A Wizard of Earthsea

Friday, February 10th, 2012

John Rateliff describes A Wizard of Earthsea:

“[T]hat which gives us the power to work magic
sets the limits of that power. A mage can
control only what is near him, what he can
name exactly and wholly. And this is well.
If it were not so, the wickedness of
the powerful or the folly of the
wise would long ago have sought
to change what cannot be changed,
and Equilibrium would fail. The
unbalanced sea would overwhelm
the islands where we perilously
dwell, and in the old silence
all voices and names
would be lost.”

— Master Namer of the School on Roke

Sometimes, the most important thing an author can know is when to stop. Fans will always want more, publishers love a sure thing, and it’s always easier to repeat yourself than to try something new, which makes those authors who do continually reinvent themselves so important. The pressure to convert a stand-alone work into a series can be enormous, so much so that during the 1980s and ’90s stand-alones became the exception, not the rule, in a field dominated by sprawling open-ended single-story series by authors like Jordan, Eddings, Card, Turtledove, et al.[1] Ideas that might once have been a single book were expanded into multiple volumes, all of which had to be read to get the complete story. Those authors who stuck to trilogies often let them swell in bulk to fit the trend of the times — Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn (also known as The Dragonbone Chair series) is a case in point. Its three volumes come in at 2,400 hardcover pages (more than twice the length of The Lord of the Rings); it would have been a masterpiece if compressed to one-third that length. Even series of finite length, like Rowlings’ Harry Potter series (a projected seven volumes, each larger than the last) and Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (also known as the A Game of Thrones series; the three dense volumes published so far, out of a projected six, are already longer than Tad Williams’ entire trilogy, with at least as much more still to come), stand in contrast to the single books and trilogies of fantasy’s early days.

Only a few writers have bucked the trend, such as Guy Gavriel Kay (whose work has consisted of one trilogy, one duology, and three stand-alone novels, including the brilliant Tigana) and, more recently, Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials being a single trilogy, with a fourth volume of essays and commentaries forthcoming). Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series seems to conform to the Jordanian sprawl but though they share a setting and sometimes even characters, each of his books is a complete story, rather in the style of P. G. Wodehouse’s Bertie and Jeeves stories, or James Branch Cabell’s “Mind of Manual” series, rather than the single story spread over as many volumes as sales will justify.

For many years Ursula K. Le Guin was among this small but esteemed company who was content to let her famed Earthsea trilogy stand alone while she moved on to other heroes and heroines, other settings, other stories. Recently, however, she has begun adding new volumes to the series, unfortunately diluting the whole. Unlike some of her more commercially minded peers, however, Le Guin’s return to Earthsea is motivated not so much by a desire to sell more books as by a change of heart. Like W. H. Auden, who went back in his old age and rewrote his most famous poems (often taking out the best lines) to reflect his evolving political beliefs, Le Guin has become convinced she got it wrong; her latter books in the series are a deliberate attempt to recast the world into something more politically correct so that she can make amends for not having been doctrinally pure enough in her original conception. [2] In effect, the author deconstructs her own world, undermining her myths and replacing them with something she thinks might be more acceptable to her present-day audience.

Given her latter-day uneasiness with her original books, Le Guin had several options. She could have gone back and altered the original trilogy, a la George Lucas, into a “special edition” that reflected the way she would have written it if she were doing it over again today — rather like the fate of the Doctor Doolittle books, only censored versions of which are available today.[3] Fortunately, she instead decided to let her original work stand but to frame it with other tales that would change the character of the setting as a whole; it’s as if C. S. Lewis had gone back and written seven more Narnia books arguing that Christianity was no better or worse than Islam, Wicca, or Buddhism; the new stories are designed to change the message and the world as a whole. The effect has been rather like taking a fine watercolor and tacking on new canvas with less subtle designs that stand in stark contrast to the original. In this column, therefore, we will by and large disregard her latter-day afterthoughts and concentrate on the original book, wherein the series’ claim to greatness lies.

The Making of a Wizard

“Wizards do not meet by chance.”
“Weak as women’s magic.”
“Wicked as women’s magic.”

— Sayings of Earthsea

Second in popularity only to Tolkien in most readers’ polls, Le Guin’s original Earthsea trilogy is among the most widely read of all fantasy and is found in virtually every public library in this country.[4] Despite officially being labeled as “young adult” books, they have always attracted a wide audience of adults as well as teens, as have other outstanding fantasy authors that have sometimes been similarly pigeonholed, like Patricia McKillip, Robin McKinley, Phillip Pullman, John Bellairs, et al.[5] Initially the “series” consisted of two short stories (still the artistic high point of the whole): the beautifully bleak “The Word of Unbinding,” which introduces Le Guin’s vision of Earthsea’s Afterlife, and the wickedly funny little cautionary tale “The Rule of Names,” which tells the story of the Dragon of Pendar (whom we meet again in Chapter 5 of A Wizard of Earthsea) and the time he spent among the hobbitlike folk of Sattins Island in what became the East Reach.

To these two tales she several years later added our novel, A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), describing the trial and errors of a supremely talented young wizard as he learns how to control both his power and himself. Three years later she added a second book, The Tombs of Atuan (1971), with a new point-of-view character and her former hero reduced to a supporting role (he does not even appear until more than a third of the way through the book). The third and final book of the original series, The Farthest Shore (1972), introduces yet another point-of-view character; he is a sort of young prince Arthur, who embarks with the wizard (now an Archmage at the height of his powers) on an epic quest that leads them into the land of the dead and back again. In the end the world of the living is saved but at the cost of all the wizard’s power; henceforth he retires to live the life of an ordinary mortal. Although officially a “trilogy,” it might be more accurate to describe these three books as a triptych: three independent episodes from a single character’s life, with other major adventures referred to in passing but not included in one of the narratives.

Several elements made A Wizard of Earthsea stand out when it was originally published, and still make it remarkable today. First and foremost is the excellence of Le Guin’s writing: she remains among the very best fantasy and science fiction writers of her generation. Second was the evolution of her character: She takes him from a precocious child to sullen teen to rash youth to confident, capable adult to wise elder — a rare case of an entire life passing in snapshots, as it were. Then, too, there is Earthsea itself: a strikingly different fantasy world from the Tolk-clones that dominated fantasy for so long. The world is built of a hundred or so major islands (and many more small ones), each different, each with its own potential story, and all linked by the great sea. Although Le Guin never truly fulfilled its potential, it remains one of the all-time best fantasy settings. Finally, the book is a “bildungsroman” or coming-of-age story, going behind the white-bearded wise old wizard stereotype (Gandalf, Merlin, and so on) and showing the character as sorcerer’s apprentice, full of talent without the knowledge of how to use it, and with very human fears, flaws, and ambitions. She never loses our sympathy for the character even when he does something foolish, perhaps because he is always willing to pay the consequences for his actions. Le Guin succeeds in bringing the stereotype to life; her Sparrowhawk is a fully realized, three-dimensional character.

Death is a Dry Place

[S]uddenly he thought the child
was dying in his arms.
Summoning his power all at once
and with no thought for himself,
he sent his spirit out after the child’s spirit,
to bring it back home. He called the child’s
name… Thinking some faint answer came
in his inward hearing he pursued, calling once more.
Then he saw the little boy running fast and far
ahead of him down a dark slope, the side of
some vast hill. There was no sound. The stars
above the hill were no stars his eyes had ever seen.
Yet he knew the constellations by name…
They were those stars that do not set, that
are not paled by the coming of any day.
He had followed the dying child
too far.

— Ged inadvertently visits the land of the dead

Like most works that stand the test of time, A Wizard of Earthsea has more than one interesting idea underlying it. To the striking fantasy-world-as-archipelago setting and making-of-a-mage story she adds imaginative depth: Earthsea has a sense of history behind it, artfully sustained by passing reference to a number of works reciting the deeds of great heroes from the distant past, with clear indications our hero’s tale will one day wind up remembered through just such a tale, the Deeds of Ged. From Tolkien’s ents (and dwarves) she takes the concept of True Names and builds her entire magic system around it: to know the name of a thing is to control it; to know True Speech is to know reality itself, and how to manipulate it — her hero’s greatest challenge in the book comes when he accidentally summons a shadow-creature that seems to have no name and thus cannot be defeated. This striking concept gives Earthsea’s magic a very distinct flavor that is unlike that of any other fantasy setting.

Perhaps the most impressive element of her fantasy world is her description of its afterlife (a topic usually neglected if not outright ignored by fantasy authors). Presumably inspired by images out of T. S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men,” she creates a bleak land of the dead that is silent, unchanging, and dry: a place where no rivers flow through dry streambeds and the dead simply wait, emotionless, forever. This grim vision, already fully formed in “The Word of Unbinding” (1964), underlies a striking scene in A Wizard of Earthsea and the entire plot of The Farthest Shore (1972). Beyond this, she graces Earthsea with dragons that succeed in being truly Other, not merely nasty monsters for the hero to fight; they are a genuine contribution to fantasy dragon-lore. And she unifies the whole with a strong philosophical underpinning deriving from her Taoism: Le Guin is as doctrinaire as C. S. Lewis, but few readers realize it since the average reader is more likely to recognize Gospel stories than maxims from the Tao Te Ching (the closest thing Taoism has to holy scriptures; Le Guin published her own translation of Lao Tzu’s book in 1998). In a sense, the entire Earthsea trilogy is a Taoist fable that celebrates abrogation, in which the hero learns to how to attune himself to “the Equilibrium” (what Lao Tzu called “The Way” or Tao) and learns when to act and when to refrain from acting. Thus, her hero’s loss of all his magic at the end of the third book, which strikes most readers as poignant if not downright tragic (rather like Frodo’s being forced to give up the Shire and sail into the West), is meant to be more like a passage into sainthood and a willing embrace of passivity.[6] He has finally learned the lesson of his first master, Ogion the Silent, as saintly a figure as Le Guin has ever created. The wisest of his fellow wizards sums it up thusly: “He is done with doing.”

Earthsea and Your Game

[He] wondered
what was the good of having power
when you were too wise to use it.

— Sparrowhawk, age 13

Despite its continuing popularity for over three decades, there has never been an Earthsea game — perhaps in part because of Le Guin’s contempt for swords-and-sorcery fantasy and perhaps because a setting in which the more experienced you become, the less you do is a poor model for RPG adventuring. Nevertheless, Earthsea is such an appealing world that it would make an ideal place for a highly unusual D&D campaign — one focused more on roleplaying and exploration than hack-and-slash. Each island would become its own “dungeon” distinct from the rest, with the PCs’ wanderings taking them from isle to isle. Characters such as Serret the sorceress (one of the book’s most elusive figures); foes such as Cob and the Dragon of Pendar, the stalking shadow and the shadow-possessed gebbeth; places associated with the Old Powers of Earth (such as the dark labyrinth at the Tombs of Atuan or the secret room of the Stone beneath the Court of the Terrenon) and the silent lands of the dead: all would contribute to a vivid, evocative game world. Any quest set in such a world, however, would have to be more than a treasure hunt to be worthy of the setting.


The original two Earthsea stories, “The Word of Unbinding” and “The Rule of Names,” are both available in the collection The Wind’s Twelve Quarters (1975). The Earthsea trilogy — A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), The Tombs of Atuan (1971), and The Farthest Shore (1972) — can be found in most bookstores and almost any library. The three later books are Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea (1990; an ill-conceived direct sequel to The Tombs of Atuan), Tales from Earthsea (2001; five stories plus “A Description of Earthsea,” an appendix making explicit much that was previously implicit about the world), and The Other Wind (also 2001), which starts well but soon devolves from poignantly mythic to cozily domestic. Fans of the original series should be warned that all three of the latter books sabotage the assumptions underlying the earlier stories in various ways; the final book even backs away from her original bleak concept of Earthsea’s afterlife and substitutes a warm and fuzzy fate for the dead in its place. Those who may be fascinated by how far an author can twist her creation to suit her evolving beliefs (by the fifth and sixth book the wizards, who were her paragons of wisdom in the original book, have been revealed as the source of virtually everything that’s wrong with the world) will want to read all six books, but most readers of fantasy would be well advised to stop after the third.

[1] This trend may now be reversing since the success of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings movies. Hollywood is eagerly searching for more fantasy titles to film, and stand-alone books stand a much better chance of being adapted than does a volume from an interminable series.

[2] In her essay “Earthsea Revisioned” (1992, published as a pamphlet 1993), Le Guin discusses the charge that she wrote Tehanu, the fourth Earthsea book, as “penance” and prefers to call it “affirmative action.”

[3] Lofting’s books were altered by his estate long after his death. The changes mostly involve deleting any artwork that shows his comic African prince, Bumpo. One of the rare cases of a book being improved by an author’s afterthoughts is The Hobbit, a chapter of which (“Riddles in the Dark”) Tolkien replaced more than a decade after the book’s original publication with a far superior version. In his old age Tolkien began rewriting the entire Hobbit in the style of The Lord of the Rings but wisely abandoned the project after only a few chapters, preferring to let his earlier work stand on its own merits.

[4] The original trilogy’s ubiquity can be attributed to the second volume’s having won the Newbery Award for the best children’s book of 1972; every public library with a children’s literature section strives to stock a full set of Newbery Award winners. It is ironic that The Tombs of Atuan, the weakest volume in the trilogy, won the award rather than the far superior A Wizard of Earthsea or even the flawed but ambitious The Farthest Shore, but fortunately the win of a single volume has meant libraries have the full three-volume set (just as a similar win for Lloyd Alexander’s The High King, the final volume in his Chronicles of Prydain, helped keep all five volumes on library shelves).

[5] Recently, the success of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series inspired publishers to actually put different covers on the books designed to appeal to different age groups, so that each book has multiple covers each aimed at a distinct group of readers.

[6] Or, as Le Guin puts it elsewhere, “Fullness is a fine thing, but emptiness is the secret of it” (Ursula K. Le Guin, quoting Lao Tzu, in “Earthsea Revisioned,” 1992).

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