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National Endowment for the Arts 


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A Wizard 
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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 
professional development. 

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 

Published by 

National Endowment for the Arts 
1 100 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W. 
Washington, DC 20506-0001 
(202) 682-5400 


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 

Image Credits 

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. 

July 200 

Table of Contents 

Introduction 1 

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 
fiction genre. 

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. 

Dana Gioia 

Chairman, National Endowment for the Arts 

National Endowment for the Arts THE BIG READ • | 



Day One 

FOCUS: Biography 

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 . 

Day Two 

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 


Day Three 

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. 


Day Four 

FOCUS: Characters 

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 
Ged's education. 

Homework: Read Chapters 5 and 6. 


Day Five 

FOCUS: Figurative Language 

Activities: Discuss style and atmosphere in 
A Wizard ofEarthsea. Pick out some striking 
sentences. Write a short essay using a similar 
heroic style. 

Homework: Read Chapter 7. 


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Day Six 

FOCUS: Symbols 

Activities: Discuss symbols of the novel, 
then pick one for an essay. 

Homework: Read Chapter 8. 


Day Seven 

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. 


Day Eight 

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 
Ged's life. 

Homework: Read Chapter 10 and Handout 
Two: The Earthsea Trilogy. 


Day Nine 

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. 


Day Ten 

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 
reading life. 

Homework: Turn in final essay. 

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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. 

Discussion Activities 

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. 

Writing Exercise 

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? 

E3 Homework 

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. 


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Lesson Two 


The Fantasy 

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. 

Discussion Activities 

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"? 

Writing Exercise 

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. 

EJ Homework 

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? 

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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. 

Discussion Activities 

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? 

Writing Exercise 

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? 

C3 Homework 

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? 


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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. 

Discussion Activities 

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? 

Writing Exercise 

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? 

Kl Homework 

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? 

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Lesson Five 



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. 

Discussion Activities 

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. 

Writing Exercise 

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. 

EJ Homework 

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. 


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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. 

Discussion Activities 

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? 

Writing Exercise 

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 

EJ Homework 

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. 

Discussion Activities 

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 
and terror? 

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. 

Writing Exercise 

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. 

EJ Homework 

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 Plot 

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 
the author." 

Discussion Activities 

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? 

Writing Exercise 

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? 

EJ Homework 

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. 

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Themes of 
the Novel 

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. 

Discussion Activities 

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? 

Writing Exercise 

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. 

EJ Homework 

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 


What Makes 
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. 

Discussion Activities 

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? 

Writing Exercise 

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. 

[JJ Homework 

Students will complete their essays, due at the next class session. 

National Endowment for the Arts 


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, 
or bookstore. 

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 
of novels. 

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 



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- 
yang word. 

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 



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 
Press, 2006. 

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: 
Routledge, 2005. 

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 
Press, 1990. 

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, 
Winter 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. 

Web sites 

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 
contemporary works. 

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 
communicate knowledge. 

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." 

from The Wave in the Mind 

Tor magic consists in 
this, the true naming 
of a thing." 

from A Wizard ofEarthsea 


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/ . .. 

;•.•.. MuseurrhodLbrary 


A great nation deserves great art.