Although I have strong feelings on the subject of judging each work of art based on their own merits and avoiding comparisons as much as possible, I’m afraid I’m going to make myself into something of a hypocrite with this particular book review, since my obvious and unavoidable frame of reference for Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea is J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Please try to forgive me for making frequent comparisons between the two, which is unfair to Le Guin for several reasons – first and foremost because she published A Wizard of Earthsea in 1968, a good thirty years before the appearance of Rowling’s boy wizard. In fact, some fans of Le Guin were not pleased when Rowling was hailed as being original and creative, given that Le Guin’s novel similarly tells the tale of a powerful young wizard who attends a school of magic and must face off with a terrible nemesis before becoming one of the most powerful wizards in his world.
Despite the similarities and the obvious basis for comparison, though, there are some key differences between the work of Le Guin and Rowling that make A Wizard of Earthsea a very different reading experience from Harry Potter. First of all, there is the nature of the prose itself – Le Guin’s phrasing is much more somber and lyrical than Rowling’s witty, even sometimes comical style. Whereas Rowling’s serious tale of good versus evil is often includes sketches about students’ antics (namely Fred and George Weasley) that will bring a smile to your face or even cause you to laugh out loud, the first of Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle sounds much like the ancient ballads often mentioned throughout her tale. A Wizard of Earthsea is the origin story of Ged, a very powerful wizard with lowly origins and a dark indiscretion in his past. He ultimately becomes Archmange (head wizard) over all of Earthsea, though – sometime after the conclusion of this novel. Referencing these later events a few times at the beginning and end of the tale, the A Wizard of Earthsea reads very much as though a narrator were relating this story of Ged’s early adventures to the reader before a campfire. The cadences of Le Guin’s language are both ancient and universal, so that we feel almost as though we are listening to Homer’s The Odyssey or some other classical myth. The only thing that disrupted the rhythm of the prose for me was the names of Earthsea’s cities and inhabitants, which often felt disingenuous to me. It often bothers me, though, when authors slap together consonants and syllables that are extremely difficult to pronounce, thinking that this indicates that they come from a wholly different world. If that kind of thing doesn’t bother you, though, you’re sure to enjoy the prose of the novel without fear of disruption.
A second point of comparison between Le Guin and Rowling’s novels is the comparison of their main characters – Harry and Ged himself. While Harry is the classic do-gooder who will not bend his principles for any reason, Ged is much more prideful and especially early on, is bent on acquiring power and showing up his schoolboy rival. This difference, in and of itself, doesn’t necessarily make Ged less sympathetic then Harry, although it is often more difficult for a reader to identify with a protagonist whose main characteristics are negative. I personally think that characters driven by petty jealousy, greed and even hate can be extremely interesting and even sympathetic – if their emotions are explained to the reader in enough detail. But because Le Guin’s tale is written much like a ballad, the reader isn’t given long passages of insight into Ged’s state of mind. We are told that he is jealous, and then the story keeps moving. For me, this made it more difficult to identify closely with Ged, who simply came off as being power-hungry and ill-mannered at times. I wanted to like him – and I certainly did not want to see him bested by his rival, but when the “good” guy is less likeable and his rival is only somewhat snotty (certainly not as odious as Draco Malfoy), it is hard to be wholly invested in the conflict between them.
Despite the fact that I didn’t find Ged very sympathetic, the tale itself is fairly absorbing and I found myself lulled into different passages of the lyrical story. Ged’s own pride leads him to make several bad choices early in his career as a wizard, and then he must attempt to put right the shadowy evil that he has introduced into the world. This quest leads him on a long and dangerous journey through many different lands; his encounters and adventures are all well-imagined and interesting.
I not only enjoyed the novel for its own sake, but it also made me want J.K. Rowling to get back on the horse and write a couple of novels that detail Dumbledore’s adventures prior to becoming such a well-respected Headmaster at Hogwarts. In Deathly Hallows, Harry ends up digging through a lot of different stories and rumors about Dumbledore’s early days as a wizard, and those mysterious circumstances and famous battles could be a lot more interesting if presented as Le Guin has presented Ged’s early days – as a prideful, vulnerable young man instead of the great wizard that he one day becomes.
Another thing that I really enjoyed about A Wizard of Earthsea was the way that the novel discussed the use of magic and rules governing the supernatural. Le Guin relates a lot of information about the interconnectedness of the earth and all its inhabitants; the balance or “equilibrium” of the world; the power of knowing the true name of a man, a beast or an element; the difference between an act of magic that creates a harmless illusion and an act of magic that alters the fabric of the world, even in a small way. I found these passages to be particularly absorbing.
I have to say, though, that at no point did I find A Wizard of Earthsea quite as engrossing or riveting as Harry Potter. I’m fairly certain it’s because I just didn’t identify with Ged the way that I do with Harry and his friends, who are all unpopular misfits at school. Harry, Ron and Hermione may be the clichés of Children’s/YA Literature – the smart, nice outcasts that remind you of your own awkward adolescence – but there’s a reason that type of protagonist sells so well. If the author develops them with skill, then we identify with their teenage angst. Ged, being a quiet and driven character in a lyrical ballad-type novel, just didn’t project enough emotion for my taste, I guess. That isn’t to say that I didn’t like him or root for him, or that I didn’t enjoy the novel – just that I didn’t enjoy it as much as I could have. It’s still an excellent read which I highly recommend, and I can imagine that it would be great to read out loud to kids as well as being a novel that you can curl up with yourself.
This post participates in my Focus on Fantasy Reading Challenge. To learn more about the challenge or to participate, check out my original post about Focus on Fantasy.