“There’s this whole difference between the circle and the spiral. We say the Earth has a circular orbit around the Sun, but of course it doesn’t. The sun moves too. You never come back to the same place, you just come back to the same point on the spiral.”Ursula K. Le Guin, The Last Interview p. 165.
In early 2010, aged 24, unemployed and applying for my doctoral degree, I picked up my brother’s copy of the first four Earthsea books and read them for the first time. The only Ursula K Le Guin novel I had previously read was Gifts, the first of the Annals of the Western Shore, which did not impress me much. But A Wizard of Earthsea, well, that was another story.
While I remember the book, I do not remember much about reading Wizard. It was with The Tombs of Atuan that I fell in love with this series. I read it mostly on a trip to Oxford, researching for my DPhil, sitting in various Cafés Nero with a mocha, between visits to the History of Science Museum. Tombs was like no fantasy novel I had ever read before, and it completely changed my perspective on the genre. I soon read The Farthest Shore and Tehanu, the latter keeping me up late several nights because, while I didn’t quite get the novel at that age, I still wanted to just keep on reading it.
My brother didn’t have Tales from Earthsea so I had to borrow it from the library; once finished, though, I immediately bought myself a copy (which I have never actually read). The Other Wind, though, I just didn’t get, and very little of it stuck in my memory, maybe in part because I had a job by then. At some point in all this I ordered The Wind’s Twelve Quarters from the National Library of Wales to read “The Rule of Names” and “The Word of Unbinding”. In my notebook I wrote that Earthsea seemed unlimited as a world, which I now think means well developed, established as a place that makes sense. I was really into Earthsea in the first four months of 2010, before the Hainish/Ekumen books completely overrode them in my affections and through her blog and non-fiction Ursula K Le Guin became more of a person I admired and respected, overall.
It has been said that the golden age of science fiction is twelve, in that it is what you read at this age that defines your relationship to the genre. While what I was watching (Star Wars and Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and reading (Terry Pratchett’s Discworld) at twelve undoubtedly had an impact on my tastes, I find this aphorism the same kind of nonsense that describing your high school/secondary school years as the best of your life. I learned so much from Earthsea, about what people as well as fiction can be, even though I read it in my mid-twenties.
I was a little intimidated, coming back to Earthsea a decade later, not least because of the monumental size of The Books of Earthsea. In her later years, Le Guin commented that she didn’t read big books because she liked to rest them on her stomach and she couldn’t take the weight any more. I imagine that this could be the only way in which The Books of Earthsea disappointed her. Certainly, toward the end of this volume, its size became an issue. But re-reading these books, especially the latter three, and the two newer stories I had not previously read, made me realise anew that it is never too late to read something that can shape your perspective on the world, and on what imaginative literature can be.
A Wizard of Earthsea
My abiding impression of A Wizard of Earthsea has always been about how it explores the world in which it is set through Ged’s travels and experiences. Born on Gont, where he was called Duny at first, Ged’s power as a wizard is recognized by his dead mother’s sister who gives him his first lessons in magic. After being given his secret true name by mage Ogion the Silent, Ged, impatient to learn, unleashes something dangerous and must travel to wizard school on Roke to learn his craft. But the danger continues, with fatal results, and after many travels Ged, now known as Sparrowhawk, must ultimately face what he has set free.
I think Wizard is a great fantasy novel that sets up its world and its protagonist for the future adventures. I also think that it is probably my least favourite of the books here collected. Its position at the beginning means that it does not have the strong themes that the series establishes later, and I do not think Le Guin was yet at her full skill as a novelist when she wrote Wizard.
That being said, Le Guin is a fine writer even when she is not at her best. Ogion and Vetch are great supporting characters; setting up that world is tremendous work, and I don’t think I would love the subsequent novels quite so much without the groundwork established by Wizard. It’s also a lot funnier than I realised – the jokes about Gont being so full of wizards that rainclouds were battered about the island until they were over the sea and wouldn’t rain on anyone is great.
The Tombs of Atuan
On first reading, The Tombs of Atuan blew me away. Following on from the expansive world of Wizard, Le Guin went in a completely different direction with the sequel. Arha, the Eaten One, is said to be the reincarnation of the priestess of the Tombs of Atuan. Taken from her home, where she was called Tenar, she lives her life in isolation among the tombs, separate from the other priestesses and fundamentally alone. The story takes place almost entirely within the Place of the Tombs of Atuan, focusing on the roles and rituals led by Arha until the arrival of a wizard from the archipelago leads her to question her role in the world.
Perhaps because my memory of loving it was so clear, of the unusual circumstances of the first time in which I read it, The Tombs of Atuan left less of an impression on me on this re-read. I still think that it is magnificent, and different, and it really changes the scope of Earthsea after the first novel. But it is only the start of Tenar’s story and the best was yet to come.
The Farthest Shore
The Farthest Shore, as I remembered it, resumed some of the aspects of Wizard but on a more epic scale. Young Arren, heir to the Prince of Enlad, comes to Roke to seek the counsel of the Archmage, Lord Sparrowhawk. Magic has been losing its power across the archipelago, and so together they set out to discover who is causing it, travelling far and wide, encountering raft people, dragons, and the walking dead.
I had completely forgotten the theme of the restoration of the monarchy of Earthsea, that the problems are put down to a lack of (good) governance throughout the archipelago, and Ged sees himself as restoring a lost coherence to the world. In “Earthsea Revisioned”, Le Guin talks about themes that are there, but are not intentional, and for me, especially in the light of later books, these themes can be read as the mis-management of Earth under capitalism, as humans seek only to serve their own ends. Certainly, it is here that we start to see how many factors are necessary to restore the world: repair the ring; find the king; and more, much more to come.
Whether it is the novel itself, or that I was warming to my re-read by this point, Farthest Shore is the first Earthsea book on which I took extensive notes, writing out mini-essays on its themes as I understood them, about the nature of evil, capitalism, Christianity, eternal life. Looking back on these notes having finished the novel I think that there is much that is positive in Farthest Shore’s themes that is developed in interesting ways as the story continues in the second trilogy.
My general sense of this first trilogy, though, is that it serves as essential background for what the second trilogy looks back on, reconsiders, recontextualises. Farthest Shore is for Arren/Lebannen what Wizard is for Ged and Tombs is for Tenar: backstory, set up, establishment so that when this story comes to its full fruition in the later books, it has solid roots beneath it.
I can no longer access my feelings about Tehanu before this re-read. My view of it as part of Earthsea has irrevocably changed as it changes Earthsea, makes it more complete, more whole.
Tenar of the Ring now lives on Gont, where she is known as Goha, widow of Farmer Flint. She rescued a girl, whom she calls Therru, from a gang that were abusing her and ultimately threw her into a fire to die, but die she did not. While looking after this girl, Tenar must attend to the dying Ogion, look after the powerless Ged on his return from the Dry Land, and even meets the new king.
Tehanu does some serious recontextualizing of the preceding Earthsea novels. We move from grand themes of heroic wizards or wizards-to-be, from priestesses and the Old Powers of the Earth, to a farmwife, a girl who is a burn survivor, and a man who has been stripped of his power. The new king in Havnor does nothing for Therru, at this stage – restoring the monarchy does not solve the personal problems of those suffering in the archipelago. Change is slow and cannot come from the top – it takes a farmwife, a woman on Gont.
Le Guin is often considered a children’s writer, something she accepted as a necessity of marketing, but in general pushed back against in the way she defied genre generally. In Tehanu, published eighteen years after Farthest Shore, she pushes back against it by inserting adult material into the narrative – household management, confronting harsh truths and trying to protect one’s children from them, and sex, both consensual and rape. But it also feels like a novel in which the narrative matures, grows more complex, on top of the young adult narrative that preceded it – much as the readers of these novels grow older, too. As the essay later in this volume attests, Tehanu revisions Earthsea, but in doing so it relies most heavily on the whole narrative, on being part of a series, so that it can alter our perspective. In this way, it feels most surprising to me that Le Guin ever thought Tehanu could be The Last Book of Earthsea.
Tales from Earthsea
The first time I finished reading Tales from Earthsea, which I had ordered from the library, I immediately bought my own copy. This second time, I was similarly entranced with the volume upon finishing it. This, I suspect, is largely to do with its final story, “Dragonfly”. But there is also something to the whole of the book that adds a great deal to Earthsea as a whole.
There are five stories in Tales. “The Finder” is about a young sorcerer in Earthsea’s “Dark Time”, who is tricked and mistreated, but eventually finds his way to Roke and helps the women there to establish the school. “Darkrose and Diamond” is a love story about the choices we are forced to make between power and personal fulfilment; but also shows how the Rule of Roke has changed since the opening story. “The Bones of the Earth” tells of the earthquake on Gont prevented by Ogion – and his master, Heleth – but is also about other sources of knowledge, other sources of power, that many ignore or despise. “On the High Marsh” follows a wizard, confused and anxious about his power, and is about what power makes us lose. And “Dragonfly” is about a woman of power who comes to Roke, and the reactions of those there to this threat to their ideas about Equilibrium.
Three of these stories are essentially prequels, in that they are set prior to Wizard, although it is only “The Finder” and “The Bones of the Earth” that fill in narrative information. “The Finder” can be read as showing how institutions that we consider eternal have, in fact, deep origins and that what we believe about their history and meaning is relevant more to our current context than to what actually happened: Roke, when founded, looks very different to how Ged finds it. “The Bones of the Earth” fleshes out the reasons why Ogion may have been different to other wizards, and why training with him prepared Ged to look differently at the world when it mattered. “Darkrose and Diamond”, then, is more a thematic contribution to the story: the events do not directly build up the narrative of Earthsea as a whole, but rather show the effects of the social structures implicit in the story, and how those impact the lives of those living in it.
“On the High Marsh” fits in somewhere just before Farthest Shore, and contributes to the idea explicit in that novel that something is wrong in the world that requires fixing. Then we have the only sequel of the collection, “Dragonfly”, which is a great story about the dilemma of major change and how we face it.
Wizard and Farthest Shore offer whistle-stop tours of large swaths of Earthsea, but the stories on each of the islands are partial, hinting at a wider world rather than showing it. This is very effective. Tales goes one step further, exploring more of the islands as the lives of the people there. It shows the potential for storytelling within this word beyond the familiar characters, and while the degree to which Le Guin explored that potential herself is limited it allows readers to imagine more for themselves. It also adds detail to the history of Earthsea, looking back so that the way forward is clearer. It’s another stone on the path out of the “Dark Times”, as well as, through “The Finder”, a look back to how long that path has already been.
The Other Wind
I recalled The Other Wind being somewhat different to its predecessors, largely I think because it is structured into so few chapters. This difference is not really the case: I have some sense of how Le Guin developed as a writer, but for the most part this story works alongside the others. It is just that it is much more directly engaging with the story threads that will lead to the conclusion of this story – at least for the most part.
Alder is a sorcerer, a minor wizard, who fell in love with a woman, Lily, who died. This was not, however, the last they were to see of one another, and Alder finds himself travelling in his dreams to the Wall between the living and the dead, where he sees those he has lost. Seeking answers, he heads first to Roke and then to Gont, to see the retired Archmage Sparrowhawk, and then on to Havnor and the court of King Lebannen. The king has also summoned Tenar and Therru to the court to deal with duel problems his faces: invading dragons and a Kargish proposal. Alder’s mysteries may be the key to both, bringing great change over the whole of Earthsea.
The Other Wind deftly draws together characters, plotlines, and themes from its predecessors into what I find an immensely satisfying conclusion to the overall arc of Earthsea. If I have a complaint it is that, for much of the second and third chapters, Alder’s story is sidelined in favour of that of the dragons and the Kargs, which is only a problem insofar as it means that part of the story doesn’t develop much beyond what we get in the first and fifth chapters. This complaint is minor – the dragon and Karg stories are great, especially Seserakh. Overall, I find The Other Wind a masterclass in drawing together storylines not intended to build to a conclusion and making them work.
All the rest
In the foreword the Tales from Earthsea, in which it first appeared, Le Guin says of “A Description of Earthsea”:
“Because this kind of fictional fact, like maps of imaginary realms, is of real interest to some readers, I included the description after the stories.”Ursula K. Le Guin, Foreword to Tales from Earthsea,in The Books of Earthsea, p. 558
I am, sad to say, no longer a reader who finds such fictional facts of much interest beyond the contexts of the stories in which they appear. There are a couple of funny comments I liked, though, so it was fine.
I have mixed feelings about the positions of “The Word of Unbinding” and “The Rule of Names” in this collection. On the one hand, they absolutely must be included to show the genesis of Earthsea, the original sketches of the world that would become much elaborated and much changed already by A Wizard of Earthsea four years later. On the other, placed here, after the novels but before the later short stories, they feel a little out-of-place, obviously earlier works after which Le Guin’s craft matured. Part of me thinks that they should be the first things in the collection, but that wouldn’t work, either. So here is the best place for them.
“The Daughter of Odren” is very much Ursula K Le Guin’s Euripides’ Elektra, although Le Guin’s love of Homer also influenced the telling. I find the story interesting in concept as much as in execution, in that it feels much more like the Hainish/Ekumen stories, which are more of a shared universe than a continuous narrative, than Earthsea, where almost every other story contributes to the whole. I do not yet know the place “Daughter of Odren” has in the whole for me; it feels like simply another story within Earthsea. As I’ve said, this is a fully realised world, and here’s evidence of it, Le Guin’s exploration of the potential scope of that world; it just feels strange because it’s pretty much unique among the stories here.
The final Earthsea story, “Firelight”, offers a kind of closure to the volume and to Le Guin’s life and work as a whole. In the afterword to The Other Wind, presumably written prior to “Firelight”, Le Guin wrote:
“I was writing my main characters through my own life and their lives, and they were long, rich lives. I am grateful to my readers for living those lives with them.”Ursula K. Le Guin, Afterword to The Other Wind, in The Books of Earthsea, p. 893
To this reader, “Firelight” felt like a kind of closure at the end of that life, a statement that Le Guin could look back on what she had done and be fearless of what lay ahead. I find myself, reading it, concerned for Tenar and where she will go next – but I also understand that this concern reflects my own fears of my untimely death, and what my partner would do following that, than the fictional character who is well established within her community, and growing old herself.
I am ambivalent about the decision to conclude the entire volume with “Earthsea Revisioned”. The essay itself is mainly concerned with the relationship between Tehanu and the preceding three novels at a time when it was The Last Book of Earthsea. I found myself wishing for a volume that was both Earthsea and Le Guin’s non-fiction concerning Earthsea – or, perhaps more simply, critical essays on Earthsea. When I was reading The Books of Earthsea I was also reading The Last Interview, and really, that is the solution to this feeling: pairing The Books of Earthsea with Le Guin’s non-fiction for those interested, rather than overloading a collection of fiction with non-fiction.
Tehanu is, however, my favourite of the Earthsea novels, and – I would argue – the lynchpin to the series, the story that invests the others with their significance. Therefore, an essay focused on Le Guin’s aims and intentions with this novel, and thus, the scope of Earthsea as a whole, as it ended up, feels like a good conclusion. More than the excellent afterwords, it fills in how Le Guin approached Earthsea differently as she aged, how her ideas about what the world could be became more complete.
The Earthsea Spiral
“I’m not interested in talking about who I was. I’m much more interested in finding out who I am.”Ursula K. Le Guin, “Song of Herself”, in The Last Interview, p. 134.
Looking back over the Earthsea novels, the notes I took on them over a year of working through this volume, on and off, it seems to me that I could start reading A Wizard of Earthsea again now and have a lot more to say, new insights, based on having re-read the whole series, having gone back to the start. Just as I saw them anew a decade after I first read them. You don’t come back to the same place, just the same point on the spiral.
While I was reading The Books of Earthsea, I also read The Last Interview, a collection of interviews with Le Guin over the course of fifty years or so, culminating in her final conversations with David Streitfeld. I found, at the time, that the interviews were much more interesting read alongside the books. Reading “Earthsea Revisioned”, I found myself thinking about how interesting it was to read Le Guin’s non-fiction about her own work alongside that work, especially this evocation of what she was doing with Tehanu. When you’re reading The Books of Earthsea, I strongly recommend finding some of her non-fiction to complement it.
Otherwise, The Books of Earthsea is a finely put together, if hefty, masterwork of literature. I love having all of these stories together, as a whole, as Le Guin herself came to envision them. I also find myself thinking not of an Earthsea cycle, coming around again, but an Earthsea spiral, coming around in a different place.