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A Wizard of Earthsea (Earthsea Cycle, #1)
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2014 Reads > WoE: Magic in earthsea

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message 1: by Andrés (new)

Andrés (RedBishop) | 35 comments Is it just me or magic in earthsea comes too easily, maybe is just the way the universe was conceived? there seem to be all kind of hedge mages, in the form of shamans sorcerers and other names, that are implied as lesser mages at the beginning of the book because don't know the real rules of balance, but really they don't seem to be so bad.
It seems to me that in this universe magic come as an innate power, and felt too cheap that just repeating rhymes will unlock its power, maybe I'm spoiled as someone else suggested for reading Name of the Wind, the Magicians and others? maybe is the tone of the book? I think I was being set up for something more serious but it turns out to be lighter.
Anyway, I'm not sure why, but something about jars me, anyone else is having similar issues?


Mark Catalfano (cattfish) Overall I disliked it, but I really couldn't put my finger on why


Alexander (technogoth) | 171 comments The main problem I had with the magic was that it was very Deus ex machina. Ged never seemed to earn his power and there was no cost to using it. It talks about how its all linked to knowing the true name of things at the beginning but that doesn't seem to play any part in things when he actually does magic.

He can paralyze dragons in mid flight, turn into a bird or a fire breathing dragon himself. Summon the dead, create boats out of magic, basically whatever he needs whenever he wants to.


P. Aaron Potter (paaronpotter) | 585 comments This reminds me of a consideration I had reading Orson Scott Card's How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy. In a chapter on magic, Card insists that in order to achieve balance, any magic system must have an associated cost.

My first thought was: why? Does knowledge, out here in the real world, "cost?" Does it somehow exhaust my doctor to diagnose my bronchitis? Does my mechanic require a sacrifice of blood in order to tell my a/c needs freon, or just the right tools and a few minutes?

The "cost" for Ged's power is all front-loaded: tedious, tedious scholarship. Just like in the real world.


message 5: by Nathan (last edited Feb 05, 2014 07:24AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Nathan (tenebrous) | 377 comments On the Tedious scholarship:

True, but that is mostly invisable to the reader as it would make for a bad book.

"And Ged aced his Advanced Protean Forms test while not doing so well in Applied Bindings 2."


Alexander (technogoth) | 171 comments I don't know I would have thought that learning the transform into dragon spell would have warranted at least mention during his time at school. Instead of just pulling it out thin air. There were lengthy pages on names of rivers and lakes I would have thought that mastering dragon transformation would have been a note worthy moment.

And if magic is too easy then where is jeopardy and challenge? If you can just do anything whenever it makes for weak story telling. If every 16 year old graduate of Roke can turn into a dragon and create magic boats or travel to the land of the dead then why not teleport instantly across the world? Or cast the kill shadow monster from a far spell?


message 7: by Nathan (last edited Feb 05, 2014 02:48PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Nathan (tenebrous) | 377 comments But the author did include challenges in magic. She mentioned a mage should not stay tranformed for a long period of time and then there is the whole incident the book is built around.

I would also point out there are implicit limitations to magic inworld (if he could have done something more easily, he probably would, etc.), but the author almost never states them explicitly. Her style seems too compact for that.

I would also note authors like Sanderson who are renound for their magic systems tend to have much longer books than this.


kvon | 562 comments When Tim Powers has magic in his books he makes a point that there is a cost in blood for it. In particular I'm thinking of On Stranger Tides. I have just as much problem with that system as you have with Le Guin's.

I always thought the real basis for her magic was the ability to completely know something, whether an animal or a weather system. Mistakes happen with shortcuts.


message 9: by Andrés (new)

Andrés (RedBishop) | 35 comments kvon wrote: "I always thought the real basis for her magic was the ability to completely know something, whether an animal or a weather system. Mistakes happen with shortcuts"
I'm begginning to think that this might be my issue with the system, she implies this limitation, but then Ged can control magic in unknown places, transform into Dragons that he has just seen once, and due to this I never felt that he was ever really facing any real challenges.


message 10: by Serendi (new)

Serendi | 829 comments True, but Ged (view spoiler), which most people can't. So he's extra-powerful within the magic system.


P. Aaron Potter (paaronpotter) | 585 comments Alexander wrote: "I don't know I would have thought that learning the transform into dragon spell would have warranted at least mention during his time at school. Instead of just pulling it out thin air. There were lengthy pages on names of rivers and lakes I would have thought that mastering dragon transformation would have been a note worthy moment...."

Le Guin is a lot more explicit about the rules, limits, and costs of magic in her world than, say Tolkien is. Gandalf's magic is completely random in power level (sometimes he can hurl fireballs, sometimes he can't even make candlelight) and utterly cost-free. Magic in Earthsea is charged by knowing the True Names of things, which takes scholarship and dedication, and has to be accompanied, often, by actual real-world time and work (consider how Ged binds blessings into boats).

And as for why the sky isn't full of Ged's classmates in Dragon Form, there are both the problems of "balance" (bring a wind in one quarter, deaden the wind elsewhere), and the aforementioned risks associated with shoddy scholarship. Get that True Name wrong and you might end up experiencing eternity in the shape of a turd, instead of a bird.


Paula (paula99) | 1 comments P. Aaron wrote: "Alexander wrote: "I don't know I would have thought that learning the transform into dragon spell would have warranted at least mention during his time at school. Instead of just pulling it out thi..."

Although if you think about it, a stereotypical 16-year-old would shun the consequences and try it anyway. So if one of them heard about Ged turning into a dragon, I could imagine that kid waiting for the teacher to turn the other way then saying, "Hey guys, check this out!" There is seemingly no barrier to stop him from going for it. (As opposed to other magic systems where a student tries, but due to lack of mana or experience nothing happens).
None of the students will really believe there is any inhibition until they see their classmate become a turd. Unless of course the student tried in secret, then there might just be a rash of disappearing students and mysterious turds popping up everywhere….


Joe Informatico (joeinformatico) | 888 comments P. Aaron wrote: "Does knowledge, out here in the real world, "cost?" Does it somehow exhaust my doctor to diagnose my bronchitis? Does my mechanic require a sacrifice of blood in order to tell my a/c needs freon, or just the right tools and a few minutes?

The "cost" for Ged's power is all front-loaded: tedious, tedious scholarship. Just like in the real world. "


That's a really good point. In the "Setting" thread, I noted that other than Kargad, the islands of Earthsea don't have much of an aristocracy or warrior culture (based on my reading of the first 2 1/2 books). If magic is a fairly common skill in Earthsea, there's probably little need for a warrior caste to defend them or uphold the laws. The wizards are basically replacing the knights and feudal lords in this setting.

So if the traditional epic fantasy hero is some kind of warrior, is there a "cost" often associated with their martial skills other than training? If a warrior continually avoids death or crippling injuries, do they pay a cost for defeating their opponents? If wizards effectively replace the warriors in this world, why do they need to pay a cost?


P. Aaron Potter (paaronpotter) | 585 comments Paula wrote: "Although if you think about it, a stereotypical 16-year-old would shun the consequences and try it anyway...."

Which is precisely the plot of A Wizard of Earthsea.


message 15: by Joe Informatico (last edited Feb 06, 2014 01:47PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Joe Informatico (joeinformatico) | 888 comments P. Aaron wrote: "Le Guin is a lot more explicit about the rules, limits, and costs of magic in her world than, say Tolkien is. Gandalf's magic is completely random in power level (sometimes he can hurl fireballs, sometimes he can't even make candlelight) and utterly cost-free. Magic in Earthsea is charged by knowing the True Names of things, which takes scholarship and dedication, and has to be accompanied, often, by actual real-world time and work (consider how Ged binds blessings into boats)."

I'll also note that the idea of complex magic systems with sophisticated rules and "costs" is mostly a recent development in fantasy fiction, born out of a generation of fantasy writers who grew up playing Dungeons & Dragons and later RPGs. Earthsea and Middle-Earth predate D&D. Most of the magic depicted in fantasy works before the mid-70s is either left mysterious and vague, or involves trafficking with dark powers. One of the few exceptions are Jack Vance's Dying Earth books, which coincidentally were the biggest inspiration for the D&D magic system.


Julian Arce | 71 comments In regards to magic, the inherent power in names, specially if there are "true names" and "usual names" has been widely use, both in religious/cultural settings, as well as in literature.

LeGuin does mention limitations, messing with the Balance, knowing the names, and also it seems that to keep spells there needs to be some focus or concentration. Ged couldn't sleep on his raft or the binding spells would exhaust, and he had to spend several days working a simple charm to work over a year.

But mainly, for me, this book is not at all about magic. Is about a young boy/man who is alone, in a priviliged space, and has to find himself. Read it like this:

Ged is a poor orphan, who has inherited a fortune (from his mother lets say), he gets picked up by his who wants to take advantage of his wealth. Eventually he is found by mom's lawyer who takes away in order for him to be raised to appreciate and use well his fortune. But Ged would not have it, having learned of his money he wants to spend it, until he is send off to a boarding school with other rich kids. There he becomes ever more proud of his wealth, picks up fights and everything, until one night while driving his Ferrari while drunk, he hits causes and accident that kills off a family. He is devastated after it, and lives for a while an ascetic life, until he beings a journey around the world seeking peace of mind and forgiveness.


Jonathon Dez-la-lour (jd2607) | 173 comments Perhaps it's because I'm just coming down off of reading the first book in Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn series, but the magic in Earthsea felt somewhat nebulous and poorly defined.

Admittedly, the book does explain more of the rules and limitations of magic within the universe than, for example, Lord of the Rings. But the costs and limitations aren't really explored too deeply, but then I felt that a lot of things weren't really explored too deeply.

That said, I think that the way magic and the society work in this universe really has very little to do with the plot of the book which is a coming of age story and the beginnings of a redemption tale which I would imagine continues through the other books in the cycle.


Cassie | 1 comments The general perception of magic in this reminded me mostly of The Elder Scrolls games. Magic is widely accepted and a lot of people know or can learn the basics, but few are good enough or determined enough to master it.

The way the magic actually works was almost elemental. I'm guessing he had to learn everything about a certain object/element before being able to replicate or control it.

Unfortunately we didn't get those kind of details in the book


terpkristin | 4132 comments One thing that struck me was the use of the true name for magic. Does anyone have any idea when people first started using this for magic systems in fantasy? I know I've seen it in a lot of books, but I've recently read a lot of recently published books (or, should I say, fewer older books), and I'm struggling to think of "where I read it first" or "who did it first."

It would be interesting to see when that really started becoming prevalent in fantasy, as it certainly is so now...


Alexander (technogoth) | 171 comments I'm pretty sure the use of a true name is a long standing magic principle from folklore.

As for the first story to use it I'd probably say Rumpelstiltskin.


message 21: by Kevin (new)

Kevin | 701 comments Yea, True Names are a long standing part of folklore, mythology and fairytales (like most fantasy tropes really). Both Norse and Germanic mythology, for example, have creatures that can (only) be defeated by saying their true names. Likewise the trope of summoning someone/something by saying aloud their name stems from these stories. There are also plenty of instances, both in folklore and modern fantasy, of not saying aloud the name of some evil power to avoid drawing its attention.

Something I read a while ago and thought interesting: In a conflation of beliefs during the spread of early Christianity and its mix with Western European folklore one of the reasons to baptize children and, thus name them in the eye of God, was to protect them from fairies so they couldn't be replaced by changelings.


message 22: by Alan (last edited Feb 20, 2014 09:11AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alan | 534 comments terpkristin wrote: "One thing that struck me was the use of the true name for magic. Does anyone have any idea when people first started using this for magic systems in fantasy? I know I've seen it in a lot of books, ..."

Like Alexander and Kevin said it's in several mythologies/religions -- the one that jumps out at me is the Chassidic strain of Judaism for the true names of god -- but I can't think of too many fantasy books before Earthsea that used it. That may just be because I can't think of fantasy works other than Lord of the Rings, Narnia and Oz from before the era of Earthsea.

Looking at Wikipedia doesn't turn up a whole lot of early fantasy other than those big-three. I know there are some people in this group who've read extensively of that era and maybe they can point to some early fantasy works that fit the bill ...


message 23: by Dwayne (last edited Feb 20, 2014 11:22AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Dwayne Caldwell | 141 comments P. Aaron wrote: "This reminds me of a consideration I had reading Orson Scott Card's How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy. In a chapter on magic, Card insists that in order to achieve balance, any m..."

I'm sorry, but I'd have to disagree. It's one thing to gain knowledge with little to no cost. Quite another to change the forces of nature to do what you will. That's always going to cost something. Finding out what is causing an ailment may not cost (although the doctor may disagree as it costs them a lot of time and practice to gain that knowledge) but treating it will. And I'm not talking about this is a monetary sense although there is that to take into consideration. But energy must be expended to make the tools and medications. Energy must be replenished for the affected's tissues to be repaired from an infection's destruction.

If magic is just an unconventional method to do work within nature's laws, then its application is going to cost the one who wields it. And the extent of the effort must in some way be proportional to the degree of the work one wishes to achieve. And if the universe is a closed system, then that energy is going to have to be taken from somewhere. It's one thing to learn magic and another to exercise it. That ain't gonna be cheap. And it certainly won't be free.


Andrew Knighton | 158 comments I think that the less well defined magic, without such clarity over its costs and limits, fits well with the slightly more distant relationship between the reader and Ged. The whole book feels like it's taken a step back from him, and that both allows and it supported by the rules and limits of his power being less clear.

It also adds to the mythic quality of the book, in which magic isn't something ordinary people can comprehend.


Christopher Centeno | 4 comments GED earned his power through years of disciplined study honing his natural talent. I see it like a medical student who has to learn almost everything about medicine before being able to treat people. GED first had to learn everything. About being a wizard, then got to go out into the world and do cool wizard things.
Even though This book focuses a bit in the wizarding school it isn't a school drama like Harry Potter so their doesn't need to be some great lesson learned before Ged uses a spell, because he's already learned almost all of what he needs to know.
As for whether or not their are no great Costs or effects of the magic I think the cost is one of the conspets that is more rooted in eastern philosophy, like the flapping of a butterfly's wings causing hurricanes, or maybe more realistic, like if a wizard sends away a storm then the plants may not grow as strong as they could have, and if a wizard uses magic to make plants stronger then the ground will be weaker and next years crops will be suffer.


David | 23 comments Nathan wrote: "But the author did include challenges in magic. She mentioned a mage should not stay tranformed for a long period of time and then there is the whole incident the book is built around."

There was a physical toll for the wizard casting a spell. For example (view spoiler)

Proximity to Roke also appears to be a limiting factor for a wizard's power. The further away from Roke the wizard gets, the less effective his magic is. Vetch experienced this on the open sea boat trip.


message 27: by Freddy (new)

Freddy van Zandt (FreddyvanZandt) | 3 comments I found this discussion in a random web search, and just have to put in my two cents.

LeGuin is an author who focuses on poetry in her writing. She's not like some other fantasy Authors, such as the very modern Patrick Rothfuss and his Kingkiller Chronicle, who focus on explaining every detail of a book, not sacrificing quality by any means but taking a different form from what LeGuin shoots for. Explaining things too closely would, as one poster put it, be tedious, and her writing style isn't the sort to accommodate such attention to minute detail. It's beautiful to read, in large part because of the grand arcs she draws over pages of text, spanning years in a paragraph but implying all the gained knowledge required for her characters to do what they do.

As for the other penny I have to spend, there is the type of magic this style of literature inspires. LeGuin does not use a scientific form of magic (such as the aforementioned Rothfuss, who does so in spades). Her magic is a very soft form of it, in which small problems are solved in small ways, but large problems must be solved in similarly grand style. These large problems just so happen to be Magic, and so Magic is most useful in these situations. It's not right to bind soft magic to the laws of nature. It is, by its OWN nature, not meant to be so restricted. It comes from without our universe, not within. This is why people tend not to go to their local wizard - especially if they're untrained - except in rare circumstances: they realize that the powers they wield are unnatural, and apt to cause harm as often as good (not just to the world, but to the wizard, as Ged found out the hard way) if not applied carefully.

This is the case in another of LeGuin's books, "Gifts," as well as in her short stories. Even though she tends to define her magic a bit better in subsequent books, there is always a distance between hard reality and wherever these powers come from, a sort of awe which comes with something used rarely in part because it is so inexplicable. So no, the magic isn't "convenient," really, but just loosely defined with good intentions: to contend with other magical problems and make us look around with just a touch more respect for the supernatural than we did before.


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