I bought the Charles Vess illustrated “Books of Earthsea” at the San Diego Con, even though I already own most of the contents. Charles’ wonderful illustrations made it a must-have anyway. Above is the dust jacket of this thick tome, and the title page illustration for the first book in the series. Each book has a full-page painting similar to the dust jacket and many black and gray tone illustrations, all terrific.
I don’t think I’d reread this book since it came out in the 1960s. Despite that, I remembered some of the characters, settings and plot, a tribute to Le Guin’s writing skill.
Earthsea is a large collection of islands, and young Sparrowhawk is a young man on one of them, Gont. While his public name is thus, his true name is Ged, as he finds out in this story, and Ged also discovers he has a powerful talent for magic. The magic of Earthsea revolves around the true names of things, and as Ged begins to learn a few of them from a local witch and wizard, he gains power, or rather his innate power comes forth. Even in his youth and inexperience, Ged is able to confuse some raiding soldiers with fog and mist, saving most of his village. Ged’s teacher suggests he should go to the school for wizards on the island of Roke to gain more knowledge, a place where all the best wizards of Earthsea live and teach. Once he arrives, Ged’s pride and jealousy aroused by the taunting of a fellow student lead him to cast a dangerous spell beyond his control. This unleashes a great evil in the world, one that nearly kills Ged, and one that will always continue to try to destroy him. The only solution is for Ged to fight back, to pursue the evil shadow and conquer it, even to the ends of Earthsea.
This is a great read, and where it really came to life for me is when Ged meets, speaks with and battles his first dragon. There’s something about the way Le Guin handles the dragons that stands out from the fantasy crowd, and puts her at the level of Tolkien. While this book follows fantasy traditions in some ways, in others it breaks new ground. I can’t recommend it enough. If you haven’t read it, you should!