Article by Jason Duke
Why coming of age stories are best suited to the fantasy tale.
“A Wizard of Earthsea” by Ursula k. Le Guin was published by small press Parnassus in 1968. The story takes place on an archipelago in a fantasy world called Earthsea and the protagonist is a teenage boy mage named Ged born in a village on the island of Gont.
Ged exhibits great power. He enlists into the school of wizardry, where his pride in his abilities creates a confrontational attitude that incites a magical duel with another student. Unfortunately, Ged’s spell goes wrong, freeing a shadow creature that attacks him. The rest of the novel deals with Ged’s quest to rid himself of the creature.
Le Guin’s “Earthsea” setting is based on two short stories, “The Rule of Names” (1964) and “The Word of Unbinding” (1964), both published in Fantastic. The work was also influenced by Native American legends and Norse mythology. “Her knowledge of myths and legends, as well as her familial interest in anthropology, have been described by scholar Donna White as allowing her to create “entire cultures” for the islands of Earthsea ” (A Wizard of Earthsea).
Many critics and reviewers–as evidenced in the numerous body of essays and critiques on the book–consider the tale a Bildungsroman, since it deals with Ged learning about his powers, how to use them, and the consequences of using them. The coming of age that many commentators on the story mainly focus deals with a proud and yet unsure Ged. “Le Guin allows young readers to sympathize with Ged, and only gradually realize that there is a price to be paid for his actions, as he learns to discipline his magical powers” (A Wizard of Earthsea).
This bildungsroman all wraps up nicely at the end of the story wherein “Ged finally accepts the shadow as a part of himself and is thus released from its terror” (A Wizard of Earthsea). The rite of passage this symbolizes, according to critics like Jeanne Walker, is “analogue for the entire plot of A Wizard of Earthsea, and that the plot itself plays the role of a rite of passage for an adolescent reader. Walker goes on to say, “The entire action of A Wizard of Earthsea … portrays the hero’s slow realization of what it means to be an individual in society and a self in relation to higher powers” (Ursula K. Le Guin Beyond Genre: Fiction for Children and Adults & Dancing with Dragons: Ursula K. Le Guin and the Critics).
Le Guin herself stated that “fantasy was best suited as a medium for describing coming of age, because exploring the subconscious was difficult using the language of ‘rational daily life'” (A Wizard of Earthsea). There are also a number of similarities between “A Wizard of Earthsea” and Harry Potter, so much so that it is unmistakable Rowling took the ideas for her series straight from the Earthsea book. “…the basic premise of A Wizard of Earthsea, that of a talented boy going to a wizard’s school and making an enemy with whom he has a close connection, is also the premise of Harry Potter. Ged also receives a scar from the shadow, which hurts whenever the shadow is near him, just as Harry Potter’s scar from Voldemort (A Wizard of Earthsea).
How did Le Guin feel about it?
“Commenting on the similarity, Le Guin said that she did not feel that J. K. Rowling “ripped her off”, but that Rowling’s books received too much praise for supposed originality, and that Rowling “could have been more gracious about her predecessors. My incredulity was at the critics who found the first book wonderfully original. She has many virtues, but originality isn’t one of them. That hurt” (A Wizard of Earthsea).
“A Wizard of Earthsea,” Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Wizard_of_Earthsea. Accessed 10 October 2017.
Cadden, Mike (2005). Ursula K. Le Guin Beyond Genre: Fiction for Children and Adults. New York City, New York, US: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-99527-2.
White, Donna (1999). Dancing with Dragons: Ursula K. Le Guin and the Critics. Columbia, South Carolina, US: Camden House. ISBN 1-57113-034-9.