Returning to a favourite book after several years is often a pleasure. In relation to Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy, that’s an understatement. I had forgotten how seriously outstanding these books are. I should explain that most of these comments concern the first three books, A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, and the Farthest Shore, those written between 1968 and 1972. There are three other books in the ‘Earthsea Universe’, written much later, but the original trilogy stands out as a set in its own right. Oh, as I will explain a little later, there is an important transition between the first and second books, even though they were published just two years apart (the third book came out two years later again). It was a transition that mattered greatly to Ursula Le Guin. However, some scene setting first.
The Earthsea books take place in a world of islands, most small, identified in various groupings, and surrounded by a vast ocean. This is a pre-industrial world, and one in which magic is a central part of the way of life. Many people possess one or two of the various kinds of magical skills, skills which can be used in agriculture, building, shipbuilding and even in entertainment. Those who possess the most advanced gifts are sent to the school on the small island of Roke: graduates will become staff-carrying wizards. There are people from various races living within Earthsea, most ranging from black-brown to red-brown complexions, the only white-skinned race living in the Kargad lands to the north-east, which is also the only region where we are told magic is banned.
If your mind is full of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, with wars, battles, armies and alliances, this series is quite different: an advance warning, I’m going to summarise much of the three books. We are going to learn about power, about spells going awry, and terrible risks, but the focus is on individuals, and A Wizard from Earthsea begins with a boy, Duny, living on the island of Gont, down towards the southern end of the various island groups. His aunt is a witch, and she recognises he has great power, but all she can do is teach him the few basic spells she knows. However, when Gont is attacked by raiders, Duny manages to summon a white fog, which confuses the attackers, and allows the men to beat off the invasion. This act comes to the notice of a local, powerful magician, Ogion, who takes him on as an apprentice.
Ogion is careful and methodical, teaching him how to use magic wisely. He reveals Duny’s ‘true name’ is Ged. We discover that Ged has some real character flaws. He is impatient, and he is easily encouraged to show off. He manages to summon a dangerous shadow to show off to a girl, and Ogion has to deal with it. He asks Ged if he would prefer to continue his studies with him or go to the Wizard School on the island of Roke. Ged can’t wait to get to get to Roke, where he makes friends but also manages to fall out with another student, Jasper. Jasper challenges him, and Ged responds, summoning an extremely dangerous creature from the other realm, one which he can’t control. The archmage of Roke manages to drive this shadowy denizen away, but at the cost of his own life.
That success masks a more worrying problem for Ged. Although he recovers from wounds received in battling this ancient evil creature from the other world, he learns it will return, and is determined to possess him. Ged becomes an accredited magician and, hunted, he moves from one location to another. At one point he confronts a dragon, successfully gaining agreement the dragons will leave a group of islanders alone. Still evading his shadowy creature, he returns to Gont, where Ogion explains he has to face it. The book ends with Ged eventually and successfully dealing with the creature he’d summoned into the world. It’s an exciting story, the more so because we understand that Ged was foolish and easily tempted while he was a student, and yet we also appreciate he has depths of power almost beyond his own understanding. To be clear, the adventure is subordinate to the exploration of character.
I mentioned earlier that the second book is quite different, and although Ged plays an important role in The Tombs of Atuan, the events centre around a young high priestess, Arha, the lonely guardian of a set of shadowy and complex Tombs. In an Afterword to the first edition of this second book, Ursula Le Guin tells us “It was the first book I wrote with a woman as the true central character. [Her] character and the events of the story came from deep within me, so deep that the subterranean and labyrinthine imagery, and certain quality, are hardly to be wondered at. But the darkness, the cruelty, the vengefulness.” She goes on to explain that the final section of the story was a way of tearing down the “whole primitive, hateful idea of the feminine as dark, troubling, weak, and evil.” From The Tombs of Atuan onwards, women have held the central place in all her books.
This second book begins with introducing us to a five-year-old girl, Tenar, who was born on the day that the high priestess of the Tombs of Atuan died. As a result, she is believed to be her reincarnation. She is taken from her family and goes to the Tombs, and her former name is deleted; she becomes ‘Arha’, or the ‘eaten one’. She is trained in her duties by Thar and Kossil, the priestesses of two other major deities. Thar tells her of the undertomb and the labyrinth beneath the Tombs, teaching her how to find her way around them, and of the treasure hidden within the labyrinth, which wizards from the archipelago have tried to steal.
When Arha asks about the wizards, Thar tells her that they are unbelievers who can work magic. Arha’s life is lonely, initially focussed on training, and when she turns fourteen she assumes the role of the high priestess in the Tombs. She has to order the death of prisoners sent to the Tombs by the God-King of the Kargad lands. They die from starvation, a fate which haunts her each time for a long while after. Her life is increasingly isolated: her only real friend Manan, her eunuch servant.
Ged turns up (I guess you knew he would!), and Arha traps him in the undertomb. She learns that he has come to the Tombs for the long-lost half of the ring of Erreth-Akbe, a magical talisman broken centuries before, an object necessary to establish peace in Earthsea. Chance had led him to the other half, and a dragon later told him what it was. Arha keeps him prisoner in the tombs, but, Kossil learns of Ged’s existence, forcing Arha to promise that Ged will be sacrificed to the Nameless Ones. Arha realises that she can’t go through with the sacrifice, and has Manan to dig a false grave underground, while she takes Ged to hide him in the treasury of the Tombs.
Arha and Kossil have a public falling out, in which Kossil says that nobody believes in the Nameless Ones anymore. In response, Arha curses her in the name of the Nameless Ones. Realizing that Kossil will now be determined to kill her, she heads to the labyrinth and sees Kossil uncovering the false grave. Running away from her, Arha goes to the treasury and confesses everything to Ged, who has found the other half of Erreth-Akbe’s ring. He explains to Arha that she must either kill him or escape with him. He tells her that as far as he can see the Nameless Ones demand her service but give nothing and create nothing in return. He tells her his true name, Ged, in return for the trust she has shown him. She reverts to her original name of Tenar, and they escape together.
When I began rereading the trilogy, I was swept up by A Wizard of Earthsea once again. It is a compelling story, an adventure, with a powerful wizard. But Ged is young, and still foolish and immature. That is part of what makes the story so compelling. You know he is motivated by jealousy at times, and you know he can act precipitously. You read on, hoping he will grow up and realise his destiny. And he does. In the Tombs of Atuan, it is almost as if we are reading a mirror image. This time the young person is Arha, and we experience her confusions, longings, and worries. When Ged appears, he is almost incidental to her story, the deus ex machina, enabling her escape from the dark world in which had been living. It is another outstanding story, and, once again, you know there will be more. Even more than at the end of A Wizard of Earthsea, you know the story is incomplete. One adventure is over, but the longer journey is far from complete.
The Tombs of Atuan is a gripping story. However, by the end of the second book in the trilogy, an older reader will have realised the novel reveals an important change in Le Guin’s preoccupations. It is not just about her growing focus on women. If she wrote the first book with Ged as the central character, now we realise his importance is as a facilitator of change. Once an adult, Ged enables transitions. If he ‘grew up’ in A Wizard From Earthsea, so that is true for Arha in The Tombs of Atuan. She grew up, and Ged was there to enable the transition.
In the third book, The Farthest Shore, the key figure is Arren, a young prince, and this story is also concerned about moving beyond adolescence, with the events centred around his growing up, to the point he becomes the next King of Earthsea and reunites what had become an increasingly fragmented set of islands and archipelagos. I suppose it goes without saying that Ged will play an important role in Arren’s life. Perhaps I should add that it is Le Guin’s clear understanding of adolescence and its traumas that makes her books so involving. We might not be sorcerers, or princesses for that matter, but we certainly understand the frustrations, mistakes and foolishness of growing up!
By the time of The Farthest Shore, Ged is Archmage in Roke. Around him, he can see there is some strange and terrible change taking place. Magic is losing its power. People are becoming sick, apathetic, and unwilling to work. With Arren, Ged sets out to find the powerful and dangerous wizard who is seeking to destroy the world, practicing the ‘dark arts’ to remain alive forever. Through various challenges, they eventually arrive in Selidor, the home of the dragons, the westernmost island in Earthsea. Even his friend, the dragon Orm Embar, is affected by what is happening, and loses the power of speech. Cob, the evil wizard, is at the western end of Selidor, at the ‘end of the world’.
After battling Cob on Selidor, Ged and Arren eventually have to follow him into the Dry Land’, the land of the dead. Ged eventually destroys Cob, but at the cost of losing all his magical powers. He manages to close the rift in the world that had been causing all the disasters they’d witnessed. Ged and Arren eventually escape the Dry Land, and return to Roke, where Arren becomes king, and is able to begin the task of bringing Earthsea back together again.
When I first read The Farthest Shore, I think I didn’t appreciate what the story had to offer. I had been swept up by A Wizard From Earthsea, by Ged’s foolish and boastful behaviour, and the painful path to set thigs aright, for Ged to become a true wizard, and to become both mature and wise. It was a story for a young man, as I was at that first reading, a story which combed excitement and drama with an insightful account of growing up. I rushed through The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore, and, to be honest, didn’t really get them. In some ways both were darker and the events, important though they were, less compelling. Now, it is the third book that I find the most satisfying.
This is a story about two people, an older man, who senses that he is reaching the end of his powers, and a teenager, on the brink of realising his destiny. We watch Arren trying to deal with his own impatience, his loyalty to Ged, and yet his fears and uncertainties. We travel with the two of them, and much of the time they are only wandering, almost aimlessly. By the end of the book, Arren has understood that he is about to become king and has gained the insight to rule well. Ged has achieved all he could, and now wants to go away, back to the farming life he knew as a child. The book is a masterly exercise in addressing adolescence on the one hand, and the end of a career on the other.
Interestingly, Ursula Le Guin originally offered two endings to the trilogy. In one, after Arren’s coronation, Ged sails alone out into the ocean and is never heard from again. In the other, Ged returns to the forest of his home island of Gont. In 1990, seventeen years after the first publication of The Farthest Shore, Le Guin finally opted for the second ending , which allowed her to continue the Earthsea saga with the fourth book, Tehanu, a story about Tenar and her adopted daughter Therru. Ged is almost invisible, quietly going about his tasks with livestock, until late in the story.
Reading the first book in this second trilogy in the Earthsea series raises an obvious question: what makes the Earthsea books so memorable? They are adventures, they involve magic, and, somewhat unusually at the time they were written, they give at least as much space to women as they do to men. In a way we now see as quite familiar, they are set in a whole imagined world, with different races, creatures, as well as all the dangers and benefits of magic! For a younger reader, especially aged up to early adolescence, they are also familiar. Key people turn out to be selfish, boastful, bad-tempered, silly and even thoughtless some of the time. To put that differently, they are ‘real’, even if they live in Earthsea and can practice various magical arts. In many may ways these people are just like us.
What Ursula Le Guin did was pull off a clever trick: the characters grow as the stories develop, and we are enabled to grow, too. Early childish behaviour got Ged into trouble, and learn about consequences, and the costs foolishness impose on others. We might not become great mages, but we can learn how to be a better person, and what better way than through identifying with a Ged or Tehanu. If they get angry, we understand. If they find life’s lessons hard, so do we. If they learn how to achieve what they can do well, and get past their childish mistakes, we can do all that, too. We might hurt other people with thoughtless behaviour, but we can grow, love and be loved. Tehanu is an astonishing book, from a mature author. For much of the time, little seems to happen, and yet it is rich in depth and insight.
The Earthsea series ends with The Other Wind. Written 33 years after A Wizard From Earthsea, is the last part of the series. I know the series of books is sometimes described as two trilogies, but the fifth book, Tales from Earthsea, sits outside the continuing story of Ged, and the later characters in his life, so I’ll stick with the five books. The Other Wind consolidates the stunning development that had taken place in Ursula Le Guin’s writing. The first three books were brilliant adventures, written with insight and focussed on the characters as much as the events. The Other Wind, appearing another eleven years after Tehanu, is a mature, deep work, delving into personalities and relationships. Yes, there are dragons and magic, and important events take place in the last few pages. However, this is a masterly analysis of personal growth and character. I couldn’t put it down the second time around.