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.


Mewsings began 10 years ago!

Yes, the oldest entry on this blog was posted on 23rd April 2006, a review of John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns, a film in the Masters of Horror series. To celebrate, I ran the whole of Mewsings through Wordle. This is the result:


I’m not sure what I expected to learn from this, but I was pleased to find the phrase “weird lovecraft woman magic” in the top lefthand corner…

As if this wasn’t celebration enough(!), I’ve also added a new poem to the main site: The Beast

The Beast, by Murray Ewing

Thanks for reading Mewsings!


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.