Tales from Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin

Tales from EarthseaTales from Earthsea collects five stories written between Tehanu and the final Earthsea novel, The Other Wind. Three of them are short: “Darkrose and Diamond” is a love story and a fable about finding your true calling; “The Bones of the Earth” relates an incident mentioned briefly in A Wizard of Earthsea, the mage Ogion’s laying of an earthquake on Gont; and “On the High Marsh” is, as Le Guin puts it in her preface, a minor event from ‘the brief but eventful six years that Ged was Archmage’. (I like that ‘brief but eventful’ — it sounds like a writer reserving the right to find more stories to tell.) In terms of the series as a whole, though, the two longer stories that cap and tail the collection are where the real weight lies.

“The Finder”, set three centuries before A Wizard of Earthsea, is about the founding of the School for Wizards on Roke. A young shipwright’s son, Otter, has a magical talent for finding things, but this isn’t a world that nurtures talent. This is a world ruled by a bunch of robber barons, pirate lords and self-proclaimed kings, all tussling for power. It’s a world in which those born with magical abilities are best off hiding the fact, lest the local bigwig decides they’re a threat (and kills them) or useful (and enslaves them). Only the most powerful sorcerers have any sort of autonomy, and Otter is given into the hands of one such man, the alchemist Gelluk, who is more than half insane in his pursuit of knowledge and power, and utterly indifferent to the suffering of others. Otter escapes thanks to a strange bond he develops with a woman, one of Gelluk’s slaves in his ‘roaster tower’, where he purifies ‘the watermetal’, mercury, in a horrible and life-costly process. Afterwards, Otter comes into contact with an organisation known as the Hand, ‘a loose-knit league or community concerned principally with the understanding and the ethical use and teaching of magic’ (as Le Guin puts it in her notes on the history of Earthsea at the end of this book), and this ultimately leads him to a handful of magically gifted teachers hiding out on Roke. Significantly (in terms of the themes raised in this book) at this time, ‘All the teachers of the art magic on Roke were women. There were no men of power, few men at all, on the island.’

LeGuin-TalesEarthseaThe final story, “Dragonfly”, takes place a few years after the events in Tehanu. Like “The Finder”, it is about its protagonist’s journey to Roke, but this, in Earthsea terms, is a very different sort of protagonist: Irian is a ‘big, strong, awkward, ignorant, innocent, angry woman’. When she meets a student from Roke, Irian asks what it’s like to study there, and he offers to disguise her as a man and get her enrolled. Anyone who remembers the Master Doorkeeper from A Wizard of Earthsea will guess this isn’t going to work. But things are changing in Earthsea, and this is one of those moments of change.

Tales from Earthsea finds Le Guin worrying at a problem, one that’s been implicit in the series from the start: Why can’t women study wizardry at Roke? As she says in her essay, “The Young Adult in YA”, the ‘supremacy and celibacy of wizards’, along with their maleness, was something she ‘just bought wholesale from the heroic fantasy tradition’. And so the students at the School of Roke, like monks in a monastery, were exclusively male, and celibate. After A Wizard of Earthsea, the next two books in the series almost seem designed not to have to deal with the question of women-as-wizards: The Tombs of Atuan is set in the Kargish Empire where there are no wizards, and The Farthest Shore has no major female characters. Tehanu, though it asks the question, does so rhetorically, as a statement about the world rather than a mystery to be solved. But in Tales from Earthsea’s five stories, four include relationships between women and wizards, and in three of these the women also have magical power. It’s as if Le Guin keeps finding herself picking up these two character types — woman of power, man of power — and pushing them together, trying to work out what’s drawing them together and what’s keeping them apart, like someone who’s just discovered magnets.

But there aren’t any answers here. In “The Finder”, where we see the founding of the school on Roke, the teachers are, at first, all women. Three hundred years later, in “Dragonfly”, the mere presence of a woman in the school brings it to the brink of civil war. What happened? In “A Description of Earthsea” there’s a when and a how, but no why:

‘When in 730 the first Archmage of Roke, Halkel of Way, excluded women from the school, among his Nine Masters only the Patterner and the Doorkeeper protested; they were overruled.’

Didn’t the women — powerful women, long established on Roke — object, resist, protest, or form their own school?

Perhaps there is no answer to this question, because it’s one that can be asked of our own history, too. But if there is, perhaps it’s to be found in the series’ attitude to power. Power in Earthsea, unless handled with great care and attention to the Balance, dehumanises and isolates. ‘There’s no way to use power for good,’ someone says in “The Finder”. Set against power is trust. As one of the characters says in “The Finder”:

‘I think there’s an evil in us, in humankind. Trust denies it. Leaps across it. Leaps the chasm.’

Atuan_HBIn The Tombs of Atuan, trust is what brings people together and saves them from darkness. That book’s message (‘Alone, no one wins freedom’) is repeated almost verbatim in “The Finder”: ‘Nobody can be free alone.’ And in Tehanu, trust between two human beings is seen as the only way to heal the abuse of power. Perhaps this also explains the Roke rule of celibacy. Wizards are all perfect little self-realised individuals, inviolate but isolated. To open up to another — to trust — is to risk sharing that power.

Meanwhile, “Dragonfly” returns to another two questions raised at the end of Tehanu: who will be the new Archmage at Roke, and what is the link between people and dragons? Those, at least, I’m hoping, will be answered by the last book of Earthsea, The Other Wind.

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