Quote of the Moment

"What's Past Is Prologue." - William Shakespeare

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Coming-of-Age and Balance in A Wizard of Earthsea

SPOILER ALERT! If you have not read A Wizard of Earthsea there are spoilers in this essay.

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Ah, A Wizard of Earthsea. I've read the initial Earthsea trilogy before (I have yet to read the newer two books in the series, though), and it's another story that I enjoyed reading again, especially since Ursula K. Le Guin is one of my favorite authors. A Wizard of Earthsea is a true coming-of-age story for the wizard Ged. Le Guin also does an excellent job structuring her magic system--it perfectly reflects what Ged becomes at the end of the novel.

"The first two books of the Earthsea cycle thus recount coming-of-age stories for two children, a male and a female" (145). What Richard Mathews states here is simple truth--it's hard not to see the coming-of-age story in A Wizard of Earthsea (and the female coming-of-age story in The Tombs of Atuan is a wonderful mirror to the first novel). We meet Ged when he's still a boy, still unnamed, and as he learns his magic, he goes through many stages and emotions to finally reach adulthood.

When Ged first becomes Ogion's apprentice, he's an impatient child. He wants to learn everything, and he wants to learn it immediately. The childish impatience gets in the way of what Ogion is trying to teach him. It's not until far later in the novel that Ged finally accepts and craves learning by listening and watching as Ogion originally wished. That impatience also sends him straight to Roke.

Once on Roke, Ged develops a disdain for his fellow student, Jasper. It's another emotion and impulse of childhood or even adolescence. And it leads him to believe that anything that goes wrong isn't his own fault, but the fault of another. When Ged looks like a fool his first day at Roke, he doesn't take responsibility for his own actions. "And Ged followed sullen and sore-hearted, knowing he had behaved like a fool, and blaming Jasper for it" (Le Guin 41). It was Ged himself who actually chose how to respond to Jasper's questions and made himself look the fool, yet Ged blames Jasper.

And the next stage in Ged's life is his fall, which comes about due to his pride. Like a pompous teenager, he boasts and shows off, which then comes back to tear him down. His spell causes the shadow to enter the world. Ged's pride comes crashing down, and instead of simply learning from his mistakes, he feels as though he needs to be constantly punished. Initially he was so high on himself, and now he drags the perception of himself to rock bottom.

Then Ged runs. He attempts to hide from his mistakes in a literal sense, by running from the shadow that pursues him. This is yet another stage in his growth.

Finally, when he's ready to accept the mistakes he's made, he decides to face them head on. He chases the shadow to the ends of Earthsea because he knows he must face the truth about himself. And once he finally meets face to face with the shadow, he realizes he is made up of his successes, failures, and mistakes; that there is a balance inside of him between good and evil, just like there is in everyone. This realization is Ged's step into adulthood. "Ged has completed one stage of his life and is ready for the next" (Mathews 141).

The balance that Ged attains at the end is a reflection on the entire magic system of the book. Le Guin masterfully outlines just what and what not magic users can do in Earthsea. You can't get something out of nothing, you can't change something without it effecting something else. There must always be a balance. And when Ged takes the shadow into himself, he's righting that balance inside of himself, just like magic.

A Wizard of Earthsea is a great high fantasy that shows that coming-of-age arc, and that's only emphasized by the magic Le Guin weaves into the story. The following novel focuses on the other side of the coin, the growth of a female protagonist, making both books powerful reads in a great series. Le Guin is an author that I think should be read by any fantasy or science fiction writer (or reader) since she is an exceptional storyteller.

Works Cited

Le Guin, Ursula K. A Wizard of Earthsea. Bantam Books: New York, 1975.
Mathews, Richard. Fantasy: The Liberation of Imagination. Routledge: New York, 2002.

NEXT UP: A review of the first episode of Grimm.

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