Friday, May 1, 2015

Audiobook Review: A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

In preparation for my upcoming review of The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore, I am putting up this is a (slightly edited) re-post of the review I ran of A Wizard of Earthsea several years back.

Book Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars
Audiobook Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars
A Wizard of Earthsea is the first of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea books and gives us an epic tale of fantasy and magic with a bit of commentary and introspection as well. (SPOILERS AHEAD) It focuses on the character Sparrowhawk who will one day grow to be a great mage in the world of Earthsea. As a boy, he shows much prowess with the magical arts and the Mage Ogion takes him under his tutelage and also gives him his true name (Ged). However, the young apprentice grows weary of his protracted studies and finds himself disappointed that he learns little in the way of real magic. Then he finds himself taunted by a witch’s daughter into using a spell that he does not understand and that summons up a shadow that casts an impending darkness over him. Ogion, angered at Ged’s actions, gives him the choice of continuing his studies there or going to the school for wizards on the island of Roke where he can truly learn to control his abilities. Ged finds it a difficult decision, but chooses to go to Roke. There, he undertakes advanced studies, but once again finds himself the victim of his own brashness. Another student, Jasper, taunts Ged who has received much recognition in the school for his innate abilities. Challenged by Jasper to show what he can do, Ged casts a summoning spell which gives form to the shadow he previously brought into the world (making it into what is known as a Gebbeth) and it nearly kills him. It takes all the power of the Archmage to fend it off, and the old wizard dies from his efforts. Ged recovers after an extended illness and eventually resumes his studies. But he knows that this shadow creature will continue to pursue him once he leaves the protection of Roke and that he must one day face the evil he has brought into the world.
With A Wizard of Earthsea, the immensely talented Le Guin crafts a story that mixes fantasy with didactic and gives us one of the most literary works in the fantasy genre since Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. It has many of the archetypal traits of a fantasy story like wizards, dragons, and quests, but she uses those familiar trappings to carry forward a bigger story. This book is very much about the responsibility that goes with having power as well as the consequences of actions that follow from using that power. And it even seems to have a slight environmental bent to it as well. But you need not delve too deeply into the underlying messages to enjoy the book. It works perfectly well as a fantasy tale on its own. But those themes that carry Le Guin’s core message make this a much more complete tale and also allows it to resonate with the readers long after they have finished the book. Simply said, I rank this as one of the greatest fantasy books of all time.
And you can see how much this novel--published in 1968--must have affected other readers as well because many of its themes have found themselves repeated in literature and other genre works in the years that followed. This can easily be looked at as the Harry Potter of its time as it follows a young wizard who goes to a school for magic and must learn to overcome his own ambitions and to use his power wisely. And the brashness and impatience that we see in Ged has become a common trait in the flawed heroes that have been so prevalent in science fiction and fantasy over the past forty years. Plus, much of the teachings around magic practiced by the Mages of Roke also suggest the philosophy that George Lucas would later inject into the Force. And actually, the tale of Ged would have offered a much better origin story for Darth Vader than the watered down one Lucas gave us in the Star Wars prequel trilogy. The young Ged was similar in many ways to Anakyn Skywalker, and his reckless act of magic could have eventually overcome him and turned him to the ways of evil. If only Lucas had added an element similar to this to explain Anakyn’s eventual shift to the Dark Side, the trilogy would have given us a much more satisfying resolution.
The audiobook version that I listened to claimed that Le Guin herself would narrate along with Harlan Ellison. But Le Guin actually does very little, only reading the very beginning and end, with Ellison doing the rest of the voice work. And that’s a good thing as Ellison is a first-rate voice talent and always a pleasure to listen to when he is narrating an audiobook (you can read my review of him voicing his own stories at this link). Ellison could have made a career out of narrating books, and he actually has quite a few under his belt. He does not just read the words, he immerses himself in the story and gives a very animated reading of the tale which brings it to life, as if you are listening to a great story-teller while sitting around a campfire. As a slight knock, his voice does have an almost comedic tone at times that some may feel does not quite fit Le Guin's material, but this rarely bothered me while listening to the audiobook. Unfortunately, this version is no longer readily available, with the very talented Robert Inglis taking on the task of reading the newer edition of the audiobook as well as the next two in the Earthsea Trilogy.  His narration has its merits as well (and I will cover that in more detail in my upcoming review of the second and third books), but Ellison gives us a no-holds-barred performance that is impassioned and frenetic, and definitely worth seeking out if you have the time.
As mentioned above, A Wizard of Earthsea is the first of Le Guin’s books to take place on the island world known as Earthsea and the two that follow, The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore, make up a trilogy along with this one. But this book tells a complete tale in itself that stands completely on its own.  Though you will definitely find yourself wanting to continue and follow the adventures of Ged in her subsequent books (she has also done three more beyond the original trilogy). This is a must read for Fantasy fans and Science Fiction aficionados as much for its great story as for the themes that have continued to reappear in the genre since its publication.
One final note: avoid at all costs the 2004 Earthsea mini-series that aired on the Sci Fi Channel.  That was a horrible mauling of Le Guin's excellent books and even the author distanced herself from that televised travesty.

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