When I heard of Ursula Le Guin’s death last year I decided to reread her stories. I picked up an omnibus edition Earthsea, the first four books in this series ~ A wizard of Earthsea (1969), The tombs of Atuan (1971), The farthest shore (1972) and Tehanu (1990). Unfortunately it doesn’t include the last in the series The other wind (2001). That is definitely my next read.
Each novel continues the story of Ged, who starts out as a young and impulsive wizard in the first, matures into the wise archmage of Earthsea and then becomes the complex, broken man in Tehanu. But it is only the first book that is told through the voice of Ged. Each book, while still carrying on the story, is separate. Lord of the rings is ostensibly three books, but is really one, each book leading on immediately from the previous ending. Le Guin doesn’t do that. Indeed there is about twenty years from where we left Ged and Tenar at the end of The tombs of Atuan before Ged’s story is picked up again in The farthest shore.
Tehanu, the fourth book, was written nearly twenty years after the third. The characters have had time to develop in complexity. For authors it must be a luxury to have time to sit with characters and allow them to grow over time. I guess it’s a luxury that modern authors, who seem to be expected to publish a book a year, don’t have. Knowing that the books are written over a span of time helps to understand the strengthening of the themes, and the writing.
One of those themes is the place of women in society. There are very few women in A wizard of Earthsea. It’s in The tombs of Atuan that we meet Tenar, a strong, independent young woman. She is the central character again in Tehanu and Le Guin has kept Tenar’s strength and independence but developed her into a woman is prepared to question established norms and fight passionately for those she loves.
Throughout Tehanu Tenar is trying to resolve the notion of power. Where does women’s power come from and why does it come from a different place to men’s? Why is it seen to be a weaker power? In a discussion with Ged she says:
“If power were trust,” she said. “I like that word. If it weren’t all those arrangements — one above the other — kings and masters and mages and owners — It all seems so unnecessary. Real power, real freedom, would lie in trust, not force.”
Le Guin shows us that masculine power as an overt force with the rape and horrific abuse of the child in the story, as well as with a wizard who takes away all Tenar’s power ~ of speech, of action and even of thought ~ because she is a woman. Le Guin also shows us the casual sexism that we know so well. Tenar’s son refuses to put his dishes in the sink because it is ‘women’s work’; other characters take no notice of what she is saying.
In her obituary to Ursula Le Guin Margaret Atwood identifies other themes, which also come through strongly in this series.
In all her work, Le Guin was always asking the same urgent question: what sort of world do you want to live in? Her own choice would have been gender equal, racially equal, economically fair and self-governing, but that was not on offer. It would also have contained mutually enjoyable sex and good food: there was a better chance of that…….
The Earthsea trilogy, for instance, is a memorable exploration of the relationship between life and death: without the darkness, no light; and mortality allows all that is alive to be. The darkness includes the hidden and less pleasant sides of our selves – our fears, our pride, our envy. Ged, its hero, must face his shadow self before it devours him. Only then will he become whole. In the process, he must contend with the wisdom of dragons: ambiguous and not our wisdom, but wisdom nonetheless.
As you can tell, I loved Tehanu the best of the four, and am so looking forward to reading The other wind, (as well as her non-Earthsea works, especially The dispossessed and The left hand of darkness) not only to finish off the stories of these strong, interesting characters but to enjoy Le Guin’s beautiful writing. Oh, and there are dragons too!
(Tenar) had done right to make the dress, and she had spoken the truth. But it was not enough, the right and the truth. There was a gap, a void, a gulf, on beyond the right and truth. Love, her love for Therru and Therru’s for her, made a bridge across that gap, a bridge of spider web, but love did not fill it or close it. Nothing did that. And the child knew it better than she.
Because Lark didn’t see Hawk (Ged) through the words herdsman, hired hand, widow’s man, but looked at him himself, she saw a good deal that puzzled her. His dignity and simplicity were not greater than that of other men she had known, but were a little different in quality; there was a size to him, she thought, not height or girth, certainly, but soul and mind.
And don’t we need a size in soul and mind in all of us now?
16 replies on “Ursula Le Guin and the Wizard of Earthsea”
I’ve only just discovered Le Guin and am about halfway through Earthsea. It is not my usual type of reading at all but I’m enjoying it so far. I very much appreciate your post as it gives me some perspective.
I am glad that my thoughts came at the right time for you.She’s quite a thought provoking author, unlike many others who write in that genre. Were you prompted to read it because of Le Guin’s death?
For me, Le Guin will always be The Left Hand of Darkness, for all the reasons you’ve given for Earthsea but also because that was the book that showed me what was possible as a storyteller. It would be 35 years before I tried to be a storyteller myself, but I never forgot what /she/ did, and how she did it.
She will always be my hero. 🙂
I can see the resonances of Le Guin in your work. Do you now go back to her writing, to see how she may have crafted something? I am so looking forward to rereading ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’. In my memory it was my favourite of hers, but it will be interesting to see how my perspective may have changed.
No, actually. She was/is still such a huge influence that I’m scared I’ll try to write /like/ her.
Her influence is most obvious when I write a scene that’s on the edge. For whatever reason, I re-read it and suddenly I have this urge to tone it down, make it ‘safe’. That’s when I think of her and go, ‘bugger it. I’m too old to be scared of what people think of me.’ She’s a slave-driver like that. 🙂
That made me smile!
The Other Wind is the most satisfying conclusion to the earlier books, and she is, and continues to be, an outstanding author. I have all her books, and while the Earthsea series is a great favourite, there are so many other wonderful books. Rocannon’s World is one of my favourites, and The Telling, and…. well, you get the idea.
Le Guin’s other books never came onto my radar. I suppose that I moved away from her in the 80s, 90s, and didn’t come across her work since then. So I am looking forward to reading the later ones ~ she is a beautiful writer, and I love her view of the world. Thanks for the recommendation of ‘Rocannon’s World’.
I love the way she plays to your built in assumptions and then rotates things through 90°. I must read her again sometime soon.
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I have just picked up ‘The other wind’ from the book shop. It is a treat awaiting me.
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I think you’ll enjoy it. It’s a satisfying conclusion.
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I haven’t been reading much at all lately…maybe that is what I am missing 🙂 not that I propose to read this particular series, but there might be some I might get into – soooooooooooon….
Reading is a must do for me. Everything else can go by the wayside ~ even, gulp, creating ~ but I must read, and usually do every day. I wonder what you will series you will be reading.
Hi Anne I was interested to read your comments about the Wizard of Earths books. I absolutely loved the first three, and it was a very special story for me which I read many times (and must do again soon) However, I was shocked by the last one, which I read many years later, and I wished I hadn’t read it, as it seemed to undermine all the magic and power of the early ones, to see Ged reduced in the way he was (I am thinking back many years now.) Having read your critique, I feel that I missed the point, and should go back and read that again too – though I don’t think I will, as I wanted the fantasy to continue then, and I expect I would a second time. I have cut out an article from the Melbourne Anglican, with a different perspective again. I guess that is the beauty of good fiction, that we can all find something unique and special. Thanks for your insights.
I hope you enjoyed your day with Mum in Lilydale. She was certainly looking forward to it. Love Judy xxx
I can see how you would be shocked by the last one. Ged certainly was reduced and there was a lot less magic. I know my tastes have changed over the years. I felt that it was much more rounded and I was aware of the gender issues. I wonder if I would have picked that up if I had read it earlier. I like to think I would have but……
Mum and I had a lovely day. It was wonderful to spend time with her. xxx