is said that no spells are worked there, and yet the place itself is an enchantment. Sometimes the trees of that Grove are seen, and sometimes they are not seen, and they are not always in the same place and part of Roke Island.” The Grove is the heart of all magic in Earthsea, and Le Guin returns to it again and again in her stories, developing it meanings and the themes of her work through it.
On one level the grove represents the source of a wizard’s magic (the source, not the use, which can be helpful or harmful), and magic in Le Guin’s world represents something about our own world, though Le Guin is wise not to tell us exactly what that is, but instead to let her metaphors unfold and take on larger meaning throughout the series. For me, the Earthsea books evoke something that I find (or search for) only in books of ancient wisdom like the Tao te ching, or the writings of the Zen master Dogen. Books that ask us to go deeper than all the noise and clutter we fill our heads with. To spend some time in the immanent grove within ourselves.
A Wizard of Earthsea was first published in 1968. Its wisdom is more timely now than ever.