Almost everything in children's books these days still circles back to Harry Potter, especially with another movie based on the fourth of J. K. Rowling's novels getting ready to open next month. Most teenagers are probably to some degree fans of the Potter universe and will, of course, see the film and read the last installment of the series when it finally comes out. But they are also ready for something more -- for a more difficult degree of wizardry, if they haven't already found it. And if you notice that certain seen-it-all, read-it-all restlessness, you might just pick up a copy of Ursula Le Guin's novel A Wizard of Earthsea, and leave it on the kitchen table or some other place where your teen reader is sure to find it. The novel is about a young wizard named Ged, and is the first in LeGuin's four-book series about a place called Earthsea, and another wizard's school, this one on an island that is guarded and surrounded by powers that old Hogwarts, dark as it has become of late, has yet to conjure up.
In A Wizard of Earthsea, which was published in 1968 and is still in print, we meet Ged, who is a talented, cocky young man, a teenager, who has innate skills with wizardry and is sent to the school to study this ancient and demanding discipline. But Ged also has problems with his temper and with his pride, which lead him to commit one of the fundamental mistakes of an apprentice wizard -- through spells that he does not understand, he unleashes forces that he can not control, powers that threaten to destroy not only the delicate balance of his own developing character, but the essential balance of the world itself. Frightening as they are, it is precisely the shadowy forces that he has released that he must learn to master, if he is to survive and not lose his soul. In his archetypal quest to confront these dark elements that relentlessly pursue him, Ged is also being asked to confront the darkness within himself -- and by extension within all of us. This is no small challenge, as we see, in each thrilling chapter of the book.
I don't want to tell you too much about Ged's journey -- which was published nearly a decade before Star Wars turned "the dark side" into a sci-fi fantasy cliché. This book is on ground as ancient as any in fantasy literature, and it can still cast its powerful spell on readers today. Last year a television movie based of the Earthsea books appeared, but I'd urge you not to breath a word about it to your teen readers, at least not before they've read the novels. In some respects, it's surprising that Ms. LeGuin, the award-winning, Oregon-based writer whose birthday it is today, allowed these remarkable books to be adapted. But at least the movie is the only spin-off of the novels. No action figures, or scented shadow candles, or CDs of phony spells, or archimage tee shirts. No Earthseaworld with water flumes and animatronic dragons spouting fake fire in Orlando or Las Vegas. Thank goodness. For there are still some things better left to the writer's book and the reader's imagination.
Copyright 2005© John Cech
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Thursday, 29-Sep-2005 13:54:47 EDT