The Earthsea Cycle
by Ursula K. Le Guin
Reviewed by Christopher DeFilippis
Despite its longevity, Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle remains largely unheralded in the world of literate Fantasy, overshadowed by the juggernauts that are The Lord of the Rings and C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series.
Earthsea’s only real mass exposure to today’s Fantasy fans was an abortion of a miniseries that Sci-Fi Channel aired some time back. It stands as, hands down, one of the worst novel-to-film adaptations ever made, treating the source material with downright contempt.
Which is a real shame, because the truth is that Earthsea is superior to both Rings and Narnia. It is a universe with far more heft and realism than the fairytale-esque Narnia, and is just as will drawn as Middle Earth without any of Tolkien’s considerable mythic baggage. Modern audiences really need a proper introduction to the material.
The first Earthsea book, A Wizard of Earthsea, was my first genre novel, which I chanced to pick up because I liked the dragon on the cover. I never suspected it would make a man out of me.
Ursula K. Le Guin introduced a fantasy universe that had everything a then-bored 14-year-old had been looking for, namely magic and wonder and mystery and wizardry and adventure. But it was also filled with darkness and shadows and pride and comeuppance and accountability and a wholly adult sensibility that was absent in the books I had been wasting my time on until then.
The story of Ged—a young man struggling to come to terms with his considerable powers for wizardry and all of their inherent responsibility—actually made me think about the kind of person I was, and the kind of person I did and didn’t want to be. I probably read it about four times that year, along with its two sequels, The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore. But you never forget your first, and though more than 20 years has elapsed since that afternoon in my local library, A Wizard of Earthsea remains my favorite book of all time.
Ged, a blacksmith’s son from a small village on the isle of Gont, shows an unusual talent for magic. But he’s impatient, and soon chafes under the measured tutelage of Ogion, the local wizard who has apprenticed him. Ged is brilliant but arrogant, thirsty for knowledge and power that he doesn’t yet have the wisdom to handle. At an impasse, Ogion reluctantly sends Ged off to Roke, the fabled school of wizardry. See? And I bet you thought Harry Potter was original…
Once at Roke, Ged thrives, fully realizing his considerable potential. He’s a top student, and arrogant as ever. But when an upperclassman wounds his pride, Ged attempts to upstage the boy by working a Spell of Summoning, invoking the Old Powers, and loosing a shadow—a kind of living darkness—that attacks Ged and flees into the world.
On its surface, A Wizard Earthsea has all the trappings of an adventure book for boys, and its genesis, way back in the late 1960s, was deceptively simple, as Le Guin stated in an interview posted on the website for The Guardian Unlimited:
“I hate to admit it,” she said, “but (the idea) came from a publisher. He asked me to write him a fantasy for ‘eleven up.’ Uh-oh, I never wrote for kids, I don’t know how, I said. Then I went home, and thought about kids. Boys. How does a boy learn to be an old guy with a white beard who can do magic? – And there was my book. . . Come to think of it, Ged never did grow a beard.”
No, he didn’t. And this small, seemingly insignificant detail actually speaks volumes about the complexity and prowess of Le Guin’s writing. She took a form prone to cliché and hyperbole and created a masterwork. Miles away from your atypically valiant and well-intentioned fantasy/adventure hero, Ged is flawed and human, dogged by insecurity that he masks with bravado. The shadow at the heart of the book’s plot is the shadow that lies at the heart of us all; the baser urges and fears that endlessly threaten to overwhelm us.
This is powerfully illustrated in my favorite passage of the novel, when Ged awakens from his initial struggle with the shadow, weak and ashamed, facing the disapproving archmage of Roke. He wonders at the power he has loosed, and the archmage gives it to him with both barrels:
“It has no name. You have a great power inborn in you, and you used that power wrongly, to work a spell over which you had no control, not knowing how that spell affects the balance of light and dark, life and death, good and evil. And you were moved to do this by pride and by hate. It is any wonder the result was ruin? You summoned a spirit from the dead, but with it came one of the Powers of unlife. Uncalled it came from a place where there are no names. Evil, it wills to work evil through you. The power you had to call it gives it power over you: you are connected. It is the shadow of your arrogance, the shadow of your ignorance, the shadow you cast.”
I get chills every time I read that. A Wizard of Earthsea may hinge on a heavily allegorical premise, but the story itself is grounded in reality, stark and hard. And the true strength of Earthsea lies not in the sizable chunk of plot I’ve given away thus far, but in how Ged chooses to respond to the mess he’s made. His subsequent journey is one we all must make—the one toward responsibility and, most importantly, accountability. I will maintain until my dying day that if A Wizard of Earthsea was required reading in school, many of our social problems would disappear.
Though A Wizard of Earthsea is a stand-alone novel, Le Guin chose to return (initially) to the Earthsea universe two more times, first in 1970 with The Tombs of Atuan, and again in 1972 with The Farthest Shore.
Atuan is a roundabout sequel, the story of a girl named Tenar, a child taken to serve in the Tombs of Atuan, supposedly the reincarnation of the Tombs’ high priestess, Arha, The Eaten One. Ged doesn’t make an appearance until the second half of the novel, when Tenar discovers him lost in the labyrinth beneath the Tombs, searching for an ancient relic that could bring lasting peace to the islands of Earthsea. The Tombs of Atuan is really the story of Tenar’s voyage of self discovery, with Ged serving as an almost incidental catalyst. In all, it was a bold choice for a sequel with a primarily adolescent male audience. Le Guin was plainly trying to acknowledge a female presence and power in Earthsea, which was notably lacking in the first book.
The Farthest Shore, however, returns Earthsea to its almost wholly male-dominated archetype, with a substantially older Ged—now archmage—embarking on a quest with young prince Lebannen to discover why magic is beginning to fail in Earthsea. The journey brings them to the far reaches of Earthsea and eventually into the lands of death. The Farthest Shore is the closest Le Guin ever strays toward formulaic epic fantasy in her Earthsea works, but it also presents an afterlife that is among the bleakest and most depressing of any Fantasy universe. And while I won’t give it away, the end certainly seems to represent the final chapter of Earthsea, closing the book on Ged’s adventures once and for all.
But not so fast. . .
After a hiatus of nearly 20 years, Le Guin returned to Earthsea. 1990 saw the release of Tehanu, boldly touted as “The Last Book of Earthsea.” In Tehanu, Le Guin picks up the story right where The Farthest Shore left off, only from Tenar’s point of view. She is about 20 years older and living on Gont, where she is fostering an orphan girl, Tehanu, cruelly abused and tossed into a fire, left to die.
Like most every Earthsea fan, I tore into Tehanu as quickly as I could get my hands on it. And, like most every Earthsea fan, I was sorely disappointed. While it was a consistent continuation of the plot, Tehanu seemed chiefly to be an exercise in feminist apologetics, with Le Guin atoning for the gender bias of the original trilogy by deconstructing the Fantasy realm she had so carefully crafted. The message of the book was clearly that men = weak/abusive/bad, women = strong/nurturing/wise. Still, I didn’t have much of a problem with that, though I felt it was unnecessary since Tenar was a very strong female character in the second book.
What I found unforgivable about Tehanu was not its anti-male slant, but the way it presented Ged. Granted, the events in The Farthest Shore would have greatly changed Ged, and Le Guin was right to reflect this. But she didn’t stay true to Ged’s essential character, twisting him beyond recognition simply to advance the flawed ideology on which Tehanu was predicated. Not all men are weak, cruel and selfish—especially not one who has proven himself to be the exact opposite over the course of three previous books. The Ged readers had come to know simply would not have acted as Le Guin made him act in Tehanu, no matter what curveballs life had thrown him.
Despite the disdain it generated among many fans, Tehanu was critically acclaimed, and won the Nebula Award, which just goes to show that you should never underestimate the power of political correctness. But those of us who wrote Tehanu off as an unfortunate aberration would soon to be forced to reevaluate our stance.
The year 2001 saw two seminal events in the annals of Earthsea, with the release of Tales from Earthsea, followed shortly by The Other Wind, the fifth and sixth books in what is now being called the Earthsea Cycle.
Tales from Earthsea is a collection of six stories that span the history of Earthsea: the creation of the school on Roke, how women became estranged from the world of high magic, and the start of a reconciliation that begins a few years after the events recounted in Tehanu. Additional stories feature Ged and other familiar characters, and plant the seeds for the plot of the sixth Earthsea novel, The Other Wind.
And The Other Wind is an absolute triumph. In the book, the barrier between the lands of the living and dead is breaking down, and Ged, Tenar and Tehanu must figure out why and how to avert the threat to Earthsea. This book is astounding and serves as a masterful and extremely satisfying conclusion to the entire Earthsea series, but leaves room to continue the story if Le Guin so chooses.
The Other Wind also reconciles the radical feminist ideals that Le Guin advanced in Tehanu with the Earthsea universe as a whole, to the benefit of both. Le Guin has always maintained that before Tehanu, readers had only seen one side of Earthsea, represented by power and privilege. Tehanu, on the other hand, presented Earthsea from the point of view of the powerless and disenfranchised. Suddenly all those lordly wizards weren’t the greatest guys. As she said in an interview posted on the website SF Site:
“…if the second trilogy invalidated, or retracted, or revoked the first one, I wouldn’t have written it. The second trilogy enlarges the first, which is very strong but narrow, leaving out far too much of the world. The second trilogy changes nothing in the first. It sees exactly the same world with different eyes. Almost, I would say, with two eyes, rather than one.”
It’s hard to fathom that all of this literary discourse stems from a Young Adult novel that Le Guin never even intended to write. It’s a testament to the lasting impact Earthsea has had, not only on its fans, but even its own author. Like Ged on that fateful night atop Roke Knoll, Ursula K. Le Guin had no idea of the power she was calling forth when she summoned up A Wizard of Earthsea.