Although A Wizard of Earthsea follows the major conventions of heroic fantasy, it also subverts them. Earthsea is presented as a hierarchical world, medieval in technology, but made materially rather comfortable by the use of magic. Magic is based on a knowledge of language. Ged explains that the universe is a long word, spoken by the shining of the stars, the syllables of which are the true names of all things. The magician learns these syllables, which also make up the language of dragons, and by manipulating them can participate in and to some extent direct the form and disposition of things. This creative magic is believed to be the province of men. Only men are trained in it. Although there are female amateurs, village witches who pass on a “minor” traditional knowledge of spells associated mainly with feminine domestic life, the women who achieve special power usually are seen as connected with the dark powers opposed to creation. In this story, the few powerful women are also dangerous. As the trilogy develops, and especially as it is extended into Tehanu, it becomes clearer that women’s association with destructive magic is more a cultural than a natural phenomenon. Kept at the margins of culture by traditional social and political structures, women seem to be forced to seek power from dark forces. Because the culture associates women with darkness and nonbeing, whatever powers they show tend also to be connected with evil.

In A Wizard of Earthsea, Ged’s meetings with women seem to be either dangerous temptations or minor events, but in each he learns something vital to his success. The dangerous women bring him into contact with his shadow, which proves to be necessary to his maturing. The helpful women, such as Vetch’s sister, Yarrow, and an aged, exiled princess, help Ged to understand the values of domestic life and the suffering that results from the current political order. Such learning becomes increasingly important in the later books, which concern themselves in part with reforming the political and social...

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