A Well-Spring, the Hidden Gem that shaped Harry Potter

Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea is an old book. First published in 1968 it was a fantasy novel written for young adults because the editor at Parnassus Press saw that this new audience had great potential.

Its author Ursula Kroeber was born in Berkeley California in 1929.

In 1953, after a whirlwind courtship, she married historian Charles Le Guin and became a wife and mother. However, Ms. Le Guin was one of those people who had been a voracious reader as a child, and she turned that passion for reading into a writing career in the 1960s when she wrote poetry, several short stories and five novels. Like many writers, she received many rejections from editors, their main complaint being that her work was inaccessible.

It wasn’t until A Wizard of Earthsea arrived in 1968, that she became famous, for this novel received much acclaim and many awards including the Boston Globe Horn Book Award of 1969. And luminaries such as Margaret Atwood have pronounced this book as one of the “wellsprings” of fantasy literature.

Ursula K. Le Guin in 1995

This is remarkable praise for a seemingly quiet book, which starts without fanfare in a poor village, where a motherless child gives off erratic hints that there might be more to him than meets the eye. It is not until he is thirteen, when this child single-handedly saves his village from attack by shrouding it in a magic fog, that people sit up and take notice.

Which is when the engine of the novel actually starts. Perhaps if this novel had been written recently, that is exactly where it might have started. But in 1968, people had more patience for gentler beginnings in which time is taken to lay out the background of this child’s life.

Not long afterwards, a Mage appears in the village seeking the boy. With his father’s permission he is allowed to go off into the forests with this stranger to learn Wizardry. But as they walk and walk higher and higher into the mountains, the stranger’s promise of tutelage fails to materialize. Ged, young and impatient, is puzzled. When he asks, he is brushed off with an enigmatic reply that he is too young to understand. And so, when an attractive girl goads him, it is inevitable that he will do something unwise to impress her. And so we have Ged’s first mistake, when he inadvertently summons a strange shadow that the Mage has to banish.

This incident makes vivid to the kindly Mage that Ged is unhappy in his service. And so, given the choice, it is not surprising that Ged leaves to go to Wizard School.

He travels all the way to the Island of Roke, where…he makes the same mistake. This time, his tormentor is a slightly older boy called Jasper. Ged has always been uncomfortable with Jasper, believing him to be quietly mocking behind a mask of politesse. But when Jasper insults him openly, comparing him to a goatherd, Ged cracks. And yes, you guessed it, he summons…something. Apparently, he was trying to summon the spirit of a Legendary Lady. Instead, he gets a shadow who attacks and nearly kills him. His life is saved by the Arch-Mage of the school, who sacrifices his life to save Ged and banish the creature.

But is the creature really banished? Not to poor Ged, who now suffers daily torments.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Many critics have noticed that A Wizard of Earthsea is a wellspring for Harry Potter. Like Harry, Ged is a talented boy sent to Wizard School. Like Harry, Ged has a scar on his face that hurts whenever he is close to his shadow. Like Harry, Ged makes an enemy of someone close to him.

Commenting on the similarity, Ms. Le Guin said that she did not feel that J. K. Rowling had plagiarized her work. On the other hand, she thought Ms. Rowling’s books received too much acclaim for novelty ~ “My incredulity was at the critics who found the first book wonderfully original. She has many virtues, but originality isn’t one of them.”

The fact that J.K. Rowling herself “could have been more gracious about her predecessors,” but wasn’t “hurt.”

If you have not read this novel before, you really should. It has a quiet power which is very compelling. Five Stars.

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