NEA 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.

The discussion activities and writing exercises in this guide provide you with possible essay topics, as do the Discussion Questions in the NEA Big Read Reader Resources. Advanced students can come up with their own essay topics, as long as they are specific and compelling. Other ideas for essays are provided here.

For essays, students should organize their ideas around a thesis about the novel. This statement should be focused, with clear reasons supporting its conclusion. The thesis and supporting reasons should be backed by references to the text.

  1. Le Guin wrote two stories set on Earthsea before she embarked on her novel about Ged: "The Word of Unbinding" and "The Rule of Names." Both appear in her collection The Wind's Twelve Quarters. Read them and discuss how each contributes something to our understanding of A Wizard of Earthsea. Enthusiastic readers may wish to seek out Tales from Earthsea, written more than twenty years after A Wizard of Earthsea first appeared, and discuss how these later stories amplify themes of the original novel.
  2. When Ged finally confronts the Shadow at the end of the book it appears to him first as his father, then Jasper, then Pechvarry, then as a kind of dragon, then Skiorh, and then as "a fearful face he did not know, man or monster, with writhing lips and eyes that were like pits going back into black emptiness". Why does the Shadow assume the image of these particular figures in Ged's life? Why are they all male? What do they signify? Is there a subtle progression here? And what is the meaning of the last face, before the final revelation?
  3. Reread the paragraph in Chapter 3 of A Wizard of Earthsea in which the Master Hand underscores the significance of names. This begins with the sentence "The Master Hand looked at the jewel that glittered on Ged's palm …" and ends "A wizard's power of Changing and Summoning can shake the balance of the world. It is dangerous, that power. It is most perilous. It must follow knowledge, and serve need. To light a candle is to cast a shadow…" Why do you think Le Guin emphasizes that a magician's words can affect the balance of the universe and that he needs to use his powers with great care? Reflect on the relationship between words and names, power and responsibility.
  4. At one point Ged pursues the shadow into the land of the dead—and it nearly costs him his life. But he is saved by one of the most important characters in the book—his little pet otak. Like so many elements in A Wizard of Earthsea, this scene is redolent of fairy tale and myth. As Le Guin has said: "The girl who saves the ant from the spider's web is saved in turn by the ants, who do her impossible task for her; the prince who sneers at the wolf in the trap is lost in the forest, but the prince who frees the wolf inherits the kingdom." Write an essay on the role of the pet otak. What is the relationship between the otak and Ged? Is this a friendship? What is the relevance of the smaller creature in the story? Does this allow you to draw out a theme about the relationship between Ged and the natural world?
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