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National Endowment for the Arts
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The National Endowment for the Arts is a public agency dedicated to supporting
excellence in the arts — both new and established — bringing the arts to all Americans,
and providing leadership in arts education. Established by Congress in 1965 as an
independent agency of the federal government, the Endowment is the nations largest
annual funder of the arts, bringing great art to all 50 states, including rural areas, inner
cities, and military bases.
The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support
for the nation's 122,000 libraries and 17,500 museums. The Institute's mission is to create
strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas. The Institute
works at the national level and in coordination with state and local organizations to
sustain heritage, culture, and knowledge; enhance learning and innovation; and support
Arts Midwest connects people throughout the Midwest and the world to meaningful arts
opportunities, sharing creativity, knowledge, and understanding across boundaries. Based
in Minneapolis, Arts Midwest connects the arts to audiences throughout the nine-state
region of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Ohio, South
Dakota, and Wisconsin. One of six non-profit regional arts organizations in the United
States, Arts Midwest's history spans more than 25 years.
Additional support for The Big Read has also been provided by the W.K. Kellogg
National Endowment for the Arts
1 100 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, DC 20506-0001
Bucknall, Barbara J. Ursula K. Le Guin. New York: Ungar, 1981.
( "lute, John, and John Grant. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997.
Clute, John, and Peter Nicholls. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, 2nd ed. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993.
Cummins, Elizabeth. Understanding Ursula K. Le Guin. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990.
Le Guin, Ursula K. A Wizard of Earthsea (1968). New York: Bantam Books, 2004.
Spivack, Charlotte. Ursula K. Le Guin. Boston: Twayne, 1984.
Storr, Anthony, ed. The Essential Jung. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983-
Tolkien, J.R.R. "On Fairy-Stories" (1938), in Tree and Leaf London: Allen and Unwin, 1964.
Waggoner, Diana. The Hills of Faraway: A Guide to Fantasy. New York: Atheneum, 1978.
David Kipen, NEA Director of Literature, National Reading Initiatives
Sarah Bainter Cunningham, PhD, NEA Director of Arts Education
Writers: Michael Dirda for the National Endowment for the Arts, with a introduction by Dana Gioia
Michael Dirda, a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic, writes frequently about fantasy, science fiction and children's books.
He holds a PhD in comparative literature from Cornell University and is the author of the memoir/!/* Open Book
(2003) and of four collections of essays: Readings (2000), Bound to Please (2005), Book by Book (2006), and Classics
for Pleasure (2007).
Series Editor: Molly Thomas-Hicks for the National Endowment for the Arts
Graphic Design: Fletcher Design/Washington, DC
Cover Portrait: John Sherffius for The Big Read. Page iv: Earthsea map copyright © 2001 by Ursula K. Le Guin,
book cover courtesy of Random House. Page 1: Caricature of Dana Gioia by John Sherffius. Inside back cover:
Copyright © Marian Wood Kolisch.
Table of Contents
Suggested Teaching Schedule 2
Lesson One: Biography 4
Lesson Two: The Fantasy Tratdition 5
Lesson Three: Narrative and Point of View 6
Lesson Four: Characters 7
Lesson Five: Figurative Language 8
Lesson Six: Symbols 9
Lesson Seven: Character Development 10
Lesson Eight: The Plot Unfolds 11
Lesson Nine: Themes of the Novel 12
Lesson Ten: What Makes a Book Great? 13
Essay Topics 14
Capstone Projects 15
Handout One: Naming, Magic, and the Balance of Nature 16
Handout Two: The Earthsea Trilogy 17
Handout Three: Ged's Coming of Age 18
Teaching Resources 19
NCTE Standards 20
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"The island of Gont, a single
mountain that lifts its peak a mile
above the storm-racked Northeast
Sea, is a land famous for wizards."
— from A Wizard ofEartbsea
JV * THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts
Welcome to The Big Read, a major initiative from the National
Endowment for the Arts designed to revitalize the role of literary reading
in American culture. The Big Read hopes to unite communities through
great literature, as well as inspire students to become life-long readers.
This Big Read Teacher's Guide contains ten lessons to lead you through
Ursula K. Le Guin's classic novel, A Wizard ofEarthsea. Each lesson has
four sections: a focus topic, discussion activities, writing exercises, and
homework assignments. In addition, we have provided capstone projects
and suggested essay topics, as well as handouts with more background
information about the novel, the historical period, and the author. All
lessons dovetail with the state language arts standards required in the
The Big Read teaching materials also include a CD. Packed with interviews,
commentaries, and excerpts from the book, The Big Read CD presents
first-hand accounts of why A Wizard ofEarthsea remains so compelling
four decades after its initial publication. Some of America's most
celebrated writers, scholars, and actors have volunteered their time
to make Big Read CDs exciting additions to the classroom.
Finally, The Big Read Reader's Guide deepens your exploration with
interviews, booklists, timelines, and historical information. We hope
this guide and syllabus allow you to have fun with your students while
introducing them to the work of a great American author.
From the NEA, we wish you an exciting and productive school year.
Chairman, National Endowment for the Arts
National Endowment for the Arts THE BIG READ • |
Activities: Listen to The Big Read CD.
Discuss Readers Guide essays "Introduction
to the Novel," "Ursula K. Le Gum," and "Le
Guin and Her Other Works." Write a short
essay on the opening paragraphs of the novel.
Homework: Read Chapter I .
FOCUS: The Fantasy Tradition
Activities: Discuss some of the qualities of
literary fantasy. Write one-page essay on
favorite work of fantasy.
Homework: Read Chapter 2. Read Handout
One: Naming, Magic, and the Balance of
FOCUS: Narrative and Point of View
Activities: Discuss aspects of narrative
and tone in A Wizard ofEarthsea. Write
essay on the narrator's attitude toward
Ged's youthful mistakes.
Homework: Read Chapters 3 and 4.
Activities: Discuss the school for wizards on
Roke Island and Ged's relationship to Jasper
and Vetch. Write an essay on one of the
master-wizards and what they contribute to
Homework: Read Chapters 5 and 6.
FOCUS: Figurative Language
Activities: Discuss style and atmosphere in
A Wizard ofEarthsea. Pick out some striking
sentences. Write a short essay using a similar
Homework: Read Chapter 7.
2 • THE BIG READ
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Activities: Discuss symbols of the novel,
then pick one for an essay.
Homework: Read Chapter 8.
FOCUS: Character Development
Activities: Discuss how fear is a test of
character. Write a portrait of how Ged has
changed since beginning of book.
Homework: Read Chapter 9.
FOCUS: The Plot Unfolds
Activities: Discuss the social, class, and
ethnographic aspects of the novel. Write an
essay on one of the women characters in
Homework: Read Chapter 10 and Handout
Two: The Earthsea Trilogy.
FOCUS: Themes of the Novel
Activities: Read aloud in class Handout
Three: Ged's Coming of Age. Discuss major
themes and motifs. Ask students how they
would teach the novel.
Homework: Work on final essay.
FOCUS: What Makes a Book Great?
Activities: List points that make a book
great. Write an in-class paper on why fantasy
should or should not be part of everyone's
Homework: Turn in final essay.
National Endowment for the Arts
THE BIG READ • 3
Examining an authors life can inform and expand the readers
understanding of a novel. Biographical criticism is the practice of analyzing
a literary work through the lens of an author's experience. In this lesson,
explore the author's life to understand the novel more fully.
Ursula K. Le Guin, born in 1929, spent her childhood in California,
mainly in Berkeley, where her anthropologist father (A. 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, and later read
fairy tales, folktales and fantasy stories with avidity. Such a background may
explain, in part, Le Guin's approach to literature: She is a world-builder.
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.
As a writer, Le Guin has chosen to lead a private and quietly ordered life.
A Wizard ofEarthsea stresses that the ideal mage should practice a similar
modesty, self-discipline, and mental fortitude.
Listen to The Big Read CD. Have students take notes as they listen. Ask them to
present the three most important points they learned from the CD.
Copy the following sections from the Reader's Guide: "Introduction to the
Novel" and "Ursula K. Le Guin." Divide the class into two groups, and assign one
essay to each group. After reading the essays, discuss the ways knowledge of Le
Guin's biography might help us understand this novel.
Read the opening paragraph of A Wizard ofEarthsea aloud to your students.
Ask your students to write a one-page paper on the following related topics:
Why does Le Guin tell us that the hero of her book will eventually become an
archmage and a dragonlord? What might she gain by thus undercutting a certain
amount of suspense?
Read Chapter I, which introduces the young Ged — here called Duny. Come to
class with two themes that you believe will develop throughout the novel.
4 * THE BiG READ
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A work of art is always part of a tradition and to understand any particular
novel one should bear in mind the genre in which it is written. A Wizard of
Earthsea is a fantasy, that is, a story in which impossible things happen. It is
consequently part of a long tradition — think of myths, fairy tales, animal
fables, Arabian Nights entertainments, medieval romances, and tales of the
supernatural. Such stories often supply us with visions of heroic endeavor
and greatness of heart. They restore a sense of wonder to our lives. But they
also give us perspective on the way we are actually living. In this sense,
fantasies are like thought experiments, creative ways of reflecting on human
experience — imaginary places with real people in them. Through the use
of what J. R. R. Tolkien called a "secondary world," we come to better
understand our own. While a fantasy isn't "real," it can still be true.
Addressing a group of booksellers in 2007, Ursula K. Le Guin stressed that
"fantasy is a literature particularly useful for examining the real difference
between good and evil Imagination is the instrument of ethics." This is
one reason why the classic fantasies nearly always include quests, ordeals,
temptations, battles, and sacrifice. These can be exciting in themselves, but
they also represent the arduous search for psychological or spiritual integrity.
Plan to focus this class on discussing the nature and character of fantasy.
Copy and distribute "The Fantasy Tradition," the timeline, and "Suggested
Reading" from the Reader's Guide. Ask the students to read them in class. Start
a discussion by raising some of the following closely related questions: I) What
are some characteristics of fantasy? 2) How does fantasy differ from realistic
mainstream fiction? 3) What can fantasy do that realistic fiction cannot? 4) In
what way can things be "true" without being "real"?
Ask your students to write a one-page essay on a favorite work of fantasy,
emphasizing what they liked about it. The timeline and "Suggested Readings"
mention many titles that may help students in choosing a book for their essay. If
any students have never read a work of fantasy, ask them to write about another
book, its genre, and why it appealed to them.
Read Chapter 2. In this chapter Duny — now called Ged — has become the
apprentice to the mage Ogion the Silent. Pay close attention to Ogion's character.
What is he trying to teach Ged? Then read Handout One: Naming, Magic, and
the Balance of Nature. How might Handout One make you see Ged differently?
National Endowment for the Arts
THE BIG READ ■ 5
and Point of
The narrator tells the story, with a specific perspective informed by his or
her beliefs and experiences. Narrators can be major or minor characters,
or exist outside the story altogether. The narrator weaves her or his point
of view, including ignorance and bias, into telling the tale. A first-person
narrator participates in the events of the novel, using "I." A distanced
narrator, often not a character, is removed from the action of the story
and uses the third-person (he, she, and they). The distanced narrator may
be omniscient, able to read the minds of all the characters, or limited,
describing only certain characters' thoughts and feelings. Ultimately, the
type of narrator determines the point of view from which the story is told.
The omniscient narrator confides in the reader like a friend, conveying
the real story behind the legends of the Archmage Ged. The sentences are
formal, clear, and exact, with the musical cadence of an oral storyteller or
medieval bard. Le Guin has stressed that heroic or high fantasy demands
a slightly formal, elevated style, commensurate with the genre's focus on
nobility of soul, heroism, and self-sacrifice.
Why might Le Guin choose an omniscient narrator? Could she tell the same story
through a first-person account? Do you think this would improve or weaken the
tale? Discuss the narrative style of A Wizard ofEarthsea with your students. What
literary devices does Le Guin use to create her distinctive sound on the page? Are
there any sentences students consider beautiful? Do these sentences contribute to
an understanding of the narrator's point of view? Why or why not?
The narrator tells of Ged's encounter with the Lord of Re Albi's daughter and his
journey toward Roke. Ask students to choose one of the following topics and,
citing examples from the text, write a short essay defending their thesis.
Does the narrator tell the story of Ged's youthful mistakes with a sense of
compassion or with a cold objectivity? How does the narrator's view of Ged
influence the way the reader feels about the young hero?
How might Ged tell the story, in the first person, of the encounter with the young
girl? How might the way he tells the story change five years from the event?
Read Chapters 3 and 4. Who are the main characters in the novel thus far? What
characters influence Ged the most? Which characters can be considered positive
influences, which are negative?
6 ' THE BIG READ
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The central character in a work of literature is called the protagonist.
The protagonist usually initiates the main action of the story and
often overcomes a flaw such as weakness or ignorance to achieve a new
understanding by the work's end. A protagonist who acts with great honor
or courage may be called a hero. An antihero is a protagonist lacking
these qualities. Instead of being dignified, brave, idealistic, or purposeful,
the antihero may be cowardly, self-interested, or weak. The protagonist's
journey is enriched by encounters with characters who hold differing
beliefs. One such character type, a foil, has traits that contrast with the
protagonist's and highlight important features of the main character's
personality. The most important foil, the antagonist, opposes
the protagonist, barring or complicating his or her success.
Ged's interaction with other characters — Ogion, the Doorkeeper, the
Archmage, Jasper, Vetch, the Shadow, and the little otak Hoeg — reveal
his virtues and weaknesses. In the turmoil of adolescence, he must make
ethical decisions that affect himself and others. Some characters draw Ged
toward strength and nobility, while others spur him to less than virtuous
actions. Does Jasper cause the young Ged's undoing, or do the weaknesses
of pride and youth overcome our hero, as he challenges his classmate to
a sorcerer's duel? The answer to this question depends on what we decide
about the character and intentions of these young, brash men.
Ask your students to consider the following questions: Who is the protagonist
in this novel? Why does Jasper become Ged's enemy? Why does Vetch become
his friend? Does the school setting create a backdrop that will bring out certain
personality traits in these young people? If so, what traits are likely to emerge
due to the school setting? Does the school setting further encourage the
antagonism between Jasper and Ged? If so, how?
Ursula K. Le Guin has written that the Earthsea trilogy is "in one aspect, about
the artist. The artist as magician. The Trickster. Prospero. That is the only truly
allegorical aspect it has of which I am conscious. ... Wizardry is artistry. The
trilogy is then, in this sense, about art, the creative experience, the creative
process." Write a one-page essay describing the powers and specialties of one
of the Roke wizards. Explain how this wizard may or may not speak to Le Guin's
attempt to describe "the creative experience, the creative process." Does this
wizard reflect an aspect of an artist's life or practice?
Read Chapters 5 and 6. Did the dragon react to Ged as you might expect? What
do we learn about Ged when he does not give in to the dragon's offers?
National Endowment for the Arts
THE BIG READ • 7
Writers use figurative language such as imagery, similes, and metaphors
to help the reader visualize and experience events and emotions in a story.
Imagery — a word or phrase that refers to sensory experience (sight, sound,
smell, touch, or taste) — helps create a physical experience for the reader and
adds immediacy to literary language.
Some figurative language asks us to stretch our imaginations, finding
the likeness in seemingly unrelated things. Simile is a comparison of two
things that initially seem quite different but are shown to have significant
resemblance. Similes employ connective words, usually "like," "as," "than,"
or a verb such as "resembles." A metaphor is a statement that one thing is
something else that, in a literal sense, it is not. By asserting that a thing is
something else, a metaphor creates a close association that underscores an
important similarity between these two things.
Le Guin uses simile to describe Ged's control over the dragon, "When he
spoke the dragon's name if was as if he held the huge being on a fine, thin leash,
tightening it on his throat" (p. 92). She also uses metaphor as a descriptive tool,
"When he raised it again and looked, the wizard was gone, and the sail of the
boat was a white fleck on the waves eastward. . ." (p. 93).
Though Le Guin occasionally uses figurative language, her writing tends to
be plain, strong, and direct, without obvious flourish. Consider the very first
sentence of the novel: "The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a
mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards." She
gives music and richness to her prose through the rhythm of her sentences and
occasionally through the use of alliteration and assonance. For example, even the
stolid Vetch sometimes rises to prose-poetry: "The Princess Elfarran was only
a woman,' said Vetch, 'and for her sake all Enlad was laid waste, and the Hero-
Mage of Havnor died, and the island of Solea sank beneath the sea" (p. 64). Ask
the class to select some particularly distinctive sentences from the novel and
explain what makes them so striking.
Having discussed Le Guin's style and language with the students, ask them to
write a paragraph in that style. Possible topics: Describe getting dressed for a
party as if you were a warrior preparing for battle. Evoke the Shadow lurking in
the hallways of your school. Pretend that an ant searching for food is a hero on
a quest. Imagine the principal of the school making announcements on the public
address system in the magisterial voice of a great wizard.
Read Chapter 7. Review the first seven chapters of the novel. Find three symbols
and be prepared to describe why these symbols might be important.
8 • THE BIG READ
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Symbols are persons, places, or things in a narrative that have significance
beyond a literal understanding. The craft of storytelling depends on
symbols to present ideas and point toward new meanings. Most frequently,
a specific object will be used to refer to (or symbolize) a more abstract
concept. The repeated appearance of an object suggests a non-literal, or
figurative, meaning attached to the object. Symbols are often found in
the book's title, at the beginning and end of the story, within a profound
action, or in the name or personality of a character. The life of a novel is
perpetuated by generations of readers interpreting and re-interpreting the
main symbols. By identifying and understanding symbols, readers can
reveal new interpretations of the novel.
Symbols appear throughout the novel. Ged s first journey on the boat
called "Shadow" symbolizes and captures the confusion of adolescence,
while also foreshadowing later events in the novel. Difficulty in entering
the school door suggests that Ged will have to learn humility, understand
that one must sometimes ask for help, and become more trusting of himself
and others. Throughout the novel, names — true names — represent the
essence of a person or a thing, and are the key to understanding oneself and
the world. Other key symbols in the novel include birds, dragons, water,
islands, hunter and hunted, and the journey.
As in her other novels, Le Guin deliberately reverses simplistic stereotypes in
order to critique social and cultural norms. In this novel, dark-skinned characters
are virtuous and heroic, while only the warlike and barbaric Karg are white.
Unlike typical heroes, representing human beings at their most exalted, Ged is at
first vain and envious, and then confused and fearful as he deals with the lurking
shadow. What makes Ged a hero? Is a flawed hero more believable to us, more
useful as a model?
Have students identify three symbols in the novel and explain how these lend
deeper meaning to the story. To deepen this writing exercise, write an essay
on one of the symbols, explaining how this symbol is relevant. Students might
consider chapter titles, names, or objects like the Stone of Terrenon as possible
Read Chapter 8. Le Guin explains that Ged becomes the hunter and that
"the shadow could not draw on his power so long as he was turned against it"
Consider why this is important
National Endowment for the Arts THE BIG READ • 9
Novels trace the development of characters who encounter a series of
challenges. Most characters contain a complex balance of virtues and vices.
Internal and external forces require characters to question themselves,
overcome fears, or reconsider dreams. The protagonist may undergo
profound change. A close study of character development maps, in each
character, the evolution of motivation, personality, and belief. The tension
between a character's strengths and weaknesses keeps the reader guessing
about what might happen next and the protagonists eventual success or
In chapter six Ged reaches what may be the nadir of his story. Frightened,
afraid of any shadow, he runs away from everything. As a common
oarsman, he makes another enemy of Skiorh, encounters a mysterious
messenger who tells him to go to Osskil, and eventually finds himself in
mortal combat with the Shadow itself.
One great test of a person's character explored in literature is how he confronts
that which he fears, whether shame, weakness, a hidden stigma, or death itself.
Discuss the ways fear controls Ged at various points in the novel. At other times,
he overcomes his fear. What character traits allow Ged to conquer self-doubt
Ask the class to reflect on fear in their own lives. Do they avoid facing those
things that frighten or worry them? Or do they confront them? How, in fact,
does one deal with stomach-churning fear? Remember that books are not simply
aesthetic objects; they also help us to live with greater self-understanding and
sympathy for others, they offer us solace and inspiration.
Ged has changed since his initial encounter with the Shadow and his brushes
with death. He has been making progress in self-awareness and gradually growing
wiser, more mature. Write a one-page portrait of Ged as he now is, emphasizing
how he differs from his younger self and noting the steps that have led to this,
among them his friendship with Pechvarry, his encounter with the dragon Yevaud,
and his resistance to Serret.
Read Chapter 9. In Chapter 9, Ged finally reunites with his friend Vetch. Why
has it taken so long for the two sorcerers to reunite? Why might Le Guin have
chosen to wait to give us this encounter? What do you think may happen to
their friendship as the novel ends?
I * THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts
The author crafts a plot structure to create expectations, increase suspense,
and develop characters. The pacing of events can make a novel either
predictable or riveting. Foreshadowing and flashbacks allow the author to
defy the constraints of time. Sometimes an author can confound a simple
plot by telling stories within stories. In a conventional work of fiction, the
peak of the story's conflict — the climax — is followed by the resolution or
denouement, in which the aftereffects of that climactic action are presented.
Ursula K. Le Guin has written: "I think it is a mistake to think of story
as simply moving forward. The rhythmic structure of narrative is both
journeylike and architectural. Great novels offer us not only a series of
events, but a place, a landscape of the imagination which we can inhabit
and return to. This may be particularly clear in the 'secondary universe' of
fantasy, where not only the action but the setting is avowedly invented by
While A Wizard ofEarthsea clearly focuses on what one might call the education
and testing of a young wizard, the novel also manages to convey a growing sense
of Earthsea itself. Over the course of the novel Ged visits many of the islands of
the archipelago, encounters people of different races and social classes, and sees
for himself the richness and variety of Earthsea life. Talk with the class about
what lessons Ged learns from his travels. Note which places and people seem
admirable, and which are more questionable.
Work with the class to list the lessons Ged has learned from his travels. How
does Le Guin pace the story to develop structure in an architectural way? How
might the places and people encountered on Ged's journey contribute to the
rhythm and structure?
While A Wizard ofEarthsea is dominated by male characters, women do play key
roles in Ged's development. Choose one woman character and write an essay
about what she represents. You might focus this essay on examining Serret or
Yarrow specifically. How do the women contribute to the plot of the story? Are
they present at significant moments in the story? If so, why? If not, why not?
Read Handout Three. Pick two themes to discuss in the next class. Find
selections from the text that speak to the themes you have selected. For
example, if your theme relates to the battle of good and evil, choose passages
that illustrate that theme.
Read Chapter 10 and finish the novel. Read Handout Two: The Earthsea Trilogy.
National Endowment for the Arts
THE BIG READ • | |
Themes are the central, recurring subjects of a novel. As characters grapple
with circumstances such as racism, class, or unrequited love, profound
questions will arise in the reader's mind about human life, social pressures,
and societal expectations. Classic themes include intellectual freedom versus
censorship, the relationship between one's personal moral code and larger
political justice, and spiritual faith versus rational considerations. A novel
often reconsiders these age-old debates by presenting them in new contexts
or from new points of view.
Like many young adult novels, A Wizard ofEarthsea focuses on growing
up, the passage from childhood to maturity, coming of age. Among other
themes it examines the proper use of power, the need to embrace all aspects
of oneself, the importance of community and trust, the value of altruism as
well as courage.
Have students share the two themes they identified in last night's homework,
citing passages that explore these themes. In addition to themes students identify,
discuss the following subjects:
Coming of Age: How does Ged's journey reflect a typical coming of age
journey? Does this journey reflect modern coming of age tales? Why or why not?
Psychological Battle: How might psychologists explain Ged's battle with his
shadow? How might individual development be challenged by a battle between
dark and light forces?
Creative Power: How might the novel reflect a statement about creative
power? How does sorcery and magic capture a latent human power that can be
used toward good or evil?
Knowledge: How does knowledge and experience temper Ged's ability to
make solid judgments? How does knowing names contribute to one's ability to
act heroically or justly?
Choose one of the themes. Ask students to write a brief overview of how
they would teach the novel to a class. They should identify a theme to explore
and select a focus topic (genre, symbol, character development, or figurative
language) to develop. Have them identify several passages that show what is
happening in the story. These lesson plans should include two lessons that relate
to the theme and topic selected. Have students share their plan with the class.
Students can begin developing an essay topic for the novel. They can choose
from the topics provided in their guide or develop their own questions.
12 * THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts
a Book Great?
Great stories articulate and explore the mysteries of our daily lives in the
larger context of the human struggle. The writer's voice, style, and use of
language inform the plot, characters, and themes. By creating opportunities
to learn, imagine, and reflect, a great novel is a work of art that affects
many generations of readers, changes lives, challenges assumptions, and
breaks new ground.
Ursula K. Le Guin's novels and stories depict the human condition, the
magic and the obstacles in all our lives. She has used fantasy and science
fiction to stretch our imaginations, to create works of great beauty, and
to raise what philosophy students sometimes call The Big Questions. A
Wizard of Earthsea asks us to consider the proper use of power and the
nature of the self. The Left Hand of Darkness, set on a planet where people
are both male and female, examines the intricacies of friendship and love.
The Dispossessed discusses the characteristics of an ideal society. These
novels, and many others, have established Ursula K. Le Guin as one of the
most admired and admirable writers of our time.
Ask students to make a list of the characteristics of a great book. Write these on
the board. What elevates a novel to greatness? Then ask them to discuss, within
groups, other books they know that include some of these characteristics. Do
any of these books remind them of A Wizard of Earthsea 7 . Is this a great novel?
Some readers might still argue that a fantasy novel must be escapist
entertainment and can never rise to the heights of the greatest literature. After
reading A Wizard of Earthsea, do you think this is true? Would you read other
works of fantasy?
Write a one-page statement of why every person should read works of fantasy. If
you disagree with this statement, write a one-page as to why you disagree.
Students will complete their essays, due at the next class session.
National Endowment for the Arts
THE BIG READ • 13
The discussion activities and writing exercises in this guide provide you with possible essay topics,
as do the Discussion Questions in the Reader's Guide. Advanced students can come up with their
own essay topics, as long as they are specific and compelling. Other ideas for essays are provided
For essays, students should organize their ideas around a thesis about the novel. This statement or
thesis should be focused, with clear reasons supporting its conclusion. The thesis and supporting
reasons should be backed by references to the text.
Le Guin wrote two stories set on Earthsea
before she embarked on her novel about
Ged: "The Word of Unbinding" and "The
Rule of Names." Both appear in her collection
The Wind's Twelve Quarters. Read them and
discuss how each contributes something to
our understanding of A Wizard of Earthsea.
Enthusiastic readers may wish to seek out Tales
from Earthsea, written more than twenty years
after A Wizard of Earthsea first appeared, and
discuss how these later stories amplify themes
of the original novel.
When Ged finally confronts the Shadow at
the end of the book it appears to him first as
his father, then Jasper, then Pechvarry, then
as a kind of dragon, then Skiorh, and then
as " a fearful face he did not know, man or
monster, with writhing lips and eyes that were
like pits going back into black emptiness." Why
does the Shadow assume the image of these
particular figures in Ged's life? Why are they all
male? What do they signify? Is there a subtle
progression here? And what is the meaning of
the last face, before the final revelation?
Reread the paragraph in Chapter 3 of
A Wizard of Earthsea in which the Master
Hand underscores the significance of names.
This begins with the sentence "The Master
Hand looked at the jewel that glittered in
Ged's palm. . ." and ends "A wizard's power
of Changing and Summoning can shake the
balance of the world. It is dangerous, that
power. It is most perilous. It must follow
knowledge, and serve need. To light a candle
is to cast a shadow. . . ." Why do you think Le
Guin emphasizes that a magician's words can
affect the balance of the universe and that
he needs to use his powers with great care?
Reflect on the relationship between words and
names, power and responsibility.
4. At one point Ged pursues the shadow into
the land of the dead — and it nearly costs him
his life. But he is saved by one of the most
important characters in the book — his little
pet otak. Like so many elements in A Wizard of
Earthsea, this scene is redolent of fairy tale and
myth. As Le Guin has said: "The girl who saves
the ant from the spider's web is saved in turn
by the ants, who do her impossible task for
her; the prince who sneers at the wolf in the
trap is lost in the forest, but the prince who
frees the wolf inherits the kingdom." Write
an essay on the role of the pet otak. What is
the relationship between the otak and Ged?
Is this a friendship? What is the relevance of
the smaller creature in the story? Does this
allow you to draw out a theme about the
relationship between Ged and
the natural world?
14 ' THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts
Teachers may consider the ways in which these activities may be linked to other Big Read
community events. Most of these projects could be shared at a local library, student assembly,
1 . There exists a made-for-television film of A
Wizard ofEarthsea. Find a copy and view it in
class, then discuss the novel's translation to the
screen. Where does it succeed, where does it
fail? Do you think Ursula K. Le Guin would like
this version of her book? This might lead to a
larger discussion of the relationship between
novels and movies. What are the strengths
and weaknesses of each? Discuss what you
think are some successful screen adaptations
2. Using the library and internet, track down
the covers of the various editions and try to
understand the artists' interpretation of the
novel. How important to a book is its cover or
dust jacket? Do you know of books where the
cover art has led you to read the book — or
where the cover art has been misleading or
revealed too much about the story? Work
with your visual arts specialist to have students
create their own cover art. Cover art should
reflect a specific passage from the text.
3. Dragons play a key role in the Earthsea
universe. It has been said that Le Guin's Yevaud
and the great Kalessin (who appears in later
volumes of the sequence) are more like Asian
dragons than European fire-breathers. What
is a dragon in Asian culture? What traditions
feed its image? Locate pictures of dragons
in your library or online that illustrate the
different conceptions of this archetypal beast
of the imagination.
Invite people who have worked in the fantasy
genre to your class. You might include a writer,
an actor, and a visual artist. Have students
write questions for the panel and provide
these questions to the participants prior to
the panel day. Select a student to moderate
the panel. Have the artists describe how
they approach depicting fantastical worlds or
situations, whether it is easy or difficult. Try
to figure out the strengths of the differing
media — visual art, stage, and novel — as means
for exploring fantastic themes. Find out if their
ideas about the "creative process" are similar
to Le Guin's. You might also invite a local
professor who teaches a course in fantasy and
science fiction or a serious member of any
local science fiction and fantasy organization to
come and discuss contemporary trends.
Taoist principles run throughout A Wizard
ofEarthsea and its sequels. Explore Taoism
further by reading Lao Tse's Tao-Te-Ching in
one or more of its many translations. (Le
Guin herself has published her own English
version.) Many of Taoism's principles influenced
Zen Buddhism and yoga. Explore Taoism by
inviting one or two practicing Taoists to your
classroom. Provide students with excerpts
from the Tao-Te-Ching before your guest visits.
Ask the guests to talk about the basic tenets
of Taoism, the background and the practice.
Then, have the students reflect on whether
and how the novel embraces these tenets.
National Endowment for the Arts
THE BIG READ • 15
Naming, Magic, and the Balance of Nature
Le Guin has stressed that A Wizard ofEarthsea —
indeed all her fiction — is suffused with Taoism
and the principles poetically set down in Lao
Tse's Tao-Te-Ching. The Tao-Te-Ching is one
of the most beloved books in the world. Tao
(pronounced "dow") means "way," as in a path,
road or direction; Te (pronounced "duh") refers
to individual power, integrity and spirit; Ching
(pronounced "jeang") is the Chinese word for a
classic. Thus the books title has sometimes been
rendered "The Book of the Way and its Power"
or "The Way of Life" or "The Classic Book of
Integrity and the Way." Any of these various
renderings, but especially the last, might be an apt
one-phrase description of A Wizard ofEarthsea, a
classic about integrity and the way.
Like Ged's first master Ogion, the poetic and
paradoxical sayings of the Tao-Te-Ching ask us to
practice modesty, stillness, and spontaneity, to trust
in the natural rhythms of life, to live harmoniously
with our self and the universe, to go with the
flow. In particular, the Tao-Te-Ching asks us to
cultivate non-action (wu-wei), to recognize the
value of emptiness and nothingness. The famous
yin-yang symbol — made of interlocking light and
dark semi-circles — represents this Taoist unity
of opposites: In the dark feminine yin is a dot
of white; in the white masculine yang is a dot of
black. The name Earthsea is itself a kind of yin-
From the very opening epigraph — "The Creation
of Ea" — A Wizard ofEarthsea announces
that Taoist mutuality, not western duality, is
fundamental to Le Guin's imagined world:
Only in silence the word,
only in dark the light,
only in dying life:
bright the hawk's flight
on the empty sky.
In fact, this little poem, properly read, sums up the
entire novel. Things are not wholly right or wrong,
black or white, and we are not required to choose
between them: They are aspects of a larger whole.
Apparent polarities actually need each other to
be complete. As the mage Ogion says to Ged, "to
hear, one must be silent."
In the Old Speech spoken by dragons — Confucius
once compared Lao Tse to a dragon able to ascend
into heaven — a name and the thing denoted are
one. Magic itself is simply knowledge of these
words and thus an understanding of the true
nature of things. So to speak a spell is to intrude
upon the balance of the universe. The hermit-like
Ogion tries to teach Taoist quietism to his brash
young apprentice, for "what I have is what you
lack." To no avail. Again, at school on Roke, the
proud Ged dismisses his teacher's caution that the
use of magic requires responsibility and awareness.
One can change a thing by changing its name,
the Master Hand tells him, but by doing so one
changes the world — and the wise man needs to
weigh the consequences.
Ged is nearly destroyed by temptation before he
begins his long process of coming to understand
his full nature and what he should be. He must,
in a sense, become worthy of his true name, of
what he is. In the end, the chastened Ged comes
to embody what are sometimes called the Three
Jewels or Treasures of the Tao: Compassion,
moderation, and humility. He learns to act
appropriately, not simply to master. Of course,
these are virtues needed by all men and women,
not just wizards of Earthsea.
16 * THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts
The Earthsea Trilogy
In 1967 Ursula K. Le Guin was in her late thirties,
a mother with three kids under the age of 10,
and the author of three science fiction novels that
had garnered little critical attention. A Wizard
of Earthsea appeared in 1968, inaugurating an
astonishing burst of literary activity. During the
next six years Le Guin published The Left Hand of
Darkness (1969) and The Dispossessed (1974), each
of which won Hugo and Nebula Awards for best
science fiction novel of its year. She also continued
the story of the wizard Ged in both The Tombs of
Atuan (1971), which received a Newbery Honor
Book Citation, and The Farthest Shore (1972),
which won the National Book Award for children's
literature. Finally, The Winds Twelve Quarters
(1975) gathered her best short stories up till then,
including two early glimpses of Earthsea.
A Wizard of Earthsea focuses on the young Geds
coming of age. The Tombs of Atuan, set in an
underworld of tunnels, labyrinths and cells, shows
us a young priestess named Tenar rejecting the
social and psychological repression she has grown
up with to break free into her full true self. While
A Wizard of Earthsea is full of open-air action, as
Geds adventures take him to many of the islands
and cities of the known world, The Tombs of Atuan
is its opposite: enclosed, claustrophobic, suffocating.
In some ways, the two novels interlock like the
yin-yang symbol. The bright bold young man
Ged needs to confront darkness; the young girl
Tenar, who has spent her life in darkness, needs to
recognize the light within her.
In the third volume of the trilogy, The Farthest
Shore, we meet the young prince Arren. Le Guin
again continues to explore the theme of maturation
by tackling the meaning of death. In The Farthest
Shore Ged, now the Archmage of Roke, searches
for the reason why Earthsea is losing its vitality, its
magic. Ged brings Arren along as his companion
on this quest, recognizing in this confused and
uncertain young man an exceptional destiny.
At a rare quiet moment before the novels climax,
Ged observes: "When I was young, I had to choose
between the life of being and the life of doing.
And I leapt at the latter like a trout to a fly But
each deed you do, each act, binds you to itself and
to its consequences, and makes you act again and
yet again. Then very seldom do you come upon a
space, a time like this, between act and act, when
you may stop and simply be. Or wonder who, after
all, you are." At the novel's end a weary Ged turns
away from the world of action to seek that life of
simple being — and so passes, it would seem, into
the mists of legend.
For nearly twenty years that's where the Earthsea
novels stopped. But then, in 1990, Le Guin
unexpectedly returned to the archipelago in
Tehanu. While this novel again features Ged, Le
Guin's tone had changed, though not, in a sense,
her overriding theme. Tehanu is also, in part,
about the coming of age — of old age. While the
first three books reflected on power and how men
should use it, Tehanu examines powerlessness and
both the exploitation and wisdom of women.
Le Guin initially called Tehanu, "the last book
of Earthsea," but she admits that she was
mistaken. She continued to write stories set in the
archipelago — see Tales from Earthsea (2001) — as
well as the novel The Other WW (2001). These
books certainly amplify and enrich Le Guin's
original vision. That said, A Wizard of Earthsea
remains special: Le Guin calls it "the best put
together book" she has ever written.
National Endowment tor the Arts
THE BIG READ ■ |7
Ged's Coming of Age
A Wizard of Earthsea examines Ged's coming of
age, especially the period of anguish and ordeal
that follows the release of the shadow into the
world. Growing up, accepting responsibility,
and recognizing one's strengths and limitations
are principal themes of nearly all young adult
fiction. In many young adult novels a girl or boy
undergoes a period of confusion and ordeal and
emerges a new and different person, one with
greater understanding of himself and others.
This same process of transformation is also one
that we associate with religious or social "rites of
passage." In A Wizard of Earthsea the boy called
Duny at the age of 13 walks naked through the
icy Ar river and crosses to where Ogion, "reached
out his hand and clasping the boy's arm whispered
to him his true name: Ged." Despite this ritual,
Ged has a long way to go before he understands
and becomes his true self — and it is these teenaged
years of arrogance, trial, defeat, and eventual self-
acceptance that Le Guin chronicles.
In his classic study The Rites of Passage, Arnold van
Gennep postulated a three-part movement to the
recognized process of coming of age: separation
from the community, followed by a kind of
wilderness period when one has shed one identity
but not yet found another, and then a re-entry
into society as a new man or woman. In the
equally celebrated The Ritual Process, Victor Turner
focuses on that middle or liminal period. (Liminal
means threshold — the place where one is neither
in nor out.) The liminal state dissolves normal
barriers and boundaries, is full of ambiguity and
indeterminacy — it is a no-man's land, a limbo, a
period marked by seclusion, testing, uncertainty,
sexual confusion, chastening, the breakdown of
social norms. This state mirrors Ged's mental state
and experiences after he releases the Shadow.
The psychologist Carl Gustav Jung studied the
nature of the unconscious and our need in life
to achieve integration of our various selves and
impulses. Archetypal Figures (the Wise Old Man,
the helpful animal), universal symbols (water as
the unconscious) and primordial experiences (the
night sea journey to the ends of the earth) pervade
Jungian thought — and Le Guin's novel. Most
strikingly, Jung speculated that a person could only
reach full maturity by confronting what he called
the Shadow — one's dark side, all those desires
and temptations that the public self tries to hide
and repress. To Jung, this dark side is as much a
part of us as our light side. Psychological growth,
then, implies an enlargement of consciousness,
incorporation rather than rejection, both rather
than one or the other. Like Taoism, Jung rejects
duality for harmony.
These theories of personal transformation —
anthropological, mythic, and psychological — all
posit what may be called a period of ritual or
symbolic death. Each insists on a time of darkness,
of limbo or physical abuse that mimics actual
death. Many times Ged comes close to dying in
A Wizard of Earthsea, each time emerging as a
different, stronger self. To confront the Shadow,
he sails beyond the known world to face what
looks like certain death in order to re-emerge as a
mature person, the man who will one day become
Archmage and dragonlord.
I 8 ' THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts
Bernardo, Susan M., and Graham Murphy. Ursula K. Le
Guin: A Critical Companion. Westport, CT: Greenwood
Bucknall, Barbara J. Ursula K. Le Guin. New York: Ungar,
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. New
York: Pantheon, 1949.
Cadden, Mike. Ursula K. Le Guin: Beyond Genre. New York:
Clute, John, and John Grant. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy.
New York: St. Martin's, 1997.
Clute, John and Pter Nichols. The Encyclopedia of Science
Fiction. New York: St. Martin's, 1993.
Cummins, Elizabeth. Understanding Ursula K. Le Guin.
Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina
Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton, N.J.:
Princeton University Press, 1957.
Lao Tse, Tao-Te-Ching (several editions).
Oziewicz, Marek. "Prolegomena to Mythopoeic Fantasy"
in The Chesterton Review, Volume xxxi, Nos. 3 & 4.
South Orange, New Jersey: Seton Hall University, 2005,
Reid, Suzanne Elizabeth. Presenting Ursula K. Le Guin. New
York: Twayne, 1997.
Rochelle, Warren G. Communities of the Heart: The Rhetoric
of Myth in the Fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin. Liverpool:
Liverpool University Press, 2001.
Spivack, Charlotte. Ursula K. Le Guin. Boston: Twayne,
Storr, Anthony, ed. The Essential Jung. Princeton, New
Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1983.
Tolkien, J. R. R. "On Fairy-Stories," (1938) included in Tree
and Leaf. London: Allen and Unwin, 1964.
Turner, Victor W The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-
Structure. Chicago: Aldine Publishing, 1969.
Van Gennep, Arnold. The Rites of Passage, translated by
Monika B. Vizedom and Gabrielle L. Caffee. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, I960 (Originally, 1909).
Waggoner, Diana. The Hills of Faraway: A Guide to Fantasy.
New York: Atheneum, 1978.
White, Donna. Dancing with Dragons: Ursula K. Le Guin
and the Critics. Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1999.
The Ursula K. Le Guin Home Page
The official web site of the author includes publicity
photos, events calendar, biography, interviews, reviews,
and a complete bibliography
National Endowment for the Arts THE BIG READ • | 9
National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Standards"
1. Students read a wide range of print and
non-print texts to build an understanding of
texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of
the United States and the world; to acquire
new information; to respond to the needs
and demands of society and the workplace;
and for personal fulfillment. Among these
texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and
2. Students read a wide range of literature from
many periods in many genres to build an
understanding of the many dimensions (e.g.,
philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human
3. Students apply a wide range of strategies
to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and
appreciate texts. They draw on their prior
experience, their interactions with other
readers and writers, their knowledge of
word meaning and of other texts, their
word identification strategies, and their
understanding of textual features (e.g.,
sound-letter correspondence, sentence
structure, context, graphics).
4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written,
and visual language (e.g., conventions, style,
vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a
variety of audiences and for different purposes.
5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as
they write and use different writing process
elements appropriately to communicate with
different audiences for a variety of purposes.
Students apply knowledge of language
structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling
and punctuation), media techniques, figurative
language, and genre to create, critique, and
discuss print and non-print texts.
Students conduct research on issues and
interests by generating ideas and questions, and
by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and
synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g.,
print and non-print texts, artifacts, people) to
communicate their discoveries in ways that
suit their purpose and audience.
Students use a variety of technological and
information resources (e.g., libraries, databases,
computer networks, video) to gather and
synthesize information and to create and
Students develop an understanding of and
respect for diversity in language use, patterns,
and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups,
geographic regions, and social roles.
10. Students whose first language is not English
make use of their first language to develop
competency in the English language arts and to
develop understanding of content across the
1 1 . Students participate as knowledgeable,
reflective, creative, and critical members of a
variety of literary communities.
12. Students use spoken, written, and visual
language to accomplish their own purposes
(e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and
the exchange of information).
* This guide was developed with NCTE Standards and State Language Arts Standards in mind. Use these standards to guide and
develop your application of the curriculum.
20 * THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts
'I do think novels are beautiful. To me a novel
can be as beautiful as any symphony, as
beautiful as the sea. As complete, true, real,
large, complicated, confusing, deep, troubling,
soul enlarging as the sea with its waves that
break and tumble, its tides that rise and ebb."
—URSULA K. LE GUIN
from The Wave in the Mind
Tor magic consists in
this, the true naming
of a thing."
—URSULA K. LEGUIN
from A Wizard ofEarthsea
FOR THE ARTS
The Big Read is an initiative of the National
Endowment for the Arts designed to restore reading
to the center of American culture. The NEA presents
The Big Read in partnership with the Institute of
Museum and Library Services and in cooperation
with Arts Midwest.
■".>;: . .INSTITUTE 0/ . ..
A great nation deserves great art.