So, it’s been a little while since Ursala K. LeGuin died. When I was young enough that I was the target audience for a Wizard of Earthsea, I was reading other things. The stories that shaped my childhood love affair with fantasy were the Last Unicorn and Alanna: The First Adventure and The Chronicles of Prydain. I read Narnia without having any religious background, so for me it was just a joyous fantasy that (for some reason) had Santa Claus in it…
But I digress. I felt it was important to mention that Le Guin and Earthsea came much later for me because I want to divorce myself from the (dubious), “nostalgia” conversation that seems to pop up when we discuss things we enjoyed in our childhood. I will admit – once I got around to Earthsea I was fascinated by her wizard; Ged/Sparrowhawk. Here was a hero (more on this later) whose story is almost entirely centered around grief and guilt for a past transgression of pride.
Ged is a powerful, creative, talented magic-user in The Wizard of Earthsea. He is young but intensely capable. He is also unafraid to devote himself to the hard work that comes along with his wizardry, despite his natural talent. He doesn’t give up when things get too hard. But man, his pride is brutal. He takes an instant dislike to a fellow wizard-student and does something unforgivable in an attempt to one-up that kid.
His action has consequences that ripple out from his own life and affect numerous others but for him, the terror and shame of what he has done nearly destroy him. He goes into solitude, retreats from human contact, and even takes a quiet, low-status post once he is named as a Wizard.
Despite all this, the reader is drawn through his journey to redemption; and along the way, Ged becomes something more. Eventually, Ged learns that whatever shameful thing lies in our past, we must confront our issues and deal with them to become our best selves. Ged is an excellent role-model.
Now, here’s the thing… I’ve seen, from the darker, deplorable corners of our community, a tendency to downplay LeGuin and her writing. I’ve seen especially, a tendency to refer to Ged’s story as boring and unheroic because LeGuin doesn’t focus on the great battles and dashing heroism of the blond, blue-eyed heroes of old! But let’s not twist the facts. As one of those blond, blue-eyed heroes once said,
PRINCE LIR: But what’s left on earth that I haven’t tried? Giants, ogres, black knights, terrible tasks, fatal riddles! Molly, for her sake I’ve become a hero, but my great deeds mean nothing to her!
–The Last Unicorn, Peter S. Beagle
See, that’s the thing. Ged defeats dragons, travels to the ends of the earth, faces down dark artifacts, and the deceptions of sorceresses… Ged does all the things that heroes do. But they aren’t the important part of Ged’s story. The “Great Deeds” are a backdrop to a character who can do all the great things in the world but can’t face his own inner turmoil. He literally runs (well, or sails) from one disaster to the next constantly striving but his struggle is always, only, with himself.
It’s easy to laugh at a story like that, right? If all you want is flashing lights and mighty-muscled barbarians then there is plenty of that in fantasy for your enjoyment. But Ged is a subtle character – and Le Guin was acutely conscious of the decision to write a fantasy for a younger audience. And what better fantasy for a young audience than one that doesn’t ever talk down them, gives them a humble but powerful hero with dangerous flaws, and then presents the idea that to be our best selves, to become who we truly want to be, we should accept help and never run from our own demons.