Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Speaking in Sweden in 1989, Ursula K. Le Guin explained why she found it necessary to write Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea (1990). She said that she conceived of the Earthsea trilogy, of which A Wizard of Earthsea is the first book, as a subverted heroic tale. In the 1960’s, when she was composing the stories, she thought of herself as transcending gender insofar as she was a woman successfully writing in a masculine genre for children, but she came later to see that, to a significant degree, she was writing as an “honorary or artificial man.” Furthermore, she realized that by giving her lead male characters dark skins, she was doing more than simply subverting the Anglo-European conventions of heroic fantasy; she also was associating her heroes with that other, larger group from the cultural margins, women.

A Wizard of Earthsea is a heroic fantasy told as a historical legend. As a young child, Ged shows an extraordinary talent for magic and soon attracts the attention of an obscure opposing force, associated finally with the Stone of Terrenon on the island of Osskil. Characters connected with this stone tempt Ged, during various stages of his training, to gratify his vanity and pride by summoning the spirits of the dead to appear among the living, thus exerting power over death. The story of his coming to terms with the dark side of himself, his shadow, may be seen as structured by temptations and crises.

The first major temptation during his boyhood comes from a young girl, the daughter of an enchantress from Osskil. She encourages him to try a spell of transformation, but when he goes to Ogion’s books in search of the spell, he is transfixed by one for summoning, and this first evokes his shadow. He...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Although Le Guin was not to articulate and publish her main feminist ideas until well after the appearance of the Earthsea books, the directions her thought would take are implicit in those books. The Taoist worldview of A Wizard of Earthsea differs from the Christian worldview that is implicit in much heroic fantasy, such as J. R. R. Tolkien’s trilogy The Lord of the Rings (1955). One main difference is that Le Guin’s worldview sees the universe as continuous, without beginning or end; therefore, human history contains no fall or last judgment. This has several implications for how women are portrayed in her work.

Although women hold inferior social and political positions, there is no ancient religious justification for this state of affairs. In The Tombs of Atuan (1971) and Tehanu, Le Guin makes it clear that the oppression of women in Earthsea results from an age of imbalance in political life, in which men have come to dominate politics and magic. It appears at the end of Tehanu that, as a new age begins, a woman will lead in the realm of magic, a man will lead in the realm of politics, and the two will cooperate in governing a unified Earthsea.

The worldview of the Earthsea books tends to be inclusive rather than exclusive. As the main characters, through their adventures and learning, come into line with that worldview, they are more inclined to act cooperatively, to think of community as...

(The entire section is 537 words.)


(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Earthsea is a mythical world of several small island nations surrounded by a largely unexplored sea. It shares a border with the world of the...

(The entire section is 374 words.)

Literary Qualities

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Basic to the series is Le Guin's symbolic opposition between being and nonbeing, which is the fountain of creative energy in the universe of...

(The entire section is 359 words.)

Social Sensitivity

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

A Wizard of Earthsea presents the problem of growing up as largely a problem of self-discovery. The most difficult aspect of...

(The entire section is 317 words.)

Topics for Discussion

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Ged grows up in the course of this novel. What are the qualities that mark him as childish in his early youth? What are the qualities that...

(The entire section is 275 words.)

Ideas for Reports and Papers

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Based on your reading of the novel and discussions of the rules of magic, write a rule book for wizards. This book should include the most...

(The entire section is 463 words.)

Related Titles / Adaptations

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

A Wizard of Earthsea is the first of three books making up the Earthsea trilogy. In each Ged is a major character, though The Tombs...

(The entire section is 601 words.)

For Further Reference

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Beacham, Walton, ed. Popular Fiction in America. Vol. 3. Washington, DC: Beacham Publishing, 1986. This essay contains a brief...

(The entire section is 229 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Bittner, James W. Approaches to the Fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1984. Bittner concentrates on examining Le Guin’s characteristic themes and styles.

Bucknall, Barbara J. Ursula K. Le Guin. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1981. This book gives special attention to relations between Le Guin’s life and her fiction. Includes an extensive bibliography.

Le Guin, Ursula K. Dancing at the Edge of the World. New York: Grove, 1988. This important collection of Le Guin’s later essays, speeches, and book reviews is very important to understanding the evolution of her...

(The entire section is 224 words.)