Only in silence the word,
Only in dark the light,
Only in dying life:
Bright the hawk's flight
On the empty sky.
- from The Creation of Éa
Since the publication of JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, there have been countless works of fantasy produced bearing the inscription 'comparable to Tolkien'. Usually, the comparison can be summed up as 'Tolkien good; this book bad!' The Earthsea stories are different. They are so different that they are rarely compared with Tolkien, Harry Potter or anything else. They stand on their own two feet as some of the finest fantasy fiction ever written.
The Earthsea books are ostensibly teenage fantasy fiction. They are written in a simple style with simple vocabulary. But the issues they confront are the ones we all must face: growing up, living and loving, growing old, dying. They are excellent stories for any adult to read.
Ursula K Le Guin
Born Ursula Kroeber in California, USA, she married Charles A Le Guin in 1953 and has lived in Portland, Oregon, USA since 1958. The K is the initial of her maiden name, so she always uses it in her full name. She goes by the abbreviation of UKL on the Ursula K Le Guin official Website.
Le Guin is normally considered to be a science fiction author. She has written many novels and won awards for some of them. The novel The Left Hand of Darkness, which explores what it is to be male and female, won both the Hugo and the Nebula awards, the top awards of the science fiction genre. She has also produced many collections of short stories.
In all Le Guin's work, it is the people and the relationships between them that are important. There is very little action in any of her books and, although classified as science fiction, there is very little science either. The events may take place on a strange planet, but the troubles that beset the characters are very human.
Le Guin dislikes the commercialisation of modern fantasy, where numerous writers cash in on the great works by producing trash in the same vein. She has certainly never done this; instead, she tells a story when she feels it needs to be told.
The World of Earthsea
The world described in the Earthsea books is a world of sea scattered with islands. In the centre is a big group of islands known as the Archipelago. Around it lie five groups of more distantly spaced islands known as the North, South, East and West Reaches, and the Kargad Lands.
The biggest of the islands is Havnor. Havnor Great Port is the biggest city in Earthsea and where the king had his court in the olden days.
Roke is a small island, but it is important. When the creator, Segoy, made Earthsea by raising the islands from the sea, Roke was one of the first islands to appear. The first part of Roke above the waves, the hill Roke Knoll, has remained magical ever since. Roke was chosen as the location for the School of Wizardry.
Another island that features in the stories is Gont. This mountainous island is famous for wizards and is the childhood home of Ged.
Like the northern hemisphere of our own world, Earthsea is cold in the north and hot in the south. But there is no explanation provided for this, nor is one needed. Earthsea may be situated on a spherical planet, but that sort of detail is not important.
All of Earthsea except the Kargad Lands is inhabited by a race called the Hardic people. They are dark-haired and dark-eyed, and have skin colour varying from pale in the northern islands to black in the southern ones, with a copper colour in between. They all speak the same language, Hardic, although with different dialects, so that people from the farthest parts of the Reaches sound strange to the people of the Archipelago. Most of the books are about the Hardic people.
The Kargad Lands are inhabited by a different people, the Kargs, who are pale-skinned. Many of them have fair hair. They speak a different language and have completely different customs and beliefs.
Each race considers the other to be barbarians and heathens. There is very little contact between the two races.
The people of Earthsea live in a pre-industrial society, where the most complex machine is a water-mill. Boats are powered by the wind in their sails, carts are pulled by horses or oxen and only birds can fly.
Magic and Names
Magic is an integral part of the world of Earthsea. People are born with magical abilities and can be trained to use them. Many get no further than a few memorised spells and become village sorcerers or witches. Some gifted males achieve a better understanding of the nature of magic and become mages, using their gifts to keep peace in the world and to prevent evil from entering.
Magic is based on knowledge of the 'true speech' and the names of every person and thing in this language. Mages spend years studying the books of names - knowing the name of a thing gives you mastery of it. People are given a true name in a special naming ceremony around their 12th year, and they keep this name secret, sharing it only with their best and most trusted friends.
Because people's true names are secret, everybody has a use name, which is usually chosen from some attribute of the person, perhaps something they do or an animal or plant they resemble. For example, the wizard Ged was known as Sparrowhawk, because he used to summon a hawk to sit on his wrist.
The Dry Land
One of the most disturbing features of Earthsea is the Dry Land. This is the land of the dead, a dark, dry land where people go after they have died. The land of the living is separated from the land of the dead by a low wall of stones. A mage healing a very sick person can often see the spirit of the person heading towards the wall of stones. If he can call them back before they cross the wall, they can return to life. If the spirit crosses the wall, then it is too late and the person has died.
A really powerful mage can cross the wall and go a short distance into the land of the dead without dying. What they find there is not reassuring. The souls of the dead stand or sit without thinking. They wander around without interest in anything, doing nothing, eating nothing, no one talking to anyone else. The eternal, unchanging stars shine down on this land and its strangely soulless souls.
Most of the books confront the issue of the Dry Land, but only in the last book is it finally resolved.
Dragons are vast reptilian creatures which have the gift of speech. They speak only in the true speech, but they don't tend to talk to humans much, preferring to plunder human settlements. Any mage whom the dragons choose to speak to is known as a Dragonlord. The true speech compels humans to tell the truth, but dragons are quite capable of lying. Like humans, dragons have a true name that they keep hidden during their long lives. Dragons live mainly in the West Reach, but occasionally travel as far east as the Archipelago.
Dragons have their own beliefs as to what happens to them when they die. There do not appear to be any dragon souls in the Dry Land.
The School of Wizardry
The island of Roke in the Inmost Sea is home to the School of Wizardry, where a young man can train to become a mage. After a training of many years, he will receive his wizard's staff and be sent out to work wherever a wizard is needed.
The training involves learning how to use magic and also when not to use it. The more advanced the mage, the more he worries about upsetting 'The Equilibrium'. Any small spell can have consequences far beyond those envisaged. The greater the spell, the greater the repercussions for the world, so the really great mages rarely do any magic at all.
The School of Wizardry is governed by nine masters of magic, with an Archmage presiding over all. The nine masters are the Herbal, Patterner, Namer, Changer, Chanter, Doorkeeper, Hand, Summoner and Windkey. Each one is the ultimate authority in one type of magic.
In the early books of the series, each island governs itself, but people remember a time long before, when one king ruled over the whole of the Hardic lands. Everyone hopes for the return of the king, and it is predicted by a prophecy which says that he will first have to walk through the Dry Land. He will restore peace and prosperity to the world.
When the king finally returns, there appears to be no change in the world. If anything, things are getting worse. Again this is not resolved until the final novel.
There are six Earthsea books. The first three were published around 1970. For 20 years, that's all there was. They were known as the Earthsea Trilogy. They were good, but the dismal death of the Dry Land left them unsatisfying as a complete set of books.
In 1990, Le Guin added a fourth book, Tehanu, to the set. This was proudly presented as 'the last Earthsea book', but it posed more questions than it answered. Then in 2001, Le Guin published two new books, one a collection of short stories, and the other a novel which really does appear to be the 'last Earthsea book'. It appears to answer all the questions set in the first five books.
The six books should be read in the order in which they are written. This is also the order of events in the chronology of the world, except that some of the stories in Tales from Earthsea tell of earlier times, including the dark days when the School of Wizardry was first set up on Roke.
A Wizard of Earthsea (1968)
A young man named Ged, living on the island of Gont, shows promise as a magic worker. He travels to the School of Wizardry on Roke, where he trains to be a mage. Due to his own pride, he unleashes a monster, a shadow creature, which pursues him throughout Earthsea. Eventually he decides that he must turn the tables and hunt the monster. He must confront the creature and come to terms with his own fear and pride.
This book explores what it is to grow up and become an adult, and how to accept the talents that one has been given. It has a wonderful simple style and makes fascinating reading, as Ged sails his little boat in pursuit of the shadow.
Ged went on to be a great wizard and eventually the Archmage of Earthsea. He could be considered the 'hero' of the set of books, although he retired at the end of the third one and does little after that.
The Tombs of Atuan (1970)
In the desert of Atuan in the Kargad Lands lies a place which is so important it is known just as 'The Place'. There are some old standing stones that contain an ancient power, and these are worshipped by the people of the Kargad Lands. Tenar is chosen from birth to be the priestess of the Old Ones and her name is stripped from her. She is known only by the title Arha, the Eaten One. As she grows to be an adult, she discovers that the worship of the stones is mainly ritual and that most people do not believe in the power of her gods anymore.
Then a dark-skinned stranger, a wizard, comes to steal the legendary treasure which is hidden in the labyrinth under the stones. Arha is torn between the excitement of capturing and interrogating the wizard and handing control over to one of the older priestesses and acknowledging that her gods are a sham. As she talks to the wizard, she learns more about herself.
Again, this is a book about growing up to be an adult. The atmosphere throughout is electric with the desert and the priestesses - surely it must have really been like this in the early civilisations of the Middle East?
The Farthest Shore (1972)
A young prince, Arren, requests the help of the Archmage Ged: the magic is bleeding out of the world and the Chanters are forgetting the words and meanings of the old rites. Ged and Arren go on a journey to find the source of the problem, a voyage that brings them to meet dragons and to walk the streets of the Dry Land itself.
This book contrasts the thirst for action of the young prince with the voice of experience of the old wizard. It is the first real encounter we have with the bleak reality of death in Earthsea.
At the end of the book, Ged loses his magical abilities, having used them all up in fixing the problem. He retires to become a farmer in Gont, his original home, while Arren is proclaimed as the new king.
Written nearly 20 years after the first three instalments, Tehanu is a puzzling book. It tells of Ged and Tenar living as husband and wife on Gont many years after Ged has finished his life of adventure. They adopt a young girl called Tehanu who has been burned in a fire and has a disfigured face.
Nothing happens in this book. It hints at the possibility that there is a very strong connection between humans and dragons, but there is no resolution.
Tales from Earthsea (2001)
The fifth Earthsea book is a collection of five stories rather than being a novel.
The Finder is set in the dark days when lots of self-proclaimed kings ruled portions of Earthsea, each with a hired magician and each against all the others. The hero of the story, Otter, helps to set up the School of Wizardry in Roke to bring some order to the world.
Darkrose and Diamond tells of a boy torn between magic, music and the love of a girl. Wizardry is not always the correct path for a magically gifted person to take.
The Bones of the Earth tells how Ogion the Silent stopped the earthquake in Gont.
On the High Marsh tells of a half-crazed healer who comes to a poor town, offering to heal the farm animals. It becomes obvious that he is some sort of a wizard, but he doesn't seem to know himself.
Dragonfly is an important story because it provides the link between Tehanu and the final Earthsea book. It tells of a young woman who is not content with her lot and wants to travel to Roke to become a wizard. This confronts the final taboo of women mages, but doesn't really resolve the issue.
The Other Wind (2001)
A man is troubled by a constant dream in which he stands at the wall of stones and his dead wife reaches across it to try and hold him. The mages interpret this as a sign that the wall will break and the dead will come streaming into the world. Meanwhile, dragon attacks in the west of Earthsea are getting worse and the new king must try and find the cause, while keeping peace with the rival kingdom of the Kargad Lands.
This book ties up most of the loose ends presented by the previous five books and is a fitting end to the series.
The Word of Unbinding and The Rule of Names
There are in fact two other tales set in the Earthsea world: in 1964 Le Guin published two short stories called 'The Word of Unbinding' and 'The Rule of Names'. In them, she first set out the rules of the Magic of Names. They are worth reading, particularly the latter, which is short and funny.
The Earthsea books have been steady sellers since they first came out more than 30 years ago, and have won numerous awards. Isn't it time you had a look?