59 pages • 1 hour readUrsula K. Le Guin
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First published in 1968, Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea follows Ged, a young man in training to be a wizard, as he embarks on a necessary journey of self-discovery and self-mastery. It is the first in a series of six novels aimed at young-adult readers. The novel has won numerous awards and is regarded as a classic of young adult fantasy literature.
Set over the course of several years, the novel follows Ged through his initial magical training, his official schooling at a school for wizards, and the quest he must embark upon to mitigate an evil shadow he accidentally unleashes into the world.
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This novel explores themes of power and the responsibilities that accompany it, the importance of agency, and the uncanny double. Le Guin uses the symbols and motifs of light and dark, names, and the ocean to explore these themes and bring the fantastical world of Earthsea to life.
This guide references the 2012 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt edition of the novel.
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Ged, born Duny, lives in a small village on the island of Gont. He is a quick-witted, proud, and curious child. His aunt, a simple village witch, quickly realizes his magical potential and begins to teach him what she knows.
Not long after the novel begins, Duny’s village is attacked by a vicious invading tribe. He singlehandedly averts the attack by calling up an illusion of thick, ghostly fog to obscure the village and frighten away the invaders. In the process, however, he overtaxes his magical reserves and falls into a state of near catatonia. He is saved by Ogion, a travelling wizard who is far more powerful than his humble and reserved demeanor suggests. Ogion also recognizes Duny’s innate power and takes him to be an apprentice after Duny’s 13th birthday and subsequent naming by Ogion (Ogion names him Ged, and he’s known as Ged from this point forward).
Ged leaves his village to go live with Ogion in Ogion’s hometown of Re Albi, which is still on Gont. Though Ged loves and respects Ogion, he quickly becomes impatient with the slow pace of his teachings. In an act of pride and an effort to impress another child from the village, Ged reads a spell from one of Ogion’s books. It seems as though the simple act of reading begins to summon a dark spirit that Ogion banishes before warning Ged of the importance of knowledge and restraint when using magical power. Ogion also tells Ged the young girl he was trying to impress is actually the daughter of a local witch who serves evil masters. Ogion understands Ged’s impatience and offers him the choice to either stay as his apprentice or travel to the wizard school on the island of Roke. Ged opts to go to Roke.
After arriving on Roke, Ged quickly proves himself to be one of the most naturally skilled students at the school. He is always trying to improve himself and beat out others in the process, and his sharp and competitive temper earns him a rival in Jasper, a student from a noble background. However, Ged also finds a friend in Vetch, another student with a steady, kind persona and a similar background as Ged.
Ged and Jasper’s feud comes to a head one night after a festival when they challenge each other to a duel. In an effort to prove his inborn strength once and for all, Ged vows to raise a spirit from the dead. He begins to succeed, but instead a hole opens in the fabric of the world and releases a sentient shadow that tries to kill him. Ged is narrowly saved by Vetch, the Masters at Roke, and the Archmage himself.
After months of recovery, Ged returns to his studies. However, he is now ashamed of his past pride and afraid of his power and potential. He remains on Roke, where he is safe from the shadow, to finish his studies. Over time, he gradually regains his confidence with the help of his friend Vetch and the quiet dedication Ged now brings to his studies.
Ged eventually earns the title of wizard and takes a post on a remote island called Low Torning. Low Torning is threatened by an ancient dragon with a new brood on an island to the West, and Ged is sent to protect them. Ged makes friends with a boatbuilder, Pechvarry. While trying to save Pechvarry’s sickly child, Ged ventures too far in pursuit of the dying soul and encounters the shadow waiting for him. Ged realizes the shadow now knows where he is and vows to defeat the dragon and leave Low Torning behind so the townsfolk will be free of the dangers of both the dragon and the shadow that is now actively chasing Ged.
Ged sails to Pendor, the island where the dragon lives. He defeats several of the young dragons in combat and enters into conversation and negotiation with the old dragon. The dragon offers to tell Ged the name of the shadow, but Ged finds himself unable to trust the dragon and refuses. Ged eventually gains power over the dragon by using its true name, Yevaud. Ged makes Yevaud swear on its name that it will not venture toward human settlements and then sails back to Low Torning for one night of celebration.
After leaving Low Torning, Ged sails aimlessly from island to island. On one of the islands he visits, he encounters a man who delivers what sounds like a prophecy, telling Ged to go to the Court of the Terrenon on the island of Osskil. With no other options and no other leads on what to do, Ged travels into the winter weather toward Osskil.
When Ged arrives on Osskil, a man offers to show him the way to the Court of the Terrenon. Ged does not trust the man but has no choice. Ged follows the man into the countryside until he reveals himself to be the shadow in disguise. Before Ged can defend himself, the shadow calls him by name and renders him magically defenseless. Ged runs wildly into the night, reaching a castle just before his strength fails him.
Ged awakes in the Court of the Terrenon and gets to know the Lady of the castle, Serret. She shows him the Terrenon, a stone built into the foundation of the castle that exudes a dark, ancient power. Ged resists her entreaties to touch the stone, even though she also promises the stone will tell him what he needs to know to defeat the shadow.
Ged soon realizes both Serret and the Lord of the Court of the Terrenon are seeking to strip him of his will through the power of the stone, and they then intend to give him over to the shadow so they can control Ged and his powers entirely. Ged again flees, this time in the shape of a bird of prey, after realizing Serret is the daughter of the witch who had goaded him into reading Ogion’s book so long ago.
After a long flight, Ged returns to Ogion’s home on Gont. He has stayed in the shape of a bird for too long and must carefully be brought out of it by Ogion. Ogion tells Ged he must turn around and face the shadow head-on, as running from it will continue to give it power over him. Ged trusts Ogion and sees the truth in this, so he sets off once again, this time in active pursuit of the shadow.
Ged encounters the shadow on the sea and chases it through a storm until he runs aground on a tiny island, scarcely more than a sandbar. On the island, he meets an old man and an old woman who were dumped there as children and have scraped out a meager existence since then. After regaining his strength with the frightened pair, Ged sets off again.
This time, Ged chases the shadow to a narrow channel between the cliffs of two islands. At a dead end, Ged reaches the shadow and attempts to grapple it, but he finds he cannot physically touch the shadow. After this confrontation, Ged returns to his sailing.
Ged stops on an island and receives an icy welcome from a man who lives there. A man tells Ged that someone who looked like him but cast no shadow and did not arrive by boat was seen on the outskirts of town. Ged continues on his way and eventually reaches the island of Iffish.
On Iffish, Ged runs into Vetch, who lives there with his younger siblings. Vetch welcomes Ged into his home, and Ged enjoys the domestic comforts of being a part of a small family for a few days. Eventually, he decides he must leave again for his final pursuit of the shadow. Vetch insists on accompanying him.
The two sail east, stopping at the last island on the outskirts of the archipelago of Earthsea before continuing past the edge of all known maps. The pair sail for days into strange waters, but Ged seems assured of what he is doing and where he is going. Eventually, one night, Ged and Vetch reach their destination. Vetch watches in wonderment as the sea flattens and turns into a desert Ged continues to row across. Ged leaves the boat and walks into the distance, where he meets the shadow for the last time. The two come face to face and say the other’s name in tandem; both the shadow and the wizard share the true name of Ged. After weakening the shadow with the light from his wizard’s staff, Ged grapples the shadow and seems to absorb it into himself.
The sand turns back into water and Vetch pulls Ged back onto the boat. In facing the shadow, Ged has also faced the dark parts of himself and come to terms with them; he is no longer able to be manipulated by those dark parts.
Ged and Vetch sail for several more days until they return to Iffish, where Ged is excited about the everyday joy of Vetch’s family waiting for their return.
By Ursula K. Le Guin