A Wizard of EarthseaTeaching and learning resources for the novel A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Earthsea Trilogy, which Le Guin expanded decades later to six volumes, has been widely cited by other fantasy writers as one of the best and most influential works in the genre. I discovered it sometime in my middle school years and have reread it many times since then. It is notable for its memorable characters, fascinating world-building, vividly descriptive language, distinctive tone, and philosophical richness. Le Guin studied Taoist philosophy in great depth (she even made her own acclaimed translation of the Tao Te Ching), and the influence of those Taoist ideas combined with her poetic gifts allows her use of archetypal fantasy elements to come across as compelling and full of life, making these books feel like stories straight out of mythology. Over the years I’ve used the study questions here with many students as a basis for discussing and writing about the first volume, A Wizard of Earthsea. The writing assignment here is not a formal essay but can facilitate more in-depth thinking and writing about a specific topic in the novel, and it may serve as a stepping stone to more rigorous literary analysis essays.
On this page I’ve included links to a few illuminating interviews with Le Guin, as well as to her official website, which is replete with additional content for those interested in Le Guin and her writings. The Books of Earthsea: The Complete Illustrated Edition, featuring illustrations by Charles Vess developed in partnership with Le Guin, contains all of Le Guin’s Earthsea-related novels, short stories, and essays. It is a beautiful volume despite its design flaws. (Read the reviews on Amazon for details.) As of this writing, audiobook versions of the novels are freely available on YouTube with a simple search by title.
Le Guin was generally unhappy with the adaptations of her Earthsea books for television and film, and I tend to agree with her assessment that they fail to capture the essence of the stories, so I have not linked them here.
A Wizard of Earthsea Study Questions
The page numbers referred to in some questions are for an old edition and may differ from those in newer editions.
1. Describe Ged’s personality based on his actions and the descriptions of him in this chapter.
2. Describe the style in which the story is written. Find five instances of foreshadowing in Chapter 1. What effect(s) does Le Guin’s use of foreshadowing have?
3. What do you think Ogion means when he says, “To keep dark the mind of the mageborn, that is a dangerous thing”?
4. Describe the setting of the story (not just Gont, but Earthsea) as you understand it thus far. What kind of world is it?
5. What predictions can you make about how the story will develop in the rest of the book?
1. What is the first lesson that Ogion seeks to teach Ged, and why do you think he does this?
2. What does Ged’s question about the use of fourfoil (page 17) show about his personality, and what point does Ogion try to make by asking him, “What, after all, is the use of you? or of myself? Is Gont Mountain useful, or the Open Sea?” (This is an example of a rhetorical question—a question asked not to gain information, but to make a point and to make the audience reflect on that point.)
3. Describe Ogion. What surprises Ged about him? What is his philosophy about magic?
4. What things does Ged do and decide in this chapter that reveal more about his personality?
1. What does the man Ged meets mean when he says, “The wise don’t need to ask, the fool asks in vain”?
2. How is the appearance of the School’s door appropriate, given the fact that it is a school for wizards? Think about the themes expressed so far in the book, especially the lessons Ogion has tried to teach Ged. Why do you think Ged must tell the doorkeeper his true name to gain entrance to the School?
3. Why do you think Lord Nemmerle has Ged read Ogion’s letter himself?
4. Find the important instances of foreshadowing on pages 36 and 45. What do you think is their significance?
5. What is Ged’s attitude toward what the Master Hand tells him? What does the Master Hand mean when he says, “To light a candle is to cast a shadow”?
6. Describe Jasper. Find some examples of things he does and says that make Ged angry or envious.
7. Why do you think the otak/hoeg is attracted to Ged?
1. How does Ged think he can overcome the anger and envy he feels toward Jasper, and the fear he feels about certain spells of Summoning?
2. What does Jasper say that makes Ged decide to challenge him?
3. Why do you think Nemmerle sacrifices his life to save Ged?
4. Why isn’t Gensher willing to accept Ged’s fealty (loyalty)?
5. What explanation(s) does Gensher give for why Ged’s spell went wrong?
6. Why does Ged want to be alone? What future does he have in mind for himself?
7. How does Vetch show Ged that he considers him a true friend? Discuss the significance of his act.
8. Why is Ged “never so quick to learn as he had been”?
9. What does the Master Summoner mean when he says, “The truth is that as a man’s real power grows and his knowledge widens, ever the way he can follow grows narrower: until at last he chooses nothing, but does only and wholly what he must do”?
10. Why do you think Ged must ask the Master Doorkeeper’s name to win his freedom from the School—what lesson does this teach?
1. How is Ged’s assignment to Low Torning appropriate for him? What are his feelings about the assignment—why does he accept it gladly?
2. Describe the world of the dead and the effect it has on Ged.
3. How is Ged brought back to consciousness? What effect does this have on his thinking?
4. What does Ged learn from his failure to save Ioeth (Pechvarry’s son)?
5. How does his decision to go to Pendor to confront the dragons make Ged glad?
6. How does Yevaud try to manipulate Ged? What things does he offer? What does Ged’s reaction to Yevaud’s offer tell us about his character?
1. What signs tell Ged that his shadow is not far from him?
2. Why do you think Le Guin (the author) decided to keep Ged from returning to Roke?
3. Describe the man who tells Ged to go to the Court of the Terrenon. What is suspicious about him and what he says? How does the man react to Ged’s suspicion? Why does Ged decide to take his advice?
4. What examples of foreshadowing can you find in Ged’s journey aboard the Osskilian ship?
5. Describe the gebbeth. What is its goal? Why does it lead Ged out into the desert before confronting him?
6. Why do you think the gebbeth is unable to catch Ged, even when Ged becomes very tired and cannot run quickly?
1. Why are Lord Benderesk and Lady Serret so hospitable to Ged? What things are suspicious and disturbing about the Court of the Terrenon?
2. What emotions does Ged feel during his stay at the Court, and why?
3. What reaction does Ged have to the Terrenon? Why do you think Serret doesn’t believe him? What further explanation about the stone does she later give him, and what is his reaction to this?
4. Recall the description of the man Ged met who told him to go to the Court of the Terrenon. Does Ged’s impression of him make more sense now?
5. Why is the Terrenon unable to “capture Ged’s will”?
6. Why is Ged unable to turn back into his human form? Why do you think he automatically flies to Gont rather than Roke?
7. What does Ogion say that contradicts what Gensher told Ged? How do you think the shadow knew Ged’s name? What advice does Ogion give him, and why?
1. Why does Ged want to meet the shadow on the sea rather than on land?
2. Why do you think the shadow turns and flees when Ged pursues it? Why doesn’t it attack him when he is lying helpless on the beach?
3. What reaction do the man and woman on the cay (small island) have to Ged? Why don’t they want to leave the island?
4. What interesting instance of foreshadowing occurs at the bottom of page 142/top of page 143? What guess might you make about the meaning of this foreshadowing?
5. What does Ged’s treatment of the man and woman show about his character? Consider how most people in our society would likely react to their decision to stay on the island.
6. What is ironic about the way the shadow tricks Ged into crashing into the rocks?
7. What is the effect of Ged’s grabbing and holding the shadow, even though it escapes his grasp? What realizations does Ged have about his task after this?
1. What strange thing happens on Vemish that puzzles Ged? What explanation do you have for this phenomenon?
phenomenon: an event that can be observed and studied, especially something special or of scientific interest. (plural: phenomena)
2. Why does Ged at first refuse to let Estarriol accompany him, and how does Estarriol persuade Ged to let him come? How is it appropriate that Estarriol should be there? What does this argument show about these men and their friendship?
3. What happened to Jasper? Why do you think he left Roke?
4. What possible future does Ged see before him that frightens him?
5. What explanations do Ged and Estarriol have for the strange behavior of the shadow—for its taking Ged’s form and its inability to defeat Ged by speaking his name?
6. The narration describes Murre, Estarriol’s brother, as having “no gift or scourge [something that causes pain; a “curse”] of mage-power in him.” What is the significance (meaning and importance) of this choice of words?
7. According to Ged, what is the fundamental (basic; essential) difference between summoning light and summoning an object—why is it that summoning light doesn’t upset Equilibrium, yet summoning an object does?
1. Why doesn’t Ged use any magic or let Estarriol use his?
2. What brief vision does Ged have about where he will meet the shadow (page 171), and what place do you think it is a vision of?
3. Considering how his quest ends, how do you think Ged might have been “doomed” or “lost” (page 173) if the shadow had escaped him?
4. How might it be reasonable for Estarriol to believe that the world is flat and has only one face?
5. What fears does Estarriol have about their voyage (page 175)?
6. How do you interpret the meaning of the way in which Ged “defeats” the shadow? (How does Ged name the shadow? What happens when he does this?)
7. Describe the place where Ged meets the shadow. How do you think this place comes into existence, and why does it suddenly disappear?
8. What is the meaning of the lines quoted from the Creation of Ea (page 181)? How do these lines relate to the story?
1. Write a summary of the plot of the novel. Be sure to make your explanation of the people, places, and events connected and clear enough that someone who has not read the novel will understand it.
2. Describe the major characters in the novel: Sparrowhawk/Ged, Ogion, Vetch/Estarriol, Jasper, Ged’s shadow, and Lady Serret. What facts about each one are important to the story?
3. What are the main themes and messages of the story? Discuss how the characters, setting, and plot help develop these themes.
4. What aspect(s) of the story do you like best? Discuss why you like these things.
Questions © 2003 and 2007 C. Brantley Collins, Jr.
Writing Assignment on A Wizard of Earthsea
Write a long, well-developed paragraph on one of the topics below. If you’d like, you may divide your paragraph into multiple paragraphs, such as an introduction, body paragraphs, and conclusion.
- Choose a major theme or motif from the story and discuss how it is expressed and developed over the course of the story. Mention specific details from the story such as characters, settings, and events that reflect this theme. Try to incorporate quotations from the book into your paragraph.
Here are some examples of themes and motifs you might choose to write about:
- the importance and power of friendship and trust
- the limitations of power
- the concept of balance and “Equilibrium” developed in the story
- the dangers of pride and the importance of humility
- Discuss the evolution of Ged’s character over the course of the story. What is his personality like at the beginning of the story, and how does it change? What events cause these changes? Discuss details in the story that indicate this ongoing evolution—although there is one major event that causes a drastic change in his personality, there are other details throughout the story that indicate smaller changes. What ideas do you think Le Guin is trying to express to the reader through these changes?
Here is an example of the kind of writing I’m looking for, on the topic of the responsibility that comes with power:
A Wizard of Earthsea is a novel about power. One important lesson regarding power that the novel teaches through Ged’s experiences is that it is important to make careful decisions, because our choices and actions may have consequences that we can’t control or foresee.
Ged has a difficult time learning this lesson. At the beginning of the story, he is impatient and proud. Ogion tries to teach him to be patient and humble, and he sets an example for Ged by refusing to use his magic except when necessary. But Ged still hungers for greater power. Heedless of the consequences of his actions, he begins reading through Ogion’s spell-book without permission, and he unintentionally summons an evil shadow-creature. Ogion saves him, but Ged has already begun a destructive chain of events.
After he begins his studies at Roke, his teachers also try to make him understand the importance of using his power wisely. The Master Hand tells him that “to light a candle is to cast a shadow,” meaning that all actions have consequences. “You must not change one thing, one pebble, one grain of sand,” he says, “until you know what good and evil will follow on that act.” Unfortunately, Ged doesn’t see the wisdom in these words, believing that he will become powerful enough to control the effects of his magic. In an arrogant attempt to prove his power, he once again accidentally unleashes the shadow. This time, he almost dies, and Lord Nemmerle has to sacrifice his own life to save him. Overwhelmed by shame, Ged finally begins to accept the importance of his teachers’ lessons, and for the rest of the story, he is reluctant to use his magic.
Near the end of the novel, as Ged’s final confrontation with the shadow approaches, this theme again becomes important. Ged strives to maintain Equilibrium by not using his magic at all, because “on the course on which they [are] embarked, the saying of the least spell might change chance and move the balance of power and of doom.” He understands that the choices he makes have consequences that cannot be foreseen or controlled, so he is especially cautious.
What makes A Wizard of Earthsea so powerful is that the lessons it teaches apply to our lives in the real world as well. By exploring this theme in the story, Le Guin is telling us that in our own lives, we should be careful about the choices we make and the actions we take. Even if we don’t have magic powers, we can still hurt others through carelessness, and there are always consequences that we cannot foresee.
© 2006 and 2012 C. Brantley Collins, Jr.