National Endowment of the Arts - The Big Read
A Wizard of Earthsea

A Wizard of Earthsea

by Ursula K. Le Guin

To me a novel can be as beautiful as any symphony, as beautiful as the sea.


Ursula K. Le Guin (Copyright Marian Wood Kolisch)

Josephine Reed: Now, The Big Read.

KenYatta Rogers reads from A Wizard of Earthsea...

"Watch the air between my hands," he turned away from the others and stood still.

In a great slow gesture he stretched out his arms, the gesture of welcome that opens an invocation. He began to speak.

Reed: That's KenYatta Rogers reading from A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin.

Welcome to The Big Read, a program created by the National Endowment for the Arts, in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The largest reading program in American history, The Big Read is designed to unite communities through great literature.

Here's your host, poet and former Chair of the NEA, Dana Gioia.

Dana Gioia: A Wizard of Earthsea is the first book in a series of celebrated fantasy novels by Ursula K. Le Guin. This first novel describes the childhood and teenage years of a young wizard, Ged, as he grows up in a remote mountain village and begins to discover and master his powers. One remarkable thing about A Wizard of Earthsea is that it offers readers the excitement of a fantasy adventure along with the psychological depth of a realist novel and the ethical and ecological awareness of a philosophical text. Le Guin invents a rich and complex maritime world in which she sets the story—a place called Earthsea.

Novelist Michael Chabon.

Michael Chabon: Earthsea is a world of islands, scattered in an archipelago across the surface of an enormous ocean.

Gioia: Author R.L. Stine.

R.L. Stine: Each island has its own personality. And each island has its own geography and its own mythology and its own history.

Chabon: That strange, communal isolation strongly characterizes the people and the world of Earthsea.

Gioia: Writer Pico Iyer.

Pico Iyer: The book has for me the silver light of the Pacific Northwest where Ursula Le Guin lives and I feel that I'm almost looking out on the sharp and steely maritime skies that you see in places like Portland and Seattle. But the fabric of it is very Eastern and in that sense, very ancient.

Gioia: Author of A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula Le Guin: As I recall, one of the first things I did was draw the map, which is the map of Earthsea that's in the books now. I just named the islands. That was fun. I just irresponsibly gave all the islands names. I didn't know what happened on them or who lived on them or anything at that point, but there they were. There was my world to play with.

KenYatta Rogers reads from A Wizard of Earthsea...

The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards. From the towns in its high valleys and the ports on its dark narrow bays many a Gontishman has gone forth to serve the Lords of the Archipelago in their cities as wizard or mage, or, looking for adventure, to wander working magic from isle to isle of all Earthsea. Of these some say the greatest, and surely the greatest voyager, was the man called Sparrowhawk, who in his day became both dragonlord and Archmage. His life is told of in the Deed of Ged and in many songs, but this is a tale of the time before his fame, before the songs were made.

Gioia: Writer Kelly Link.

Kelly Link: Ged is a goat herd from a small island. He seems to have some kind of power that very few people in his village have.

Gioia: R.L. Stine.

Stine: He's a kid. But he has these remarkable powers suddenly. And he has to learn how to use them.

Gioia: Writer Orson Scott Card.

Orson Scott Card: Using the small magics that he's learned and the deep power that's inside himself, he saves his village from invaders.

Stine: Here is this army, this vast army, coming to this poor defenseless village. He does this fog spell and brings this incredible mist that confuses the invading army. And they're totally lost. He wins. It's his first major victory.

Gioia : In saving his village from the invaders, Ged uses so much of his strength and power that he falls into a frightening trance in which he cannot eat, sleep, or speak.

Kelly Link.

Link: After Ged has sort of used up himself saving the village, a mage comes, a man named Ogion, who restores Ged, who gives him his true name.

Michael Dirda: The world is run by magic.

Gioia: Book critic Michael Dirda.

Dirda: But it is magic that is controlled by names, by words.

Gioia: Ged is known to most people by his use-name, Sparrowhawk. During the boy's ceremony of passage on his thirteenth birthday, he is given his true name, Ged, by the mage Ogion. But because of the power inherent in the language and names, Ged can only reveal his true name to the people he trusts most.

R.L. Stine.

Stine: Naming is so important, because if you know something's name, you have power over it. If you know someone's name, it's just the most important thing.

Gioia: Michael Dirda.

Dirda: And that true name is part of what's called the old speech, and those words are only known now to dragons and to wizards.

Gioia: Ogion senses the incredibly strong, untrained power that Ged possesses and he takes the boy as an apprentice. For several days they walk across the island of Gont towards Ogion's isolated home. Ged quickly becomes impatient with his master's restrained and remote nature.

R.L. Stine.

Stine: When he first goes off with Ogion, he can't believe it. "Why aren't you controlling the weather? Why are you letting it rain on us? Why aren't you doing this spell? Why aren't you doing that?" And he hasn't learned that the whole secret of it is not to use it.

Gioia: Ged is too eager and restless to understand the lessons in patience that Ogion attempts to teach him. The master soon realizes that his student might be better taught elsewhere.

Kelly Link.

Link: Eventually, Ogion says to him, "You can stay with me, and you can learn this way. Or you can go to Roke, to the school for wizards." And Ged, who is impatient and has a great sense of his own power, chooses to go to Roke.

Gioia: Le Guin wasn't the first writer to send a wizard to school, but she was the first to describe the experience. A Wizard of Earthsea provided a model that has been emulated by later fantasy writers. By depicting the formative years of wizards, she humanized them and expanded the possibilities for how sorcery could be presented in fiction.

Le Guin: Once you started thinking about, they can't have always been old guys with white beards, you know, so what were they like when they were 14? That opens up a world, doesn't it?

Gioia: Ged arrives at the Roke school as a young student, but one anxious to exhibit his powers.

Michael Dirda.

Dirda: Like many smart kids, kids with talent, he's cocky. He's sure of himself.

Chabon: He knows he has a gift.

Gioia: Michael Chabon.

Chabon: And it's given him a kind of impatience with the pace at which his teachers wish him to learn his lessons. He wants to learn everything, and he wants to learn everything right away.

Gioia: Writer Walter Mosley.

Walter Mosley: He wants to have power because he's powerless and then what happens is in his attempt to gain power he causes things to go wrong and that's a very hard lesson for him.

Gioia: Ged develops a rivalry with another student named Jasper. Their dislike for each other runs deep, and one night at a party the tension between them comes to a head.

Michael Chabon.

Chabon: These two young wizards who both have power and both are confident and both have a great desire to prove themselves, get into a kind of contest with each other. It's forbidden. It's the way dueling was forbidden for, you know, young noblemen in the 18th century, but they did it anyway in secret. And so this group of boys goes away to sort of watch and participate in this magical duel.

Gioia: R.L. Stine.

Stine: They challenge him. They say, "Bring someone back from the dead. You're such a good mage. You're so powerful." And he knows he shouldn't. He knows it's crazy. And he also knows he can do it, and so he does it. He does the spell. It's an amazing, powerful spell.

Chabon: And he summons up a spirit of a sort of legendary queen, a mythical queen.

Stine: And he brings this figure back from the dead. But along with it, there's something attached to it, something dark and mysterious and unformed. And he's brought this evil shadow forth.

KenYatta Rogers reads from A Wizard of Earthsea...

In the oval of light for a moment there moved a form, a human shape: a tall woman looking back over her shoulder. Her face was beautiful, and sorrowful, and full of fear.

Only for a moment did the spirit glimmer there. Then the sallow oval between Ged's arms grew bright. It widened and spread, a rent in the darkness of the earth and night, a ripping open of the fabric of the world. Through it blazed a terrible brightness. And through that bright misshapen breach clambered something like a clot of black shadow, quick and hideous, and it leaped straight out at Ged's face. [...]

Vetch alone ran forward to his friend. So only he saw the lump of shadow that clung to Ged, tearing at his flesh. It was like a black beast, the size of a young child, though it seemed to swell and shrink; and it had no head or face, only the four taloned paws with which it gripped and tore.

Gioia: The Archmage Nammerle arrives and works a mighty spell to chase off the shadow and save Ged's life. But in confronting such a massive and dark power, the old Archmage dies. Ged himself barely survives the violent encounter with the shadow.

Orson Scott Card.

Card: So when the shadow shows up, the shadow is being called by the most dangerous aspects of Ged's personality. That shadow would not have come into the world if Ged had been a milder person, if Ged had not hungered for power.

Gioia: Michael Chabon.

Chabon: It's while engaging in this exercise of overweening pride of an excess of impatience in tampering with things that he ought to know better than to tamper with.

Mosley: His arrogance is his darker side, and in giving in to it, he brings evil into the world.

Gioia: Pico Iyer.

Iyer: The kid thinks mastery is action, decision, going out there and taking on the world and defeating it. And Ged has to learn that mastery is patience—waiting, observing, listening, taking things in and then adjusting yourself to the larger scheme of the universe rather than thinking that you as an individual are going to be master of the world.

Gioia: For many months, Ged is confined to bed. When he's finally strong enough to resume his studies, he must re-learn even the most basic skills and spells, having been badly scarred and deeply wounded by the shadow.

KenYatta Rogers reads from A Wizard of Earthsea...

At winter's end he returned to the Great House. He was made sorcerer then, and the Archmage Gensher accepted at that time his fealty. Thenceforth he studied the high arts and enchantments, passing beyond arts of illusion to the works of real magery, learning what he must know to earn his wizard's staff. The trouble he had had in speaking spells wore off over the months, and skill returned into his hands: yet he was never so quick to learn as he had been, having learned a long hard lesson from fear. Yet no ill portents or encounters followed on his working even of the Great Spells of Making and Shaping, which are most perilous. He came to wonder at times if the shadow he had loosed might have grown weak, or fled somehow out of the world, for it came no more into his dreams. But in his heart he knew such hope was folly. [.]

The months went by, and at last on a day of spring Ged returned to the Great House, and he had no idea what would be asked of him next.

Gioia: You're listening to The Big Read from the National Endowment for the Arts. Today we're discussing A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin.

Le Guin: I grew up in Berkeley, California because my father was the head of the anthropology department at UC Berkeley.

Gioia: Ursula K. Le Guin.

Le Guin: He wrote the Handbook of the Indians of California, and he spent decades traveling all over California, talking to often the last one or two or three members of a people. It was genocide in California, that's all there is to it.

Gioia: Michael Dirda.

Dirda: Her mother later became known as the author Ishi on account of the last wild Indian in California.

Gioia: Le Guin's fiction was strongly influenced by the distinguished intellectual careers of her parents.

Pico Iyer.

Iyer: She very early on was picking up the universal cycles and customs and patterns that join all conscious together. But to absorb all that is one thing, as many an anthropologist tries to do, but then to create this whole universe that plays out and dramatizes these archetypal patterns is another.

Le Guin: I don't know if it really is the same thing to study real cultures and make them up, but there's obviously some of the same impulse behind it.

Gioia: Orson Scott Card.

Card: Le Guin, writing this for publication in 1968, was at the crest of the success of the Civil Rights Movement. But racism was still a serious problem. She was consciously trying to break down our preconceptions of race.

Le Guin: That was one of the few conscious decisions of that sort that I remember making.

Gioia: Ursula K. Le Guin.

Le Guin: The people of the Archipelago varied from copper brown to black. And the kind of marginal people are white.

Card: She harked back to an earlier time. When she presented a race that was absolutely white, it was the invaders from the northeastern islands. And they were savages, blond savages. But that's Vikings. So she wasn't lying about any race. She was reminding us that any race can be at any level of civilization.

Gioia: Walter Mosley.

Mosley: This is a world filled with real people, and those people are not defined by race. And that's the important thing. It doesn't matter really who they are or what they look like.

Gioia: Ursula K. Le Guin.

Le Guin: And when I realized that this was so, and it simply sort of was so as it came to my imagination, I thought, "Okay, fantasy has been so lily white, it's been so Northern European let's just turn it on its head." That's the simplest way to reverse a trend is just turn it inside out.

Gioia: Michael Chabon.

Chabon: That's part of the greatness of Ursula K. Le Guin is that her imagination is so powerful that it is not limited by any perceived ideas or preconceived notions about, for example, in this case about what fantasy is.

Gioia: Ursula K. Le Guin.

Le Guin: It's only quite recently, strangely enough, that I have heard from people, some of them are just kids now, some of them are remembering back when they first read the Earthsea books, people of color, telling me that that was the first fantasy they'd ever felt they were included in and what it meant to them. And I tell you, it really, it moved me very much. It was a more powerful effect than I had actually expected it to be.

Gioia: When Ged leaves Roke, he accepts a job on the small southwestern island of Low Torning, where the inhabitants fear an eminent attack from dragons. Ged is brought in to protect the island.

R.L. Stine.

Stine: Well, first, I love the idea that every island has its mage, that that's a profession. And these guys go to school, and they learn how to do this. And then they have job placement, and they all go off to their islands.

Gioia: Orson Scott Card.

Card: He wanted to fulfill that responsibility, but he understood that his presence there brought danger to everybody.

Stine: Because the shadow is going to be relentless. And it's going to come after him, and it could harm the people that he's supposed to take care of.

Gioia: Unwilling to put the people of Low Torning in danger, Ged knows he must leave but he refuses to abandon his duty.

Card: Because he still has his pride. But now we're gonna see the good side of his pride. He's willing to die. But, he knows that to fulfill his responsibility to these people he needs to protect them. And the best protection now is not to sit and wait for the enemy to come to him, it's to go and attack the enemy.

Stine: And so he sets off on this, something he's never done before, a terrifying voyage to confront the dragons.

Gioia: At the nearby island of Pendor, Ged battles against the many offspring of an ancient dragon. After killing two young dragons, three more fly towards him from the island. Ged quickly works a spell of changing, temporarily transforming himself into a dragon shape.

KenYatta Rogers reads from A Wizard of Earthsea...

In mid­flight the dragon Ged raised wings, stopped, and stooped as the hawk stoops, talons outstretched downward, striking and bearing the other down by neck and flank. The black wings flurried and black dragon-blood dropped in thick drops into the sea. The Pendor dragon tore free and flew low and lamely to the island, where it hid, crawling into some well or cavern in the ruined town.

At once Ged took his form and place again on the boat, for it was most perilous to keep that dragon-shape longer than need demanded. His hands were black with the scalding wormblood, and he was scorched about the head with fire, but this was no matter now. He waited only till he had his breath back and then called, "Six have I seen, five slain, nine are told of: come out, worms!"

No creature moved nor voice spoke for a long while on the island, but only the waves beat loudly on the shore. Then Ged was aware that the highest tower slowly changed its shape, bulging out on one side as if it grew an arm. He feared dragon-magic, for old dragons are very powerful and guileful in a sorcery like and unlike the sorcery of men: but a moment more and he saw this was no trick of the dragon, but of his own eyes. What he had taken for a part of the tower was the shoulder of the Dragon of Pendor as he uncurled his bulk and lifted himself slowly up.

Gioia: R.L. Stine

Stine: When he goes to confront the old dragon, and there's no way he can defeat this massive dragon, which is so beautifully portrayed and he's evil and wise at the same time. How does Ged defeat such a foe?

Gioia: Once Ged has the upper hand, he and the old dragon negotiate. The dragon offers him an attractive deal.

Kelly Link.

Link: The dragon says, "I can tell you the name of your shadow. I can help you defeat the enemy who's pursuing you." Ged refuses that bargain.

Dirda: Because he recognizes his greater obligation in this instance is to the village.

Link: And says, "I want you to swear that you will go no farther than Pendor, that you'll leave the islands of man alone."

Gioia: Michael Dirda.

Dirda: And this kind of denial of egotism, of thinking of others, this sort of self-sacrifice is another step on his journey to maturity.

Gioia: After Ged deals with the dragon of Pendor, he travels over much of Earthsea, fleeing from the shadow and afraid for his life.

Michael Dirda.

Dirda: Having been cocky and sure, and gung-ho, he runs away. But eventually, the shadow will track him down.

Gioia: Michael Chabon.

Chabon: Once he realizes the awesome might of this bad thing, his first impulse is to try to get away from it, it's only by turning to it, by actually facing it and embracing it whatever may come of that, that he's able to finally resolve and in some way ameliorate what he has done.

Gioia: After Ged decides to face the shadow, he pursues his enemy into the unknown waters of the East Reach until they finally meet again over the sea.

KenYatta Rogers reads from A Wizard of Earthsea...

No wizardry would serve him now, but only his own flesh, his life itself, against the unliving. He spoke no word, but attacked, and the boat plunged and pitched from his sudden turn and lunge. And a pain ran up his arms into his breast, taking away his breath, and an icy cold filled him, and he was blinded: yet in his hands that seized the shadow there was nothing-darkness, air.

He stumbled forward, catching the mast to stay his fall, and light came shooting back into his eyes. He saw the shadow shudder away from him and shrink together, then stretch hugely up over him, over the sail, for an instant. Then like black smoke on the wind it recoiled and fled, formless, down the water towards the bright gate between the cliffs.

Ged sank to his knees. [...] He wished he might lie down there in that dark place where sea and mountain met and sleep, sleep on the restless rocking water.

He could not tell if this weariness were a sorcery laid on him by the shadow as it fled, or came of the bitter coldness of its touch, or was from mere hunger and want of sleep and expense of strength; but he struggled against it, forcing himself to raise up a light magewind into the sail and follow down the dark seaway where the shadow had fled.

Gioia: R.L. Stine.

Stine: Well, it's been read for 40 years, the book. And I think it will be read for a long time, because it's a perfect story. It's brilliantly written. The world it creates is wonderful. It's so specific and so real. Yes, I think this book will be read for many, many years.

Gioia: Orson Scott Card.

Card: She sees into the human heart. She tells the stories that are powerful to us better than almost anyone else.

Gioia: Walter Mosley.

Mosley: You need to read this book, because it's an important part of your culture that you don't know. And you need to read it with an open heart.

Card: It transcends all genre boundaries. Everybody can read A Wizard of Earthsea and know that something really important and truthful is going on.

KenYatta Rogers reads from A Wizard of Earthsea...

"It is no secret. All power is one in source and end, I think. Years and distances, stars and candles, water and wind and wizardry, the craft in a man's hand and the wis­dom in a tree's root: they all arise together. My name, and yours, and the true name of the sun, or a spring of water, or an unborn child, all are syllables of the great word that is very slowly spoken by the shining of the stars. There is no other power. No other name."

Gioia: Thanks for joining The Big Read. This program was created by the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services. It was written and produced by Dan Stone.

Readings from A Wizard of Earthsea were by KenYatta Rogers. Music composed especially for this program by Mark Weingarten of Beeftech Studios. Instrumental selections from the original score to the film Brick by Nathan Johnson and the Cinematic Underground. Used with permission of Nathan Johnson. Traditional Chinese music performed by Music from China used courtesy of Music from China. Excerpts from Jean Sibelius's The Tempest Suites and Nightride and Sunrise performed by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra and conducted by Leif Segerstam. Used with permission of Ondine, Incorporated. Other original music composed by Philip Brunelle. Music by Todd Barton from his album Metascapes, used courtesy of Vally Productions.

Production Assistant: Adam Kampe. Research Assistant: Pepper Smith. Administrative Assistants: Liz Mehaffey and Erika Koss.

Special thanks to Jackie Daniel, Ted Libbey, Kathleen Belamy, Ray O'Kuludin, Susan Ching, and to our contributors: Orson Scott Card, Michael Chabon, Michael Dirda, Pico Iyer, Ursula K. Le Guin, Kelly Link, Walter Mosley, and R.L. Stine.

For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Dana Gioia.

Reed: For more information about The Big Read, go to www.NEABigRead.org. That's www.NEABigRead.org.

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