Revisiting Earthsea

Earthsea, the imaginary world of Ursula K. LeGuin

Earthsea is the world invented by the late Ursula K. LeGuin. Across five decades, five novels and a volume of short stories and essays, she created one of the most memorable, self-consistent and vivid imaginary universes in literature. LeGuin, in her lifetime, earned eight Hugos, six Nebulas, and twenty-two Locus Awards, and in 2003 became the second woman honored as a Grand Master of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

The Earthsea stories themselves have won an astonishing number of awards:

A Wizard of EarthseaBoston Globe-Horn Book Award (1969)
Lewis Carroll Shelf Award (1979)
The Tombs of AtuanNewbery Honor (1972)
The Farthest ShoreNational Book Award for Children’s Books (1973)
TehanuNebula Award for Best Novel (1990)
Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel (1991)
Tales from EarthseaLocus Award for Best Collection (2002)
The Other WindWorld Fantasy Award for Best Novel (2002)

Such an author is surely worth a re-read. Surely such a series of stories is worth a re-read. And, as you may have guessed, WC recently completed just such a re-reading the Earthsea stories.

Earthsea is a world of islands, large and small, in a world of mostly ocean. It is a world rich in myth, preserved in songs and chants, describing a centuries-long history of triumph and tragedy. It is also a world where magic works and dragons are real, a magic rooted in the Old Speech, the language of those dragons. A language in which the word is the thing, not a symbol of the thing.

Long before J. K. Rowling created Hogwarts or Terry Pratchett invented Unseen University, LeGuin invented the Isle of Roke, Earthsea’s school for wizards. The first three novels, A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore are tales of Sparrowhawk, a student wizard in the first novel and the Archmage of Earthsea by the third. But the second and third novels are told from the point of view other characters. In Wizard, it is Sparrowhawk, a gifted, proud young student wizard. In Tombs it is Tenar, an unwilling young priestess in a hopeless, bitter religion. In Shore, it is Lebannin, a prince from the island of Enlad. Each of the three is a bildungroman, a coming of age tale, but none of them are in any sense a typical coming of age tale.

All three novels are beautifully written, in a spare, vivid style. LeGuin carefully places the tales in her deeply realized history of Earthsea. LeGuin can, in a single, short sentence, communicate more than writers like Robert Jordan communicated in one of his thousand page doorstops books.

The fourth novel Tehanu, is different and more difficult. It’s also impossible to describe without significant spoilers for the first three books. It is worth your effort. And while LeGuin said it was the last novel of Earthsea, happily that was untrue. Eleven years later came Tale of Earthsea, a collection of two novellas and a handful of short stories. The last novella in the colleection, “Dragonfly,” is a bridge – a dragon bridge – from Tehanu and the short stories to the final novel, The Other Wind, published later the same year.

The Other Wind is a master class in plotting, characterization and world change. Most of the characters we have met across the preceding five books appear, not just as cameos but with real roles to play. A great, grievous wrong is corrected, a wrong we hadn’t even recognized earlier.1

In the Foreword to Tales, LeGuin tells the reader, explaining the twelve year gap between Tehanu and Tales:

So these are my reports of my explorations and discoveries: tales from Earthsea for those who have liked or think they might like the place, and those who are willing to accept these hypotheses:
     things change:
          authors and wizards are not always to be trusted:
               nobody can explain a dragon.

WC promises you that you can trust Ursula K. LeGuin. And that, better than anyone, she can explain a dragon.

If you have not read these books, you should. If you have read them, and it’s been a while, re-read them. It’s rewarding.

1 Appropriately enough, Sparrowhawk, the protagonist of the first novel, gets the very last word.

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