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High Fantasy: A Wizard of Earthsea

by Eleanor Cameron

A Wizard of Earthsea (Parnassus) by Ursula K. LeGuin received the 1969 Boston Globe–Horn Book Award, given at the New England Round Table of Children’s Librarians, October, 1969. 

It is never important to pigeonhole works of fiction nor insist that a certain book should belong, in a child’s estimation, in this category or that (which is why I regret that in many libraries fantasy and fairy tales are separated from the realistic fiction so that a child’s initial predilection often remains entrenched for years, possibly for life). What matters is what the child loves and what each book does for him. Though what it does we may never learn, for the child usually cannot tell us what lies down deep — if he himself knows.

I am thinking here, specifically, of the words “high fantasy,” the subject for the 1969 New England Round Table of Children’s Librarians. And while I am conscious that, to a child, these words would probably mean little, still one recognizes the implication: that there are works of a fantastical nature in which authors have somehow managed to distill their deepest selves, both as human beings and as artists, such works as the fairy tales of Andersen and MacDonald, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Kenneth Grahame’s classic, and, in our own time, the works of Farjeon, Lewis, Tolkien, Norton, and Boston; Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden (Lippincott), de la Mare’s The Three Royal Monkeys (Knopf), Enright’s Tatsinda (Harcourt), Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain cycle, and Henry Treece’s last novel, The Dream Time (Hawthorn). These works reveal a striking attitude regarding the human condition and our relationships with one another. For within these tales lies the essence of their creators, the philosophy of their lives subtly woven through the pages of a story that children love and remember, and which may, quite unbeknown to the children themselves, become a lasting influence.

As one gathers from the names mentioned above, more English writers by far appear to have been able to write this kind of book than American writers, though whether our youthfulness as a nation has anything to do with the matter, I am not certain.* Yet, a fantastical tale has been written by an American which strikes me as being a rare book that not only moves with vividness and power, but embodies the philosophic point of view of its creator. And the expression of that point of view, as in any fine piece of fiction, never for a moment stills or even momentarily impedes the movement, because this expression lies within the action and determines it.

It is not in the least surprising that Ursula Le Guin should have written, in A Wizard of Earthsea, a work which is a noble example of the term “high fantasy.” Of this term she has said, “I think ‘High Fantasy’ a beautiful phrase. It summarizes, for me, what I value most in an imaginative work: the fact that the author takes absolutely seriously the world and the people which he has created, as seriously as Homer took the Trojan War, and Odysseus; that he plays his game with all his skill, and all his art, and all his heart. When he does that, the fantasy game becomes one of the High Games men play. Otherwise, you might as well play Monopoly.”

If, as I believe, the tests of high fantasy (and certainly of any outstanding piece of fiction) lie in strength and cleanness of structure, the overwhelming sense of reality, the pervading sense of place, the communication of the visual perceptiveness of the writer, exactness of detail, the originality and discipline with which materials are handled, excellence of style, richness of character portrayal and depth of vision, then I can say with assurance that A Wizard of Earthsea is indeed high fantasy.

Ursula Le Guin has been writing since she was nine and almost all of what she wrote before publication was fantasy in the style of Isak Dinesen’s tales or Austin Tappan Wright’s Islandia (tales happening in the world we know rather than in the realm of fairy tale): some, traditional and folkloristic in the vein of Dunsany; some, as science fiction. It was not until she was thirty and becoming concerned that she might grow introverted, self-indulgent and, finally, stale should she continue unpublished, that she found a helpful editor and made a first sale to Fantastic Stories when they took a short piece of conventional pulp fantasy. Her reading since childhood had found its chief pleasure in fantasy and science fiction, so that upon acceptance of that story she continued to write both, though mainly a certain kind of science fiction for adults.

On the whole I do not care for the genre as I have known it; but I have read her works — Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile, City of Illusions, and The Left Hand of Darkness — with interest and pleasure, though not the deep pleasure, I shall have to admit, with which I read A Wizard of Earthsea. Particularly in The Left Hand of Darkness, Mrs. Le Guin has come into her own as a writer and as a stylist, who is exploring, not the development of technology as the triumphant flowering of civilization, but a future in which man will be struggling even more desperately than now to discover his way out of the tyrannies which technology’s misuses have imposed upon him. She is dealing, therefore, with the possibilities inherent in ideas rather than in inventions. And concerning her use of ideas, formed in the minds of many-faceted protagonists rather than in puppets pasted against plot, we see clearly the emphasis in current science fiction. It is upon the implications for the future as divined by the writer when he extrapolates through sociology and anthropology rather than through technology alone.

And it is precisely this knowledge of anthropology that is everywhere apparent in A Wizard of Earthsea, making itself felt not as a science but aesthetically as a mood of the writer. Mrs. Le Guin confesses to having only an interested layman’s knowledge of the subject, plus an attitude given her by her anthropologist father, A. L. Kroeber,** and strengthened by her historian husband. She is aware that this attitude has colored her work, but she cannot define it; she feels that certain elements of it must be “a curiosity about people different from one’s own kind; interest in artifacts; interest in languages; delight in the idiosyncrasies of various cultures; a sense that time is long yet that human history is very short — and therefore a sense of kinship across seas and centuries; a love of strangeness; a love of exactness.” It is these very loves and interests which enrich the quality, the texture, and the spirit of A Wizard of Earthsea.

A Wizard of Earthsea is, above all, a book of magic and of learning; its theme is the misuse of the power magic bestows, and its protagonists are the great magi and the lesser magicians and their pupils. In fact one is moved to believe, as one turns the pages of the book, that surely this is one of the most complete pictures of a world immersed in magic ever written for youth, with its detailing of the daily lives of its great magicians and their prentices as well as of its little ordinary people, who have no desire to understand magic but who live in daily awareness of it. But in A Wizard of Earthsea, magic, though it is a pervading presence, is never the main interest, never an end in itself. Always the implications go beyond the practices of magic to what, humanly and spiritually, lies behind each discipline the prentice must undergo. The great magi are not simply great magicians. They are wise men: wise in the ways of their Art, but beyond this kind of wisdom, wise in the ways of mankind and wise as to how mankind must learn from life. As they have penetrated ever more deeply into their craft, they have come to comprehend the relationship of each one of our acts to every other, and the urgent necessity we are all under to remember this relationship.

Ged, in a single, tragic moment early in his apprenticeship, fails to remember. Out of his treacherous pride, his touchiness, his hunger for recognition, for domination, he calls upon the long-­dead in shameless answer to a challenge cynically given. In that instant, when the pale figure with the terrified face appears out of the past at Ged’s call, the shadow-beast — “a clot of black shadow, quick and hideous,” that “leaped straight out at Ged’s face” — breaks from unlife and is released upon the world. Its power is this: that if it can overtake and conquer Ged, it can core him out, possess him, and use his knowledge to its own mindless ends. To Ged, the Archmage Gensher says, “The power you had to call it gives it power over you: you are connected. It is the shadow of your arrogance, the shadow of your ignorance, the shadow you cast. Has a shadow a name?”

It is a question Ged is long in answering. He flees from the shadow-beast, for if it conquers him, the innocent will suffer. He runs until at last the word is spoken that makes him turn and face his shadow, and grapple with it, and name it.

Two things Ged learns of Ogion, his first teacher, that he recalls later in the extremity of despair. The first: that naming sets limits to power, and that he who knows a man’s true name (i.e., his true being) holds that man’s life in his keeping. The second: that danger must surround power as shadow does light, and that sorcery is not a game played for pleasure or for praise. Ogion had said, “’Think of this: that every word, every act of our Art is said and is done either for good, or for evil. Before you speak or do, you must know the price that is to pay.'” And at the School in Roke, the Master Hand spoke to Ged in the same vein, words which transcend the context of Ged’s struggle and tower behind our own struggles with those forces we ourselves have released but have not yet the power, the knowledge, or the insight to control, and may not learn to control until it is too late:

To change this rock into a jewel, you must change its true name. And to do that, my son, even to so small a scrap of the world, is to change the world. It can be done. Indeed it can be done. It is the art of the Master Changer, and you will learn it, when you are ready to learn it. But you must not change one thing, one pebble, one grain of sand, until you know what good and evil will follow on that act. The world is in balance, in Equilibrium. A wizard’s power of Changing and of Summoning can shake the balance of the world. It is dangerous, that power. It is most perilous. It must follow knowledge, and serve need. To light a candle is to cast a shadow….

With what ominous meaning do these words ring upon our ears today! In the end Ged realizes that his task has never been to undo what he had done, but to finish what he had begun. The deep subject of the book is the necessity for the individual’s return to self, the necessity for seeing one’s self, one’s acts, and the motives for those acts in a clear, searching light. And this is not done, in Ged’s case, through the escape power of magic, but through the use of an intense discipline gained through the practice of magic. Ged knew, having recognized at last what was fundamental to himself, that as his power grew and his knowledge widened, the way he could go narrowed, until in the end he could choose nothing, but could do only what he must do. And he realized as well that:

[he] had neither lost nor won but, naming the shadow of his death with his own name, had made himself whole: a man: who, knowing his whole true self, cannot be used or possessed by any power other than himself, and whose life is therefore lived for life’s sake and never in the service of ruin, or pain, or hatred, or the dark. In the Creation of Ea, which is the oldest song, it is said, “Only in silence the word, only in dark the light, only in dying life: bright the hawk’s flight on the empty sky.”

As the reader has perceived, what Ged was dealing with throughout his long journey toward a final understanding of himself and his struggles were names and shadows. They haunt the book, they are woven through all its patterns, they lie at the heart of every scene. Recalling Ursula Le Guin’s knowledge of anthropology, it is not surprising that she has used these two ancient and potent subjects to underlie and illumine her meanings. In Frazer’s The Golden Bough we learn how far back in time the preoccupation with names and shadows goes, how widespread is and has been the belief in their powers among the primitive tribes of Africa, among North and South American Indians, and the various island peoples of the world.

Jung, in discussing archetypes and the collective unconscious, calls the inferior side of ourselves, which is to be found in the personal unconscious, the shadow. And the shadow represents, for him, all that we do not allow ourselves to do, all that we do not want to be. If we commit some regrettable act in a rage, we say, “I was not myself.” That inferior, primitive person we encounter in dreams, that person whose qualities we fear and dislike, is the shadow. It possesses passions we are ashamed of; it cannot be educated; it is instinctive man: greedy, cruel, selfish, amoral. It is useless to repress it. Man must recognize it and either wrestle with it or try to change those situations which provoke it. So Ged’s shadow-beast, which he himself had released, must be sought out, recognized, and wrestled with. Concerning Ged’s final struggle, we are reminded of Jung’s individuation process, neither a neurotic nor a pathological phenomenon, but a struggle which all who are becoming self-aware will gradually engage in. It is an effort to become whole, to recognize and to give wise expression to both sides of one’s being. “The shadow,” Jung*** says, “is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego personality….”

It is possible to give here only scattered examples of Ged’s involvements with all those names and shadows lying within the richness of A Wizard of Earthsea. “What is its use, Master?” he asks Ogion, the Wizard of Gont, concerning the flower fourfoil. “‘None I know of,'” replies Ogion. “‘When you know the fourfoil in all its seasons root and leaf and flower, by sight and scent and seed, then you may learn its true name, knowing its being: which is more than its use.'” When Ged leaves Gont, his home island, for Roke, the island of the School of Wizards, he goes in the craft Shadow. When he is challenged to that fatal act which releases the shadow-beast, he cries, “‘By my name, I will do it!'” And he means, terribly, his true name, which none can know save the magus who gave it him, or that person to whom Ged chooses to tell it, thus putting his life, his very being, into the hands of his confidant with the utmost trust and love and devotion. And when Ged comes near the end of his final journey, he cries aloud in anguish that he is bound to the foul cruel thing, the shadow-beast, and will be forever, “‘unless I can learn the word that masters it: its name.'”

As for the little names of A Wizard of Earthsea, the names of plants and birds and fish and places and people, it would seem that Ursula Le Guin must herself be a wizard at naming. In Tolkien’s books, when it comes to birds and animals and plants, we do not find strange names. In Walter de la Mare’s The Three Royal Monkeys, we find, on the contrary, all names to be strange. As I have said in The Green and Burning Tree,† “Tolkien speaks of cream and honey and clover and cocks-comb and pines and bracken. But de la Mare puts before us a flora of evening-blooming Immamoosa, of Gelica, Exxwixxia, Samarak, Manga, Nano and Ukka trees. Little Nod stores Ukka nuts against the Witzaweelwulla, the White Winter, and makes Sudd loaves, Manaka cake, Manga cheese, and Subbub, a kind of drink.” Ursula Le Guin does something different again. She combines known names with strange ones. Perriot leaves are used with cobwebs to stanch the flow of blood from wounds. On Low Torning in the Ninety Isles where lies Pendor, the “dragon-spoiled isle,” housewives row across from isle to isle to have a cup of rushwash tea with a neighbor, and nets are strung across the straits to catch small silver fish called turbies, the oil of which is the wealth of the Ninety Isles. Witch women make a smoke of corly-root to heal the sick while they sing the Nagian Chant. On Roke there is a plant called sparkweed, which grows “‘where the wind dropped the ashes of burning Ilien, when Erreth-Akbe defended the Inward Isle from the Firelord.'” When the wind blows the withered flowerheads, the loosened seeds fly up “like sparks of fire in the sun.” The master of Shadow was an Andradean from an island above Gont, and he wore “a red cloak trimmed with pellawi-fur such as Andradean merchants wear.” As well as the small fish called turbies, there are pannies. And there are pendick-trees, and a certain little lizard called a harrekki, and Ged’s treasured pet is an otak, a rare strange beast found on only four of the southernmost isles of the Archipelago. It is small, sleek, with a broad face, fur dark or brindled; it has great bright eyes, cruel teeth, a sharp temper, no voice, and a little brown tongue like a dried leaf.

As for the names of people, why the name of Serret, the Lady of Terranon, or of little Yarrow, whose true name was Kest, which means minnow, should seem airy and feminine and utterly right to me, I do not know. There is a boatman named Pechvarry. The three great wizards who teach Ged are Ogion, Nemmerle, and Gensher. Yarrow’s brother is Vetch, whose true name is Estarriol. The dragon whom Ged defeats with a single stroke of knowledge is called Yevaud.†† Yevaud! Do you feel what I feel in those syllables? The sound of these names falls upon my ear with ease and a sense of complete appropriateness, given the nature and atmosphere of Earthsea, but I cannot explain my satisfaction as, ideally perhaps, I should not be able to. However, the rightness of the name Skiorh I think I can explain: to me it calls up “scour,” “skewer,” and “core,” and the man who had once owned it was hollowed out by the shadow-beast and possessed in order that it could lead Ged to a certain desolate place and turn upon him. Whether Mrs. Le Guin heard those words as overtones for Skiorh, I do not know.

I have not spoken of the names of the islands of Earthsea, picked out on the maps drawn for A Wizard of Earthsea (as were the small decorative pictures, which evoke to perfection in treatment and style the subject, the place, and the timelessness of the book). But any child, youth, or adult delighting in maps will want every now and then to orient himself — on Havnor, perhaps, to find Havnor Great Port or Eskel. He may want to swing quickly across to the Kargad Lands composed of Karego-At, Atuan, Hur­at-Hur, and Atnini, names which call up tones of ancient Assyria, or is it Tibet? Or he may want to speed across Gont, lying in the Gontish Sea and surrounded by Andrad, Perregal, Spevy, Torheven, Barnisk, and Oranéa. When Ged asks Vetch where he hails from, Vetch speaks warmly of his home islands with the funny names, Korp, Kopp, and Holp, Venway and Vemish, Iffish, Koppish, and Sneg.

To me, it is as if Ursula Le Guin herself has lived on the Archipelago, minutely observing and noting down the habits and idiosyncrasies of the culture from island to island, variations in dress and food and ways of living, in climate, languages, attitudes of the inhabitants and atmospheres of cities and towns. Nothing has escaped the notice of her imagination’s seeking eye, but always she has chosen her details with the discrimination of an artist for whom economy of style is the ideal. We know that the essence of any novel is its human situation, but essence without a superbly convincing context is nothing. It is only the beginning, only an idea. Henry James††† spoke of the necessity for precision, exactness. “The supreme virtue of a novel,” he said, “the merit on which all its other merits…helplessly and submissively depend,” is its truth of detail, its air of reality, its “solidity of specification…If [that] be not there, all other merits are as nothing, and if these be there, they owe their effect to the success with which the author has produced the illusion of life.”

Like all the great fantasies, A Wizard of Earthsea leaves an echoing in our minds, that sense of having experienced something we can never quite put into words — a divine discontent, more to be desired, C. S. Lewis believed, than any possible satisfaction. The great fantasies leave with child readers a scarcely realized sense of something beyond their reach, which gives another dimension to the world of reality. They help children to orient themselves, help them to distinguish good from evil, and to learn how the forces of good and evil work. Great fantasies prepare them for the fact that just as good is a power, so is evil, and enables them, through identification with heroes, as Kornei Chukovsky has said, to regard themselves as fearless participants in imaginary struggles for justice and goodness and freedom. Very often danger and horror are made harshly vivid, but because these dangers and horrors occur in timelessness and in the world of magic, children learn to face without shock what otherwise might be unendurable: the force of that dark message which both dreams and fantasy so often bring. Finally, it is not only facts about the world that children need to know, Joanna Field says in A Life of One’s Own, but facts about themselves, and only through the imaginative symbols of fantasy and fairy tales and legends can they at first express themselves and understand something of their own deeper natures.

Gore Vidalǂ has something to say about fiction which reminds me of A Wizard of Earthsea. “[N]ovel writing goes, at its best, beyond cleverness to that point where one’s whole mind and experience and vision are the novel and the effort to translate this wholeness into prose is the life: a circle of creation.” This kind of wholeness is, I believe, what Mrs. Le Guin has accomplished: She has created a world, a country of the mind, its people and ways and languages and character. Translating this wholeness into prose in such a way that, through an experience private to her country of the mind because of its intimacy with magic, she takes us beyond magic to an understanding of truths which illuminate our difficulties in the world of reality. For A Wizard of Earthsea is a work which, though it is fantasy, continually returns us to the world about us; its forces and powers; returns us to our­ selves, to our own struggles and aspirations, to the very core of human responsibility.

* In 1879 Henry James said that it takes much history to produce a little literature and that the flower of art can bloom only in deep soil. Our soil is now deep enough that it has produced a body of literature, but it is apparently not yet deep enough to produce a body of great fantasy.

** Her mother, Theodora Kroeber, wrote Ishi, Last of His Tribe [Parnassus] for children and Ishi in Two Worlds: A Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America for adults.

*** Carl Jung, The Collected Works, translated by R. F. C. Hull, Bollingen Series XX, Vol. 9, II, “Aion,” copyright © 1959 by Princeton University Press, p. 8.

† Eleanor Cameron, The Green and Burning Tree: On the Writing and Enjoyment of Children’s Books (Boston, Atlantic-Little, Brown and Company, 1969), p.198.

†† He appears in Mrs. Le Guin’s short story “The Rule of Names,” where, for the first time, the Archipelago is introduced and we discover a foreshadowing of A Wizard of Earthsea.

††† Henry James, The Art of the Novel (New York, Charles Scribner’s Songs, 1934).

ǂ Gore Vidal, Rocking the Boat (Boston, Little, Brown, and Company, 1962), p. 262.


From the April 1971 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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