It’s birthday week here at spalanz.com, and as part of celebrating all things fantasy, I want to feature a book that I’ve come to enjoy, the Earthsea Quartet from Ursula le Guin!
Back when I was in college, my long-time gaming buddy Tony recommended this omnibus to me, and I picked it up but never actually read it. In moving house a few years back, I’ve evidently lost it as I cannot find it anywhere in my flat, but a couple of weeks ago I noticed it in the local Waterstones and decided it was high time I picked it up to see what all the fuss has been about.
There are now six books in the Earthsea series, one of which is a collection of short stories that are also set in the fantasy realm. The first, A Wizard of Earthsea, was actually published in 1968, and the sixth, The Other Wind, in 2001. As of writing this blog, I’ve actually only read the first two stories, but I’m just so excited about this series that I couldn’t wait to start talking about it here!!
The stories are all set in the archipelago of Earthsea, a collection of islands surrounded by a vast and uncharted ocean. The main island, Havnor, is apparently analogous to Great Britain, though the cultures of the archipelago are not intended to be derivative of real-world settings, which is something that I really enjoy. Indeed, there is so much to recommend these stories that I cannot praise them enough!
A Wizard of Earthsea
The first novel in the series follows the magical training of a young boy from the island of Gont, named Ged. Names are actually very important in Earthsea, and the foundation of the magical system – by knowing a thing’s true name, a wizard is able to use magic to influence it. Ged is therefore known as Sparrowhawk in the course of the story, as he learns how to use his powers first as an apprentice to the wandering mage Ogion, and later at the magical academy on the island of Roke. Ged is first tricked into reading a book that summons a strange shadow which Ogion banishes, but later, at the academy, he is goaded into displaying his powers by raising the dead, at which this shadow reappears and begins to pursue Ged across the world.
The novel – it’s actually more of a novella – is just so impressive, I don’t really know where to begin! I love fantasy stories that are in this sort of post-Tolkien, pre-Game of Thrones period, where there is actually a lot more wonder and, really, a magical feel to the world, when authors didn’t feel the need to fall into prescribed story beats and such. A Wizard of Earthsea is actually quite small-scale in comparison with a lot of more modern fantasy novels, but this can be deceptive as we learn about the world of Earthsea in a protracted, progressive way, which I do enjoy quite a bit.
Something that I really liked was the way the wizarding academy on Roke did actually feel like a more medieval version of Hogwarts, where students could build friendships and rivalries, and both enjoy and dislike their lessons. While Harry Potter blends the fantastical with the realistic in a really great way, Earthsea is obviously a lot more clearly fantastical, and yet it still feels grounded in an almost believable way.
While I am quite firmly of the belief that this shouldn’t be an issue, it’s also worth pointing out that Ged – and most of the people of Earthsea, for that matter – are black. Much like the Drizzt novels I’ve talked about on this blog previously, having a black hero / central character in genre fiction is still really quite a big thing, and I think it’s important to note that fantasy has often been ahead of its time in this respect.
The Tombs of Atuan
The second book (also a novella-length story) completely changes tack, as we travel to a small island in the far east of the archipelago, and delve deeply into the religious cult of the Nameless Ones. There is a Dalai Lama-style ceremony where the late priestess of the Nameless Ones is reincarnated as a child born at the exact moment of her death. The child, Tenar, is consecrated as the priestess at the age of six, renamed Arha, and trained for her service. As the years go by, Arha is inducted in the many mysteries of the religion, namely the labyrinth underneath the temple complex, where she one day discovers a thief – Ged. He has come searching for the lost half of the ring of Erreth-Akbe, half of which he came into possession of during the course of the first novel. Arha traps him in the underground labyrinth, but he becomes a source of fascination for her, and she eventually comes to help him escape, and the two leave the island having reforged the ring, which is said to have the power to bring peace to all the islands of the archipelago.
The Tombs of Atuan is a definite change of pace after the first book, and I was initially quite surprised when I read it, having expected to have more tales of Ged the wizard. While he does of course appear, this is most assuredly a story centred around Arha, and the two books have been said to form both male and female parallel coming-of-age stories. Despite being surprised by it, however, I actually really liked the tightly-woven story, and my curiosity only grew with each chapter – in this respect, I think it is more definitely a page-turner than the first book. However, both were tremendous stories!
I said earlier that these books fall into the sort of early-modern fantasy genre, which is of course quite difficult to describe further, but I suppose the main attribute they possess is a sort of self-awareness – these books know that they are fantasy, in fact they knew they were young-adult novels before young-adult novels were a thing, and they don’t try to be anything more. As such, they are a truly fantastic read in the very real sense of that word. There’s no attempt to spice things up for a different market – these are fantasy books, written for people who want to read fantasy books. Aside from the racial ideas I mentioned earlier, there’s no attempt to politicise the story, either. It does what fantasy should be best at: providing escapism.
I could proselytise all day about these two stories, but I think the best thing would be just to read them for yourselves – each one is really short, and provides such spellbinding storytelling that you can get through them quite quickly. If you haven’t already done so, definitely pick them up; if you have, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!
And stay tuned for more on Earthsea as I make my way to the remaining books in the series!!