When a world of fantasy is well-loved by many readers, for many years, it gains a special kind of reality: it exists not just in the mind of the writer who imagined it or in the pages of the books about it, but also in the imaginations of thousands or millions of readers. The world dwells with them, and they dwell in it. This special reality can be both a blessing and a burden for the original author. So the world of Earthsea has proven for Ursula K. Le Guin, who has added once again to her writings set in the world of Earthsea with the story collection Tales from Earthsea, published this month by Harcourt.
Le Guin created Earthsea -- a world of islands, inhabited by people and by dragons; a world where magic inheres in the nature of things, in the power of true names that are part of the being of every creature in the world -- in a trilogy written in the late 1960's and early 1970's: A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore. These books, drawing ostensibly on the epic The Deed of Ged, relate the deeds of one of Earthsea's greatest mages from his early childhood to his tenure as Archmage of the school of Wizardry on Roke Island as if looking back on a rather distant historical past. They render his story in a high style that clarifies and elevates, letting the details of daily life fall away from the essential story which emerges, shining, admirable, and memorable. The trilogy quickly and deservedly became a classic for both children (the books were originally intended for a younger audience) and adults. My battered copy of The Farthest Shore, printed fifteen years after the book's first release in 1972, claims that over three million copies of the trilogy were then in print. Earthsea became part of the collective imagination.
The burden of this special status became apparent when Le Guin made a new addition to the world of Earthsea in 1990 with the publication of Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea. Rejecting the elevated style of heroic legend, Le Guin composed Tehanu in a realistic style suited to the historical present. The novel resumes the story of Tenar, adolescent heroine of The Tombs of Atuan, some years after the great events of that story. She is now a mother and a widow. To all outward appearances she is an ordinary woman of middle age, leading an ordinary life, except that she has a remarkable past and has now adopted a young girl who has been horribly burned and abused.
Tehanu focuses very deliberately on the details of daily life that had been absent from the earlier narrative. In doing so, it changed Earthsea by showing it to be a world not purely mythic. It caused the world to grow up, to discover real sexuality, hard physical labor, banal greed, virulent misogyny, and horrible, empty cruelty -- cruelty without the dignity or the mystery of the Old Powers that Ged had struggled against in the original trilogy. In that sense, it is a book about adolescence: it enacts the confrontation of childhood truths and idealistic hopes with the harder complexities of adult life in the world. Adolescence is seldom easy, and Tehanu received a mixed reception from readers who had grown up loving the original Earthsea books. Some readers viewed it as a politically correct betrayal of the original books, an attack on the very principle of escape that fantasy is supposed to provide. That was my own first reaction, and many friends and students of mine still hold that view. I have come to think otherwise, however; I see the value of a maturing fantasy that holds steadfastly to an ideal vision but that doesn't reach that vision through childish means. Nevertheless, because of the differences between Tehanu and the original trilogy, readers who hold Earthsea in their imaginations may well be looking at the release of Tales from Earthsea with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation, especially since Le Guin explicitly stated (a statement that she recants with wry humor in the new book's foreword) that Tehanu would be the last book of Earthsea. Will these stories be like Tehanu? Will they be like the original trilogy? Or will Le Guin challenge her readers further with another changing of the world?
I might sum up the contents of this review by saying that the answer to all three of this questions is an emphatic and delighted "Yes!" If Tehanu forced readers' imaginations through the uneasy growth processes of adolescence, Tales from Earthsea rewards readers with the rich fruits of full imaginative maturity. In five stories gathered together here, Le Guin renders Earthsea from a variety of perspectives. The opening story, the novella "Finder," is set several hundred years in the past during the Dark Time preceding the founding of the Roke School. As she did for the original Earthsea trilogy, Le Guin presents this tale as one handed down over the centuries, and she tells of these bad times in the achingly beautiful high style that characterized the original books:
In the time of the kings, mages gathered in the court of Enlad and later in the court of Havnor to counsel the king and take counsel together, using their arts to pursue goals they agreed were good. But in the dark years, wizards sold their skills to the highest bidder, pitting their powers one against the other in duels and combats of sorcery, careless of the evils they did, or worse than careless. Plagues and famines, the failure of springs of water, summers with no rain and years with no summer, the birth of sickly and monstrous young to sheep and cattle, the birth of sickly and monstrous children to the people of the isles -- all these things were charged to the practices of wizards and witches, and all too often rightly so.
"Finder" depicts the struggles of people, ordinary people and people learned in magic, to survive and to turn the world towards good in a time when powerful and lawless men had their way with all those weaker than themselves. In its depiction of suffering and cruelty, "Finder" is as unsparing as Tehanu, but its historical distance and higher style make the tale less desperate. I found it moving, inspiring, and painfully beautiful. (Readers of Le Guin's science fiction will note that "Finder" shares the theme of cultural survival with The Telling, reviewed in Strange Horizons in January).
While "Finder" in itself shows how Le Guin has successfully woven together the stylistic strengths of the all the earlier Earthsea books, the shorter stories that comprise the other half of the collection are by no means afterthoughts. The love story "Darkrose and Diamond," set in Earthsea's recent past, delicately explores the tensions between love and magic, between pleasure and profit, that were another theme of Tehanu. It also sustains Le Guin's interest in ordinary life in Earthsea, far but not completely removed from the affairs of wizards. Readers hungry for tales of great wizards and the return of much-loved characters will find satisfaction, however, in "The Bones of the Earth" and "On the High Marsh," two other recent-past stories. Both tell of great, if unsung, works of magic, and both feature appearances by characters who will be well-known to every reader of Earthsea. Yet these tales also make plain Le Guin's magnificent ability to join together the commonplace and the arcane, finding images that make this complex world whole. The protagonists of both stories are mages, men of great power, but almost the first thing we learn about each is the condition of his feet upon the earth. One is standing barefoot in the mud after a spring rain, the other is footsore after a hard journey:
He had used up his shoes walking round Andanden on the cruel roads of black lava. The soles were worn right through, and his feet ached with the icy damp of the marsh paths.
With these seemingly trivial details Le Guin conjures the mood of each story.
The way these wizards walk upon the earth is not of incidental importance to Tales of Earthsea as a whole. The format of the tale collection gives Le Guin the freedom to use the whole range of styles she has developed for tales of this world, but the value of the collection is not just in its variety. These tales change their world by their focus on its earth and the powers that reside in it. The tales turn on the way wizards' feet rest on the earth; they turn on caves, hills, and the deep-rooted trees of the Immanent Grove on Roke, in ways that stories of Earthsea never have before. Ged is preeminently a sailor: his tales range across the infinite possibility of the seas as lightly as his trusty vessel Lookfar skims across the waves. Tenar's life in Tehanu is bounded by the island of Gont, but that is primarily a social novel: it turns on the relations between people. This collection for the first time delves into the earth of Earthsea, and it solidifies the reader's sense of Earthsea's history. Le Guin's wonderful foreword (to which this review is much indebted) places Tales in the history of her exploration of the world, and a concluding essay, A Description of Earthsea offers a systematic account of Earthsea's history and culture.
Even though the world is becoming firmer and more complete in this volume, it is by no means complete or closed off to future change. That becomes clearest in the final tale of the collection, "Dragonfly." Like "Finder," it is set partly on Roke and is concerned with the history of the Roke School. Unlike "Finder," it is set in Earthsea's present, contemporary with Tehanu. Perhaps because of its present day setting and style, I found it the hardest of the tales to enjoy, but I also found it to be the most bracing and provocative. It tells of Irian, the first woman in centuries to seek to enter the Roke School, and of the changes her arrival brings to that seemingly timeless and unchangeable place. Don't form preconceptions about the story based on that description, though. The definitive fantasy version of the plucky and talented girl breaking the gender barrier at an all male craft school was told long ago by Anne McCaffrey in the Dragonsinger Pern book. Le Guin's story follows an entirely different path. Where that path may lead, we don't yet know. The ending of this story is open, pointing only towards The Other Wind, the next book of Earthsea scheduled for publication later this year.
For many reading this review, the fact that this book is a Le Guin book, or an Earthsea book, will be enough to recommend it to you, whatever a reviewer might say. But if you are among the lovers of Earthsea who have looked forward to this book with trepidation as well as anticipation, I urge to overcome your trepidation and read it. Then, I think, you will look forward to the arrival of The Other Wind, as I do, with pure anticipation of the next change that Le Guin will bring to this so richly imagined world.
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