The Other Wind by Ursula Le Guin

The Other WindAlder, a sorcerer whose talent is fixing broken things, arrives on Gont to seek help from the former (and still unreplaced) Archmage, Ged. Every night in dreams, Alder finds himself standing by the wall that borders the land of the dead, whose occupants gather before him, clamouring for release. His own dead wife begs to be set free, but when Alder uses her true name, it has no effect. Meanwhile in Havnor, King Lebannen hears of dragons harrying the lands of men, attacking villages and burning forests, where previously they had been content to keep to their own lands far to the west.

As I said in my review of Tehanu, Le Guin seems to have progressed through the Earthsea series by answering, in each new book, a question implied by her previous work. Tehanu finished with (and “Dragonfly” in Tales from Earthsea underlined) a question about the relationship between humans and dragons, how some humans can, somehow, also be dragons. And, though Earthsea’s version of the land of the dead was present in the first book, it was The Farthest Shore that brought that limbo-like land into full, desperate detail. Surely a place like that is wrong, in a world like Earthsea? In The Other Wind, Le Guin embodies these two issues in two characters: Alder, who, thanks to his dreams, carries around with him the problem of the land of the dead being such a place of ‘suffering where suffering is past’, and Tehanu, now 15 years older than in the book named after her, who literally embodies the question of people-as-dragons.

ModernScholarOf the two, I hadn’t expected the question about the land of the dead to need answering, though I said in my review of The Farthest Shore that that book’s vision of a dull and unpleasant afterlife seemed out of keeping with the series’s general affirmation of the natural course of things. In his lecture series The Modern Scholar: Rings, Swords and Monsters, Professor Michael D C Drout says that one of the things Le Guin does as the Earthsea series progresses is to correct what he calls the ‘buried Christianity’ it began with (the assumptions taken on wholesale from Western Christian culture — or ‘the heroic fantasy tradition’ as Le Guin put it — which don’t fit her own Taoist/Buddhistic beliefs). Drout says The Other Wind performs the final fix, correcting the hellish afterlife of trapped, tormented souls into one in which the souls of the dead are free to rejoin the world, either through reincarnation, or by being reabsorbed into the life of the whole.

(Another way of looking at it is that, while the first two books dealt with the coming-into-selfhood of young people — Ged in A Wizard of Earthsea, Tenar in The Tombs of Atuan — later books deal with the necessary letting go of self that comes with a preparation for death. Cob, in The Farthest Shore, refuses to die and thereby unbalances the world. Ged defeats him by relinquishing his own power, then has to learn to deal with his new powerlessness in Tehanu. In The Other Wind, we find him fully reconciled and at peace.)

As I say, I wasn’t expecting the problem of the land of the dead to be dealt with in this last book of Earthsea. What I was expecting were two questions raised by both Tehanu and Tales from Earthsea: ‘Why can’t women study at Roke?’ and ‘Who will be the new Archmage?’ The first question isn’t dealt with explicitly, but its answer may perhaps be found in Alder’s marriage to Mevre, a witch with a similar talent to his. Their relationship was one of equals, both emotionally and in terms of magical ability:

‘So rather than his teaching her, they put their skills together and taught each other more than either had ever known.’

Here, then, Le Guin seems to be saying that, whatever the rule of Roke is, women and men are equals in magic-use, and their talents can only be improved by their joining together.

OtherWindThe other question, about what will happen at Roke now Ged is no longer Archmage, isn’t answered. In its place, The Other Wind seems to raise a whole host of other questions to do with the future of magic. The Earthsea mode of wizardry — using the true names of things to control or change them — is, in The Other Wind, linked with the wrongness represented by the land of the dead. It’s implied that what to me is the founding notion of the whole Earthsea series — that people have a true name as well as a use-name, and that it gives access to both the power and the vulnerability that derives from selfhood — is part of the imbalance and wrongness of the world. The Other Wind fixes the problem of the land of the dead, but what does this do to Earthsea wizardry, and to Roke? Is magic itself finished?

It’s obvious Le Guin likes those of her wizards who seek knowledge and understanding, or who work directly with the Balance — the Master Doorkeeper, the Master Patterner, the Master Namer — but has grown to distrust those who use magic as an active, wilful power — the Master Summoner in particular, whose speciality is conjuring the spirits of the dead. Ged, her ultimate wizard, has found his own ultimate in the renunciation of power, and the destiny of Earthsea — and its story — has passed into the hands of Lebannen, a king and a non-wizard. (Who, here, has the makings of a screwball romance with a Kargish princess. If only Le Guin could do screwball romance! David Eddings did the whole awkward arranged marriage thing a lot better in The Belgariad, but The Other Wind doesn’t really have room for that degree of humour.) As in Tolkien, whose Elves in The Lord of the Rings are departing from Middle Earth to leave it un-magical and in the hands of men, here Le Guin’s dragons are also departing — are her wizards going to lose power, too? It’s a question I felt was raised but never answered.

The Farthest Shore, cover by David Smee

The Farthest Shore, cover by David Smee

My reaction to The Other Wind is similar to my reaction to The Farthest Shore. In both books, the central character is Earthsea itself, and as a result I found myself intellectually drawn by the themes of these novels, but not emotionally drawn, as I would have been by a more character-centred story. Fantasy, I think, works best when it interweaves the personal and the epic as one — Frodo’s journey to Mount Doom is a small-scale personal story that leads to an epic-scale result — and the books I love most in the Earthsea series (A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, Tehanu) are those which are primarily character stories, only tangentially touching wider events.

I’m glad, though, that I finally got round to reading the whole series. I’ll certainly come back and re-read the first two books. I don’t think I ever needed the world presented in A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan to be expanded, but I’m certainly glad Le Guin wrote Tehanu (though it took me a few years to come back to it and fully appreciate it). Maybe the same is true of the series as a whole? The books I’ve liked most are those I’ve re-read, rather than read for the first time. Maybe I’ll come to a fuller appreciation if I ever go through the whole sequence again. But, that’s not something I’ll be doing for a few years yet!

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.

Tehanu by Ursula Le Guin

Tehanu_1991After The Farthest Shore, Le Guin began work on a fourth Earthsea book. This one was to be about Tenar’s life after The Tombs of Atuan, but a chapter in, Le Guin came to a halt, ‘because I didn’t understand what was happening to Tenar. She had given up magic, she was a farmwife with a couple of kids. What was she thinking of?’ It took 17 years before Le Guin could answer that question, and the answer came in the form of Therru, ‘a young child who has been terribly used’.

As Tehanu opens, Tenar is a farmer’s widow, whose two grown children have moved out. Four vagrants — two men, a woman, and a child — have been lingering near the village, and one day, before they disappear, one of the men tells Tenar’s friend Lark that the child has had an accident and needs help. In fact, the girl (whom Tenar names Therru), has been thrown into a fire in an attempt to kill her off. Now she’s burned and scarred down one side of her body, the fingers of one hand welded into a claw, and she talks to no one. Tenar takes her in, because she sees something of her own story in the young girl: the only way Tenar, when she was Arha the Eaten One, could escape the dark labyrinth of her inhuman masters’ power, was to learn to trust another human being (Ged); now, she has to teach the badly abused Therru a similar lesson, though the girl will never be able to escape the pain and scarring, a sort of dark labyrinth burned into her very body.

The Tombs of Atuan, cover by David Smee

The Tombs of Atuan, cover by David Smee

The Earthsea series seems to have progressed by a series of self-corrections, or perhaps ‘balances’ is a better word, ‘the Balance’ being something Le Guin’s wizards strive to maintain. Each successive book can be seen as balancing or answering something in the one before. After the young man’s coming-of-age story of A Wizard of Earthsea, we get the young woman’s coming-of-age story of The Tombs of Atuan. (Which could also be seen as following a tale about learning to face darkness with one about learning to turn away from it.) Atuan left us with the question of why Ged went to such trouble to find the missing piece of the Ring of Erreth-Akbe and repair the broken Sign of Peace, and so, in The Farthest Shore, we learn about the wrongness in the world, and the quest to end it.

The events in Tehanu overlap those of The Farthest Shore (Tehanu begins while the ‘wrongness’ of the previous book still has hold), and balances that book’s epic, world-spanning quest with a scaled-down, domestic tale. The previous book’s pairing of the Archmage Ged and Prince Arren — the most powerful man in Earthsea, and the one destined to be — is here balanced by a tale of two of the least powerful: an ageing farmer’s widow and an abused, scarred ‘little ferret of a thing’ she’s trying to nurse back to trustfulness in a world of casual abuse, bullying, and day-to-day fears. The Farthest Shore was, in part, about power: Arren’s coming into power, Cob’s lust for power, Ged’s renouncing of power. Tehanu is about those who are powerless to begin with.

tehanuIt could also, in contrast with the coming-of-age themes of the previous three books (becoming oneself and righting the world’s wrongs), be said to be about the concerns of the second half of life: acknowledging the compromises and mistakes of one’s life, and learning to accept the world as it is, faults and all. The book asks a lot of questions (‘What’s a child for? What’s it there for?’, ‘Who are we? What is it to be a man?’, ‘Who knows where a woman begins and ends?’, ‘Who dares ask questions of the dark? Who’ll ask the dark its name?’, ‘Is power that – an emptiness?’), but rather than being there so the author can provide us with answers, these questions are rhetorical, as though, with age, the world only becomes more and more a mystery that’s never going to be solved.

Perhaps the most telling question of all, though, is ‘Why do we do what we do?’, which is what Tenar asks when first presented with Therru’s injuries. This is another part of Tehanu’s balancing out of the high fantasy of The Farthest Shore. There, power — in particular magical power — forced the powerful to do good or evil, but the battle was mostly among the powerful. Here, we get to see the petty uses of power — even the non-magical power of a man’s physical strength or higher social standing — and how casually it can lead to awful abuse.

Tehanu(1stEd)I previously read Tehanu when it first came out in paperback, but don’t remember what I thought of it. This time, I found it immensely moving, no doubt in part because I’m middle-aged myself. (Tenar, though presented as ageing — mostly through her own point of view, and perhaps her society’s, too — can only be middle-aged, if this book takes place two decades after The Tombs of Atuan.) It’s a far subtler book, with all the high magics, darknesses, nobility and world-spanning of the previous three toned down, though it is in no way less meaningful.

At the time it was published, Tehanu was presented as ‘the last book of Earthsea’, but it’s obvious from the ending that it leaves some very unrhetorical questions unanswered. Throughout the book, there are a few scattered stories about humans and dragons being, originally, one species:

‘But her song told also that then, in the beginning, dragon and human were all one. They were all one people, one race, winged, and speaking the True Language.’

In a way, the idea of unification is part of the series’ DNA. Earthsea is an archipelago — both a unity and a disunity, a series of separate islands that are also a single group, one world. Le Guin’s heroes and heroines are also in the process of self-unification: Ged with his shadow, Arha with her more human side. There’s always the search for ‘True Language’, true names, true natures, a balance, a unification. Is Le Guin about to perform her ultimate unification, between her magnificent dragons and her often very flawed, but always very human humans?

I haven’t read the remaining two Earthsea books before, but I’m certainly looking forward to doing so.

The Farthest Shore by Ursula Le Guin

The Farthest Shore, cover by David Smee

The Farthest Shore, cover by David Smee

This is a book that took me 34 years to finish. I’ve read and re-read the preceding two Earthsea books, A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan — both of them lifelong favourites — but after a couple of early, stalled attempts, The Farthest Shore remained on my ‘some day, one day’ shelf. Now, at last, I’ve read it.

Set almost two decades after the events of The Tombs of Atuan, Ged is now Archmage in Roke, and Earthsea is under a new unity, since the Sign of Peace on the Ring of Erreth-Akbe has been repaired and returned. But something is going wrong at the edges of the Archipelago:

‘There is fear. There is fear at the roots.’
‘There is a hole in the world, and the light is running out of it.’
‘The sense has gone out of things.’

Wizards forget their spells, singers forget their songs, people are ceasing to believe in magic. Young Prince Arren of Enlad comes to Roke asking for the Archmage’s help, and they travel to Earthsea’s outermost reaches to discover what’s behind it.

TFS_02So much about The Farthest Shore is different to the preceding two books. A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan each focused on a single young character caught in a life-defining coming-of-age battle with very real and dangerous forces of darkness; The Farthest Shore starts with only a vague sense of unease eating away at the edges of an otherwise placid world. ‘It’s time there was a king again on the throne of Earthsea, to wield the Sign of Peace,’ we’re told, though why this is, or what it’s got to do with the loss of magic isn’t clear. Prince Arren is obviously on the path to being that unifying king, but although he’s the narrative focus of the book, he starts out as a much more complete and educated character than the previous books’ Ged and Tenar. He will face darkness, but it is the world’s (or perhaps Ged’s), not his own. Unlike Ged and Tenar, I felt Arren could have lived just as happy a life had he never embarked on this quest. The personal need here isn’t Arren’s, so the tale, ultimately, can’t be his.

In fact, for a long time, the book itself doesn’t seem to know what sort of tale it’s set on telling. Ged and Arren have a few episodic adventures, mostly hints and reminders of the way the world is going wrong, but, so unlike the very lean and efficient stories of the previous two books, The Farthest Shore is mostly made up of delaying tactics. As Ged and Arren drift from place to place, I, as a reader, felt the whole thing was nothing but a way of holding back the proper next step in the story, which was a confrontation with whatever was causing this wrongness. In the meantime, with only the vaguest sense of what’s actually wrong, the book doesn’t get into a solid thematic groove, doesn’t explore the meaning of the wrongness, because we still don’t know what the wrongness is. It’s all, like Ged and Arren in their boat, drifting, waiting, observing.

cover illustration by David Smee

cover illustration by David Smee

And then come the dragons. The dragons aren’t key to the book’s story – you could take them out and the book would still say what it was trying to say — but they’re the only thing that’s really alive in the book. When the dragons appear, Le Guin’s writing wakes up:

‘All the glory of mortality was in that flight. Their beauty was made up of terrible strength, and utter wildness, and the grace of reason. For these were thinking creatures, with speech, and ancient wisdom: in the patterns of their flight was a fierce, willed concord.’

If only the book had been about dragons!

One aspect of the book is Arren’s relationship with Ged. The previous two books have occasional mentor or parent-like figures stepping in to guide their young protagonists, but ultimately Ged, in A Wizard of Earthsea, is facing something nobody else has ever faced, and so has no one to guide him (though he has company at the end, in his friend Vetch), and Tenar has Ged to prompt her to face the Nameless Ones, but he does not instruct her; rather, he trusts her, patiently providing her with an example of an alternative to the harsh world of her dark religion. But in The Farthest Shore, Ged seems explicitly parental to Arren’s eyes. At first, Arren is in awe of the wizard, willing to serve him in any way. At a mid point (perhaps as fed up of all the aimless drifting as I was) he experiences teenage bursts of doubt and fear about this rather inaccessible parent-figure, but they pass without any real consequences. By the end, though, Arren has witnessed Ged’s loss of power, and has in turn become his protector, like a grown child nursing an ageing parent.

Le Guin, The Language Of The NightIn her essay, “Dreams Must Explain Themselves”, Le Guin says ‘The Farthest Shore is about death’ (and goes on to add: ‘That’s why it is a less well built, less sound and complete book than the others.’). To me, the book’s idea of death seems confused. There’s a land of the dead that is hopeless, dreary and fearful, but Ged says the dead are reborn — so is this land of the dead just a kind of limbo? And the idea that death should be horrible and dreary runs against the grain of the Earthsea series’ usual acceptance of the natural flow of life-events as harmonious and right — so why should death be horrible? Rather, this aspect of the book seems to be about fearing death, and the despair fear engenders. The central conflict, of Ged versus the sorcerer who has broken the wall between life and death, comes down to that sorcerer’s rather Voldemort-like flight from death, through fear of it. It is clinging to life, to self, to power, that’s at the heart of this fear, and Ged, ever-wise, overcomes it through his willingness to relinquish his own power, perhaps his own life. If the book has a conscious message, it’s in this strand: that to truly live, one must accept the bounds of life, and so be willing to accept its end in death. Or, ‘Only what is mortal bears life’, as the book has it.

Although only the first book in the Earthsea trilogy has Ged as its narrative focus, he is the character that binds them all together, and his is the most complete story. In A Wizard of Earthsea, we see his rise to adulthood, individuality, power and wisdom; in The Tombs of Atuan we see him in his hero phase, self-realised and serving his society; in The Farthest Shore we have the end of his active life. The three stages of life: coming-of-age, action in the world, then renunciation and retreat.

the-farthest-shoreI found The Farthest Shore a far less satisfying read than the previous two books. It isn’t as tightly focused as A Wizard of Earthsea or The Tombs of Atuan, and perhaps that’s why it failed to grab me when I first tried to read it at the age of eleven. For too long the book seems to be trying to work out what it should be about, and rather too often the vague sense of unease (‘The sense has gone out of things’) seems to apply as much to the narrative of The Farthest Shore as the world it depicts. Le Guin has said the Earthsea trilogy is ‘about art, the creative experience’, and I found myself wondering if this book wasn’t about an artistic crisis, a scrabbling for something to say when nothing is coming.

But then along come the dragons, who bring the whole thing alive, even for just the few brief passages where they appear:

‘The dragons are avaricious, insatiable, treacherous; without pity, without remorse. But are they evil? … They are wiser than men are. It is with them as with dreams, Arren. We men dream dreams, we work magic, we do good, we do evil. The dragons do not dream. They are dreams. They do not work magic: it is their substance, their being. They do no do: they are.’