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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 723

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.

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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 receives his quest as a result of his second main temptation. In a foolish contest on Roke, he summons a departed spirit and releases his shadow into the world. This strange entity is presented as an emissary from a realm of nonbeing, the opposite and opponent of all that is. To understand the shadow thoroughly, one must turn to Le Guin’s worldview as expressed in her essay collections, The Language of the Night (1979) and Dancing at the Edge of the World (1989), where her discussions of Carl Jung and of Taoism help to clarify her understanding of the relations between being and nonbeing. Le Guin’s epigraph to the novel and the series makes clear, however, that order in this fantasy world depends not upon the defeat of the shadow, but rather upon a kind of balance between light and shadow, between being and nonbeing: “Only in silence the word,/ only in dark the light,/ only in dying life:/ Bright the hawk’s flight/ on the empty sky.” Therefore, Ged sets out on a quest after releasing the shadow, to determine his proper relationship to this entity.

Ged’s quest is both literal and spiritual. He must travel to certain places, overcome certain obstacles, and finally meet his shadow in the right circumstances, but he also must discover who he is, the extent of his powers, and what he is to do with his life. Should the shadow, which is blind in the world of being, find him before he knows himself, then it will possess him, transforming him into an evil wizard. On these parallel journeys, Ged coerces a dragon to give up predation upon humans, resisting the temptation to free the dragon in exchange for the name of the shadow. In the magical economy of his world, knowing the true name of a thing gives one power over it. Attempting to save the life of a dying child, Ged travels spiritually to the border between death and life, and there the shadow finds him and begins to pursue him. This pursuit drives him to Osskil and the Stone of Terrenon, where Ged almost subordinates himself to the forces of nonbeing in order to gain power over the shadow; this is his...

(The entire section contains 3364 words.)

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