Ursula K Le Guin is, quite simply, one of the greatest fantasists of our age, as well as a distinguished writer of science fiction, realist fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Among her many honours are a National Book Award, the World Fantasy Award, five Hugo Awards, five Nebula Awards, the Kafka Award, a Pushcart Prize and the Harold D Vursell Memorial Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Although she has published over eighty short stories, two collections of essays, ten books for children, several volumes of poetry and sixteen novels, what she remains most famous for are her tales of the world of Earthsea. A fictional realm originally created by Le Guin for her short story The Word of Unbinding, published in 1964, Earthsea became the setting for a further six books, beginning with A Wizard of Earthsea, first published in 1968, and continuing with The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, Tehanu, Tales from Earthsea and The Other Wind. Iconic, original and deeply moving, the Earthsea novels have enthralled generations of fans – many of whom, it is worth saying, would not normally have been drawn to fantasy in the first place. Le Guin’s world also inspired two TV films, one of which is perhaps best forgotten while the other is a little known animated gem. The woman and the story behind one of the best loved worlds in fantasy are both almost as interesting as anything which occurred in the Earthsea novels.
The first novel, A Wizard of Earthsea, is, by the standards of the rest of the series, a relatively straightforward adventure story that focuses upon the youthful career of Ged, also known as Sparrowhawk, the future Archmage of Roke. Although it has battles, magic and dragons aplenty, what elevates it is the Jungian subtext of the hero battling a nemesis who represents his own shadow self. The sequel, The Tombs of Atuan, which is much darker than the first book, is an adventure of Ged’s adult life seen through the eyes of Arha, a young priestess in the distant Kargad Empire. Greater complexity is introduced as Le Guin uses the novel to explore deeper themes such as the relationship between faith and power. The Farthest Shore, my own personal favourite of the series, is the conclusion of the first part of Ged’s story. Magic is disappearing from Earthsea and Ged, now an Archmage, must find out why. The story explores the longing for immortality and the need for death in order to bring meaning to life. There is still plenty of action, but this is Le Guin at her thought-provoking best. Tehanu, published some fifteen years after The Farthest Shore, and The Other Wind, published another ten years later, stand apart from the initial trilogy, abandoning most of the earlier themes as Le Guin moves into a story of feminist resistance against patriarchy which has Arha, rather than Ged, as the key character. The novels are supplemented by a book of short stories of varying length, Tales of Earthsea, and two more short stories dating from the early sixties, which have never been collected and published with the others.
Le Guin has said that the first Earthsea book was in part a response to the image of wizards as ancient and wise, and to her wondering where they came from. Further inspiration came from the work of her parents, anthropologists Alfred and Theodora Kroeber, and this in part perhaps explains why Earthsea seems so real and believable compared with many other fantasy worlds. Le Guin’s meticulous approach and attention to detail really pay off – from the start the Earthsea books, despite being nominally for children, explore a variety of much deeper themes than many other fantasy series. Magic is central to the world of Earthsea, which has a famous school for wizards on the isle of Roke, yet in many ways it often seems to be a metaphor in the novels for other things. For example, a strong theme of the stories is the connection between power and responsibility. There is often a Taoist message: ‘good’ wizardry tries to be in harmony with the world, while ‘bad’ wizardry, such as necromancy, can lead to an upsetting of the ‘balance’ and threaten catastrophe. Dragons, which also appear frequently in the tales of Earthsea, are also symbolic in many ways. They are living representations of the balance of nature and often take direct action to deal with anything that threatens this vital equilibrium. Even language – the very act of speaking as well as the words themselves – is deeply symbolic in Le Guin’s world. In Earthsea, magic works by forcing the universe to conform to the words spoken by wizards. As a writer, Le Guin understood, like Tolkien, that the key to making a fantasy world seem more real was to use words for names and places which resonated with truth and meaning rather than sounding simply ‘fantastical’. Hence key characters have names like Sparrowhawk, Ogion the Silent, Nemmerle and Elfarran; places are called Roke, Gont, Havnor and the Kargish lands; and things are called Kalessin, Orm Embar, Gebbeth and Erreth-Akbe. It is perhaps unsurprising to hear that Le Guin derived many of these fictional names from the names of real things that she came across in her wide reading.
Although it has been much-copied, Earthsea is one of the most original of all fantasy worlds. Where many fictional realms are landlocked imitations of Western Europe, Earthsea is an intoxicating mix of Asia, Africa and the Pacific Islands. In another break with fantasy tradition, the racial characteristics of the people of Earthsea are for the most part red-brown in coloring, like Native Americans; in the South and East Reach and on Way, they are much darker brown, but with straight black hair; in Osskil, they have a more central or eastern European look, though still with dark skin, and the Kargs in the east resemble predominantly blond northern Europeans. The ethnic make-up and society of Earthsea are in large part the result of Le Guin’s well-known dislike of what she describes as the general assumption in fantasy that characters should be white and that society should resemble the Middle Ages. Le Guin firmly wanted Earthsea to be more than a place where ‘fantastical people have fantastical adventures’. In her own words ‘commodified fantasy takes no risks: it invents nothing, but imitates and trivialises’. Le Guin therefore used Earthsea as a means of exploring and revealing the truths of the ancient tales – the wellspring of mythology from which fantasy was first born. She hoped to return to the old stories their intellectual and ethical complexity and in my view she succeeded admirably.
Over the span of the novels and stories, there is an evolution of certain themes, echoes of which are repeated throughout Le Guin’s entire body of work. Themes including the different uses of power, magic and balance, co-operation v dominance, the eternal soul of the Archipelago v Kargish concepts of reincarnation, and the position and importance of women in magic, are introduced, turned on their heads, and redefined. This revision of the depiction of Earthsea is illustrated in the way the role of women evolves throughout the series. In the early novels, magic in Earthsea is strongly male-dominated. Women practicing magic are relegated to the role of village witches who are considered inferior to male wizards and mages, who learn magic systematically on the island of Roke. However, in later books Le Guin delves deeper into the history of Earthsea and reveals some early events that helped shape the dichotomy of male -female magic. The dynamic of Earthsea is turned on its head in Tehanu and The Other Wind when new information is introduced and old events are seen in a new light, for example the revelation that to begin with women had a central role in founding the School of Roke, and that – far from being an inherent characteristic of magic – their exclusion was the act of narrow-minded male chauvinist mages.
Now 82, Le Guin has not written another Earthsea tale since the release in 2001 of The Other Wind and Tales of Earthsea. By this stage the Earthsea saga was already one of the longest-running in all of fantasy, having first begun in 1964. However, another Earthsea tale should never be ruled out, since Le Guin always seems to return organically to this fictional realm whenever she feels the necessary inspiration. Unlike so many other worlds and stories, Earthsea has shown a remarkable ability to adapt to changing times in our own world. This quality of Earthsea is entirely intentional on its creator’s part. Le Guin’s deeply-held belief is that great stories offer us not only a series of events but a place, a landscape of the imagination that we can inhabit and to which we can return. Whilst Le Guin acknowledges that we cherish the old stories for their changelessness – Arthur dreams eternally in Avalon, Bilbo can go ‘there and back again’ to his beloved Shire, Don Quixote sets out forever to tilt at windmills – enchantment also alters with age, and with the age. We know a dozen different Arthurs now, all of them true. The Shire changed irrevocably even in Bilbo’s lifetime. Don Quixote went riding out to Argentina and met Jorge Luis Borges there. Whenever Le Guin pens a new tale it is a joy for me and her countless other fans to go back to Earthsea and find it still there, entirely familiar, and yet changed and still changing. If you have not yet read a tale of Earthsea it is never too late to feel the call of the other wind and to travel to that farthest shore within the magical pages of one of Le Guin’s novels. Like the wizard Sparrowhawk, you may never want to return.