When I was a young man I was introduced to LeGuin’s epic fantasy tale, A Wizard of Earthsea. From the sweeping vistas of the Archipelago, to the deep mysticism and authority of the magic in Earthsea, I loved everything I found in her amazing work. But one thing stood out to me above all the rest as I read and reread this incredible series. The lessons I learned that shaped me into the man I am today.
One thing is right in the title. In the series, we follow a boy called Sparrowhawk, who from a young age shows incredible promise toward the high arts of magery. He saves his town from the would-be ravaging of the invading armies from the Viking-esque Kargad Lands. He became a Dragonlord and eventually the Archmage himself, the highest honor a wizard can receive. Yet he is only referred to as “A wizard.” Not “The wizard.” While what he accomplished is no small feat, he isn’t given any special treatment, nor preferential observance in the story that is his own. He is humble from his experiences, and rightly so. In the beginning of his story, Ged the Sparrowhawk is full of hubris. And he pays for it, dearly.
Which takes me to my second life lesson. Ged’s story isn’t one of Man versus Evil, or Man versus Man. It’s Man versus Self. In his pride, Ged takes a serious risk and attempts to summon the spirit of a heroine from one of their ancient stories. But as he works the spell, he loses control of it, and brings into his world something far worse. It has no name, but what it is known as when it is able to possess a human body is a Gebbeth, or an eaten one. The attack of his shadow leaves him terribly scared, and even robs him of some of his physical faculties. He is slow of speech for almost a year, and even moves with halting limbs from that time forward. His pride brought him low, and he spent the rest of his youth fighting the terror he had brought into the world by it. In the end, Ged discovered the only way to overcome his prideful shadow which he had brought into the world, was to understand how it was a part of him. How he must accept it and move on. We all have negativity inside ourselves. We have aspects to our personalities that are harmful, some may say even toxic. Only by looking inward, and facing what we are and what we want to be, can we accept those mistakes and shortcomings and find a way to coexist with ourselves, and eventually defeat the shadows of our own pride.
In A Wizard of Earthsea, we learn of their magic from the masters at the school of Roke. Ged asks the master changer in one lesson why he cannot change a stone to a diamond. The master replies with a bit of wisdom that is extraordinarily applicable to all of us. It is what they call the principle of Equilibrium. He says, “To change this rock into a jewel, you must change its true name. And to do that, my son, even to so small a scrap of the world, is to change the world. It can be done. Indeed it can be done. It is the art of the Master Changer, and you will learn it, when you are ready to learn it. But you must not change one thing, one pebble, one grain of sand, until you know what good and evil will follow on that act… To light a candle is to cast a shadow.” Every action we take has consequences, both good and bad. By taking the time to understand those actions we might take, we can be assured that we made the decision, and the outcome is the one we will live with. We become masters of our fate. To me, that was a beautiful lesson, and one I still struggle to learn even today. Decisions can be hard, but when we come to them with an understanding that the outcome, no matter what it will be, is one that we will live with and use to influence our lives from that point on, I know that I take my choices more seriously, and find a sense of comfort and control in doing so.
Finally, I learned that a man need not fight great battles to do great things. Too many stories, in my opinion, focus on mighty heroes who battle armies, lead battalions, or wage some war here or there. And that’s not such a bad thing! But the common person may never have the chance to do such a thing, and if they find that those are the only heroic acts, they might miss the heroism they engage in everyday. Even Ged did fight a dragon, and was a powerful wizard, sailing Earthsea to help people. But his greatest act is one that isn’t even remembered in the legends that followed him. It was his humility, his kindness, and his wisdom that showed me even a simple act, one that is within yourself, an act of overcoming your own obstacles, that can truly define your life. Ged became a man not through conquering an enemy in battle, but by conquering himself. And we all do that every day, little by little.
As we discover our own traits that we want to foster, and the ones we want to defeat, and we work toward doing those things, we are heroes in our own stories. Because when we’ve overcome what ever little trial we face every day, we become the kind of people who can change the world.Ged the Sparrowhawk inspired me to be my best. I overcame my dyslexia so I could read this book myself, rather than having it read to me. And I’ve read this book every year since then. I read many other books, too, but I always come back to this one. Because the lessons I learned here shaped me into who I am. And continue to shape me into who I want to become.