A Wizard of Earthsea

The NEA Big Read

The NEA Big Read is a program of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with Arts Midwest. This initiative broadens our understanding of our world, our communities, and ourselves through the joy of sharing a good book. Showcasing a diverse range of contemporary titles that reflect many different voices and perspectives, the NEA Big Read aims to inspire conversation and discovery.

The NEA Big Read annually supports dynamic community reading programs, each designed around a single NEA Big Read selection. This year we are very excited to share Ursula K. Le Guin's magical fantasy with our community from Jan. 12 through Feb. 28, 2019. During this celebration of "A Wizard of Earthsea," you will find many diverse and exciting programs. You will learn all about the magic of Earthsea as our lead character, Sparrowhawk (Ged) did when he went to school on Roke. He studied part of each day learning life lessons from the grey-cloaked Masters of Roke, who were called The Nine. We celebrate these Masters in many different forms of programming.

All NEA Big Read programs are free and open to the public. Registration is not required unless otherwise indicated. If registration is required, call the branch library or register online at volusialibrary.org.

A Wizard of Earthsea

Gont and Beyond

Ursula K. Le Guin's "A Wizard of Earthsea" (1968) is arguably the most widely admired American fantasy novel of the past 50 years. The book's elegant diction, geographical sweep and mounting suspense are quite irresistible. Earthsea - composed of an archipelago of many islands - is a land of the imagination, like Oz, Faerie or the dream-like realm of our unconscious. Earthsea may not be a "real" world, but it is one that our souls recognize as meaningful and "true." Actions there possess an epic grandeur, a mythic resonance that we associate with romance and fairy tale.

Songs, poems, runes, spells - words matter a great deal in Earthsea, especially those in the "Old Speech" now spoken only by dragons and wizards. To work a spell one must know an object or person's "true name," which is nothing less than that object's or person's fundamental essence. In Earthsea, to know a person's true name is to gain power over him or her. "A mage," we are told, "can control only what is near him, what he can name exactly and wholly."

Understanding the nature of things, not possessing power over them, is the ultimate goal of magic. Indeed, the greatest wizards do all they can to avoid using their skill. They recognize that the cosmos relies on equilibrium, appropriateness and "balance" - the very name Earthsea suggests such balance - and that every action bears consequences. To perform magic, then, is to take on a heavy responsibility: One literally disturbs the balance of the universe.

The young Ged is born - a fated seventh son - on the island of Gont and, by accident, discovers that he possesses an innate talent for magic. Even as an untrained boy he is able to use his nascent powers to save his town from marauders. Soon, though, he goes to study with gentle Ogion the Silent, whom he foolishly fails to appreciate. Sent to complete his studies at the Archmage's school for wizards on the island of Roke, Ged grows increasingly proud, over-confident and competitive. To display his much-vaunted skills, he rashly attempts a dangerous spell - with dire consequences for Earthsea and himself. Hoping to repair the damage he has caused, the chastened Ged embarks on a series of journeys around Earthsea - and eventually beyond the known world.

Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin (1929 to 2018) spent her childhood in California, mainly in Berkeley, where her anthropologist father (Alfred L. Kroeber) was a professor, but also in the Napa Valley, where her family owned a ranch. As a child, she heard Native American myths as bedtime stories, while also having the run of her parents' library. The young Le Guin read voraciously. Her favorite books included the Norse myths, retellings of folktales and legends from J.G. Frazer's "The Golden Bough" (1890), and the fantasy stories of Lord Dunsany. Such a background may explain, in part, Le Guin's own approach to literature: She was a world-builder. Indeed, just as an anthropologist reports on an indigenous people in as much detail as possible, so a science fiction or fantasy author will build up an elaborate picture of an alien culture and its inhabitants.

In her teens, Le Guin read fantasy and science fiction magazines but also devoured many of the classics of world literature. She once listed her influences as Percy Bysshe Shelley; John Keats; William Wordsworth; Giacomo Leopardi; Victor Hugo; Rainer Maria Rilke; Edward Thomas; Theodore Roethke; Charles Dickens; Leo Tolstoy; Ivan Turgenev; Anton Chekhov; Boris Pasternak; Charlotte, Emily and AnneBrontë; Virginia Woolf; and E.M. Forster. Among science fiction authors, she had spoken with admiration about the fiction of Cordwainer Smith (Paul M.A. Linebarger); James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice B. Sheldon); and Philip K. Dick. A lifelong interest in Lao Tzu and Taoism eventually led her to translate the Tao-Te-Ching (1999).

Le Guin attended Radcliffe College and then Columbia University, where she earned a master's degree in Italian and French, with a focus on Renaissance literature. While on a trip to France, she met her future husband, the historian Charles A. Le Guin. The couple settled in Portland, Oregon, with their three children. Le Guin had said that she enjoyed a very regular life there and preferred things to be "kind of dull, basically," so she could get on with her work as a writer.

While preferring a quiet routine and privacy, Le Guin did speak out strongly on matters she cared about - American politics, the value of fantasy and science fiction, the importance of reading, and, above all, the condition of women in the arts and society. During much of the 1970s and '80s, she was a frequent speaker and instructor at writing workshops around the country.

Over the years Le Guin won numerous awards for her novels and stories, including the Hugo and Nebula for science fiction, but also the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award (for "A Wizard of Earthsea"), the National Book Award, and the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. She was perhaps the most honored writer of science fiction and fantasy of her time - and one of America's finest writers.

Book Discussions

The greatest sorcerer in all of Earthsea was once a reckless youth, hungry for power and knowledge, who tampered with long-held secrets and loosed a terrible shadow upon the world.

Join us for lively discussions of "A Wizard of Earthsea" by Ursula K. Le Guin.

  • January 23: 3 p.m. Boston Coffee House, 109 E. New York Ave., DeLand
  • January 30: 1:30 p.m. Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, 610 Aerospace Blvd., Building 610, Daytona Beach
  • February 4: 4 p.m. Ormond Beach Regional Library
  • February 5: 11 a.m. Daytona Beach Regional Library
  • February 5: 1 p.m. Sweet Marlays' Coffee, 214 S. Beach St., Daytona Beach
  • February 6: 6 p.m. The Stage at Thank You Five, 4606 S. Clyde Morris Blvd., Unit 2N, Port Orange
  • February 12: 11 a.m. DeBary Public Library
  • February 13: 10 a.m. DeLand Regional Library
  • February 14: 5:30 p.m. DeLand Regional Library
  • February 19: 2 p.m. The Hub on Canal, 132 Canal St., New Smyrna Beach
  • February 20: 10 a.m. Deltona Regional Library
  • February 20: 10:30 a.m. Edgewater Public Library
  • February 20: 10:30 a.m. Port Orange Regional Library
  • February 21: 2 p.m. Lake Helen Public Library
  • February 26: 10:30 a.m. New Smyrna Beach Regional Library

No room in your schedule for a book discussion?

Join us this February at the
Chapter Chat Online Book Club.