Ursula Le Guin and the Wizard of Earthsea

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.

And again…

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?