Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. Le Guin


I can certainly see why this is classic. Le Guin weaves a compelling tale, albeit one rather short on characters. The hero of the story--Ged--is the only real character in the whole book. There are a few mentors (well, one, really) and a friend. But he interacts largely wih faceless, two dimensional beings: the teacher, the fisherman, the supreme wizard, etc.

It must be said that Rowling undoubtedly owes a great deal to Le Guin--Ged, the unlikely child prodigy, attends a school for wizards where he is at first ostracized, then hailed as the wizard to end all wizards. He experiences hate-at-first-sight with a spoiled little rich kid, and in his eagerness to best this "enemy," he takes a risk that nearly costs him his life . . . until the head of the school sacrifices himself to save Ged. Then Ged goes off on a quest to find and kill the evil he is fated to fight . . . only one of them will survive . . . Sound familiar?

Still, it must be said that while Rowling may have borrowed from Le Guin, she also improved the story. Where Earthsea is largely peopled by stick figures and cardboard cutouts, Hogwarts teems with vibrant, lively characters--characters you love and want to spend more time with. Le Guin is clearly more focused on Ged and his journey. She has no eyes for anyone else.

The journey itself is entertaining, and sometimes eerie, but the resolution is almost anticlimactic, and smacks more of self-help and psychobabble than a meaningful encounter between hero and villain.

Yet the book is still excellent, and enjoyable to boot. It may not be quite on par with Rowling (or Tolkien, or Gaiman), but it is undoubtedly a pleasant way to wile away an afternoon.

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